Vandalia Prosecutor Claudia Turrell faces dismissal after Municipal Court Judge Cynthia M. Heck issued an unusual order banning her from working in the court.
Heck declined to discuss why she issued the order. But according to Turrell, Heck asked City Manager Rob Anderson to fire the prosecutor because she had repeated a rumor that Heck had been pulled over by law enforcement after drinking alcohol.
“I was told she wanted me fired by the end of the day,” said Turrell, who acknowledged asking someone if the rumor was true after she heard it last week.
Various versions of the rumor have been circulating, alleging Heck was stopped in northern Montgomery County or Miami County and either was allowed to get a ride home or her citation was kept secret. Heck said she doesn’t know who started the rumor or why but said it is “baseless.”
“All lies. All ridiculous. Not true. Never been stopped. I don’t drink and drive. I don’t have one on my record in the past, now or ever,” Heck said. “It’s a very hurtful experience. That’s all I can say to you. It’s been very unfair to me. I have done nothing so I just have to deal with it.”
Heck, a Democrat, has been a judge since 2006. She earns $114,000 annually and is up for re-election this year. She is the wife of Montgomery County Prosecutor Mathias Heck Jr., also a Democrat, who issued a statement on the rumor through spokesman Greg Flannagan.
“He said categorically that is not true. She has not been pulled over for anything, let alone a DUI,” Flannagan said.
In a Monday letter to Turrell, City Manager Anderson said he was considering her dismissal as prosecutor because of her “continued difficulties in communicating and working with Vandalia Municipal Court, and particularly with Judge Cynthia Heck.”
Turrell, 59, formerly worked for Mathias Heck Jr. and has been Vandalia prosecutor for 10 years, earning $90,584 annually. She has retained an attorney and said she is uncertain what her options are as she can’t do her job if she can’t be in court.
City spokesman Rich Hopkins confirmed that Heck spoke to Anderson last Thursday but could not confirm that the judge wanted Turrell fired.
“This is, I think it is fair to say, uncharted territory, certainly for those of us in the city building and certainly unchartered territory for people in the area,” Hopkins said.
According to Judge Heck’s order, there is an “ongoing investigation involving Prosecutor Claudia Turrell, it is hereby the order of this Court that Prosecutor Turrell is not to have a docket with this Court, either with a judge or magistrate, or handle any Court matters until further Order of this Court. This investigation involves credibility and until such time as the investigation is complete lends itself to impropriety by the Court.”
Anderson was not available for comment on Wednesday, but his assistant Julie Trick said Turrell was placed on paid administrative leave “as a result of the order.” Trick said this is the first time Turrell has been placed on paid administrative leave.
Heck declined to explain anything about her order except to say the “investigation” cited is being done by Vandalia.
When asked if the city is investigating Turrell, Hopkins said, “I think a more accurate statement would be this: The city manager is in the process of gathering as much information as possible about this situation. We did receive a court order and we don’t want to be in violation of a court order, so we have placed Ms. Turrell on administrative leave with pay. We’re trying hard to do what’s right, so we’re gathering all the information possible before taking further action with regard to the situation.”
Tom Hagel, professor of law at the University of Dayton, said an order such as Heck’s is very unusual.
“If there is that big of a controversy, a breakdown in the relationship between the prosecutor and the judge, it’s probably best for everybody for the time being for the prosecutor not to have a docket before the judge until it is resolved,” Hagel said.
This is not the first time Turrell and Heck have clashed, and Turrell’s personnel file contains a 2011 reprimand from Anderson after an incident between Turrell and Heck on April 6, 2011. Details of the incident were not included but the memo indicates there were others present and that Turrell admitted to Anderson that she should not have “walked out” of the judge’s office the way she did.
“I must insist that going forward you refrain from taking action or making statements to Judge Heck that may be deemed disrespectful or embarrassing to the Judge,” Anderson said in the memo to Turrell.
Turrell said the incident was a meeting at which Heck told her she could no longer handle trials in Heck’s courtroom, but would be allowed to handle pre-trial matters or appear before municipal magistrates. Heck said “she didn’t like my facial expressions,” said Turrell.
Since then Turrell’s cases that went to trial before Heck were assigned to one of the city’s part-time prosecutors, Turrell said, which meant those prosecutors had to be brought up to speed on the cases.
A Dayton Daily News reporter reviewed Turrell’s personnel file on Wednesday and found that it contains no written performance evaluations, which are public records under state law. Turrell said she has received written evaluations and is not sure why they are not in her file.
Staff writer Doug Page contributed to this report