TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley spoke at length and with barely contained aggravation about former Jail Administrator Todd Ritter, calling criminal charges against the former captain “a scar upon the sheriff’s office” and labeling an inquiry by two commissioners as politically motivated.
Bensley, who has thus far said little about the ongoing case beyond that it was handled appropriately, spoke uninterrupted for 20 minutes at the Grand Traverse County commission meeting Wednesday.
Pledging there was nothing he could have done sooner to uncover accused sexual and financial misdeeds by Ritter, he said no sheriff department policies or procedures have been changed since Ritter resigned.
“If this was such an important issue, why wait one year to ask the questions?” Bensley said, wearing a mask and appearing in person at the Governmental Center to address the county board. “Why now? Clearly an attempt by the two Democrats on the board, to demean and disparage me prior to the Nov. 3 general election, where I face a Democratic opponent.”
That opponent is Greg Hall, who in 2019 raised issues over inmate healthcare, and who serves as power of attorney for a defendant in a class action lawsuit against Wellpath, a national vendor who provides medical services in Grand Traverse County’s jail.
Bensley, a Republican, attended the board meeting to speak on agenda item “Sheriff Jail Oversight Report,” which Commissioners Betsy Coffia and Bryce Hundley, both Democrats, have pushed for since August.
Ritter was arraigned Aug. 14 in 86th District Court on felony and misdemeanor charges. A prosecutor with the Attorney General’s office is prosecuting the case, following a request from Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg.
Ritter had a 20-plus-year history with the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department when he was forced to resign April 11, 2019, after an internal investigation found lewd text messages and explicit photographs of former and current inmates on his department-issued cellphone and laptop, the Record-Eagle previously reported.
Accusations came to light when former Undersheriff Nate Alger was hired as county administrator, and Detective Mike Shea was promoted to undersheriff, informed corrections officers and others in the department of his “open door policy” and investigated complaints that policy inspired, as previously reported.
An attorney, Janis Adams, tasked with investigating interviewed corrections officers and former inmates and learned of misdeeds going back to 2017 and possibly earlier, her report shows.
The sheriff chastised Coffia Wednesday for what he said was a politically-motivated inquiry —something she repeatedly denied — and said the action was out of character for Hundley.
Coffia said she thought the board was handling questions for Bensley differently than they had handled questions for other elected officials, such as Drain Commissioner Steve Largent, but soon moved from the issue rather than engage with Chairman Rob Hentschel in a back and forth in a discussion about board rules.
“This entire thing has been about, what have we learned, how can we prevent the violations from the code of ethics you outlined in your letter to Mr. Ritter?” Coffia asked, also asking about why the policies in the jail haven’t changed.
Bensley said the policies weren’t the problem — Ritter’s violation of them was. Enacting more policies, he added, wouldn’t necessarily bring someone in line.
“Thank you, Sheriff Bensley, for coming and in talking today,” Hundley said. “This is as much fun for me as root canal.”
Coffia and Hundley had emailed Bensley a series of questions in August, which were edited, amended and emailed to Bensley again Oct. 3, as well as to the board’s other five commissioners in preparation for Wednesday’s meeting.
Bensley’s public statement, portions of which answered commissioners’ questions, ranged broadly.
He said the jail building was inadequate for the safety of corrections officers and inmates; the work environment for corrections officers was poor in terms of salary and benefits; promotions are handled in accordance with collective bargaining agreements; lawsuits brought against the county following two jail suicides could have been argued in court instead of being settled and a report by County Administrator Nate Alger, related to an incident referenced in the class action lawsuit against Wellpath, cleared the county of wrongdoing but has not been released.
Bensley has been criticized by Hall and others for allowing Ritter to resign instead of firing him. Some have speculated this would allow Ritter to secure employment with another law enforcement agency, whereas firing would be more likely to prevent it.
Commissioner Gordie La Pointe asked Bensley about the resignation. Bensley said the criminal investigation revealed evidence sufficient to fire Ritter, but his decision to allow him to resign was based on legal advice.
“During our investigation of former Capt. Todd Ritter, by an outside attorney whom we contacted as soon as we knew of the actions of Todd Ritter, and on her recommendation — let me state that again — on her recommendation — a contractual resignation letter was signed by Todd Ritter to protect the county and the sheriff’s office from any further public legal action against the county or the sheriff’s office by Todd Ritter.”
All law enforcement agencies do background checks for employment, Bensley said, and there was “no place on the planet” Ritter could go professionally, irregardless of the outcome of the criminal case against him, without his past history following close behind.
Coffia and Hundley attempted to question Bensley at a Sept. 2 board meeting — which Bensley attended — but were unsuccessful after La Pointe called a point of order when the pair spent several minutes detailing jail issues instead of asking their questions and Hentschel muted their microphones.
Without a motion to act on, Hentschel said, the board would move on in the agenda.
The pair was able to say enough to alert Deputy Civil Council Kit Tholen, who sent a memo to all seven commissioners, cautioning them to parse their words carefully when speaking publicly about an ongoing criminal case.
Bensley was out of town for the board’s Sept. 17 meeting so the issue was delayed again and finally acted on Wednesday.
“Welcome Sheriff Bensley, you’ve been provided some questions by commissioners,” Hentschel said, when introducing the agenda item. “I’ll give you the floor to go through the questions as you wish or do you just want to play ping-pong with questions?”
Bensley said he first heard of accusations about Ritter in early January 2019. Prior to that, no one had come forward to him with complaints.
Inmates and corrections officers have several options to report a complaint or wrongdoing, Bensley said, including speaking with a superior officer or their direct supervisor, speaking with the undersheriff or the sheriff or speaking with an attorney, a visit with clergy or a mental health worker.
The county also has a whistleblower protection item in their policy, said Human Resources Director Donna Kinsey, though that was not in place during Ritter’s tenure.
“The oversight and accountability of all of the captains in the sheriff’s office by the undersheriff or the sheriff have not changed,” Bensley said, citing no problems with previous or current captains with the exception of Ritter. “One bad actor does not necessarily require wholesale changes to policy and procedure.”
Bensley praised the work of Capt. Chris Barsheff, who was promoted to jail administrator in July 2019 and has been exemplary in the position.
Yet the wrongdoing Ritter has been accused of and the criminal investigation, arrest and ongoing court case that followed, has done damage to the reputation of the sheriff’s office and the corrections profession, he said, despite his department’s efforts to move on.
A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct. 15 in 86th District Court.