TRAVERSE CITY — A Grand Traverse County Prosecutor’s office attorney issued a cautionary memo Friday, following public statements by Commissioners Betsy Coffia and Bryce Hundley, on the jail and its former administrator, Todd Ritter.
Deputy Civil Council Kit Tholen said statements read aloud at the Sept. 2 Grand Traverse County Commission meeting contained incorrect facts and raised presumption of innocence considerations.
“Comments from public figures which presume guilt such as seeing answers, ‘to ensure that this abuse of power never happens again,’ can hamper a person’s ability to get a fair trial,” Tholen said in his memo. “Regardless of your feelings on the matter, our justice system depends on that ability.”
Coffia and Hundley both stated Ritter had engaged in sex with inmates, Tholen’s memo states, while official accusations have stated Ritter may have given preferential treatment to some inmates, though any accusations of misconduct regarding his sexual encounters took place with parolees.
A person ceases to be an inmate once they have been released from custody and being precise about facts is important for not only the presumption of innocence but for the county’s reputation, Tholen said.
“I think it could,” Tholen added, when asked whether the officials’ public statements could hamper Ritter’s case specifically.
“If he were to go all the way through a jury trial, that jury would be comprised of people from our community,” Tholen added. “If they’ve heard incorrect facts, that could impair his ability to get a fair trial.”
Hundley said that was not his intention.
“All of our questions were aimed at trying to make sure that, to the extent possible, the process and systems and procedures in place at the jail are going to lead to good outcomes,” Hundley said. “We don’t have any intention of getting in the way of a fair judicial process.”
Coffia and Hundley collaborated at the Sept. 2 commission meeting, in an attempt to question Sheriff Tom Bensley about jail oversight, Ritter’s job performance and any changes made since Ritter was forced to resign in 2019.
Their effort was abruptly cut short when Commissioner Gordie La Pointe called it a “switch and bait” and asked for a point of order. Chairman Rob Hentschel said without a motion being offered for a vote, he would move on in the agenda.
The commission has been meeting remotely and Hentschel temporarily muted Coffia’s and Hundley’s microphones.
“This entire issue has been difficult for us to navigate,” Coffia said. “It’s very thorny. Especially since the prosecutor’s office, who we would normally go to for guidance, has recused themselves.”
Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg on March 10 petitioned Attorney General Dana Nessel to assign a special prosecutor to the case, effectively recusing her office from “handling any review or prosecution” the petition states.
Tholen said Monday the recusal was for the criminal review and prosecution only, and he remained available to advise commissioners should they have questions about discussing the issue publicly.
“I’m confident that you also do not want to stray into “investigation and prosecution” of him,” Tholen wrote in an email to Coffia, provided the Record-Eagle. “I feel comfortable saying that commissioners should feel free to contact our office for civil counsel purposes on this matter.”
Assistant Attorney General Danielle Hagaman-Clark was assigned the case in March after Moeggenberg’s recusal petition was granted and multiple felony charges were filed against Ritter Aug. 13.
Ritter requested a court appointed attorney. Shawn Worden of 360Law accepted the appointment but said Monday he has ongoing conflict of interest concerns.
“I find it concerning that the prosecutor who represents Grand Traverse County declared a conflict of interest but the court system did not,” Worden said. “How is one part of the county in conflict when the other part is not in conflict?”
The petition filed by Moeggenberg states she was requesting a special prosecutor largely because she believed felony charges against Ritter were not possible and misdemeanor charges would, “give the appearance of impropriety.”
“Plaintiff is concerned there will be an understandable appearance of impropriety, not only for Plaintiff, but for the County Administration and Board of Commissioners,” the petition states. “This public deserves to know that this case was reviewed by a Special Prosecutor who is completely independent of Grand Traverse County.”
Those concerns would not necessarily require a Grand Traverse County judge to recuse themselves, Tholen said.
Coffia and Hundley vowed to continue to urge commissioners to discuss jail oversight in a public meeting, though whether or not that will happen at their upcoming meeting Wednesday is up for debate.
“I am under no illusion that county commissioners run the jail or run the sheriff’s department — the sheriff is in charge,” Hundley said. “We only control the budget but it is a very big portion of the general fund.”
“We’re just trying to make sure that we’re doing our due diligence to make sure that, as we’re making budget choices, we can justify them,” Hundley added.
The county’s 2020 budget is more than $71 million, $40.5 million of which is in the general fund. The sheriff’s office budget has consistently comprised about 40 percent of the general fund over the last several budget cycles — a share Coffia and Hundley both highlighted in their statements.
Coffia, Hundley and Commissioner Addison “Sonny” Wheelock, Jr. requested “Jail Oversight Report” be placed on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting. It is listed under “Departmental Items” but an internal email shows Bensley will be on vacation and will not attend the meeting.
In the same email, the sheriff expressed a willingness to address jail oversight questions at a subsequent meeting.
The remote meeting begins at 8 a.m. Wednesday. The public can attend by watching the board’s live stream at http://gtcmi.us/bocstream or by calling 408-418-9388 and entering pin number 792 476 402.