Budd testifies, denies charges
Sheriff Wellington, who also testified, acknowledged his credibility is on the line.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
CLEVELAND -- Michael Budd -- a Catholic photographed with the pope on a visit to Rome four years ago with his boss, the sheriff of Mahoning County -- made the sign of the cross before swearing to tell the truth at his inmate-abuse trial.
Tuesday, the former major at the Mahoning County Sheriff's Department categorically denied the charges against him in federal court. He flat-out rejected the testimony of others who said he ordered deputies to beat, for a second time, an inmate who punched a female guard.
Budd stressed, in no uncertain terms, that he used "inmate handling" techniques, not excessive force, on two other prisoners, a rapist and a burglar.
"All those people are lying, and you're telling the truth?" asked Steven M. Dettelbach, an assistant U.S. attorney.
"Yes, sir," Budd answered.
It is Budd's second trial. On March 1, a jury found the 44-year-old Boardman man guilty of conspiracy to obstruct justice for covering up his link to an inmate beating. The jury deadlocked on the three remaining counts -- aiding and abetting an inmate beating and using excessive force on two others. Those counts, all civil rights violations, are being retried.
As with the first trial, Budd has had a sizable contingent of family and friends in the gallery, including his wife and mother.
Last week, Budd's mother wore a T-shirt to court that featured a picture of her son with Pope John Paul II. Budd and his boss, Sheriff Randall A. Wellington, took a side trip to Rome to visit the pope in December 2000 before joining a Mahoning Valley delegation in Sicily that attended a conference on organized crime.
Budd, dressed in a black suit, white shirt and sky blue tie, leaned forward in the witness box as he testified Tuesday, resting his arms and clasped hands on the box.
When questioned by his attorney, Martin E. Yavorcik, Budd answered in a calm, deliberate voice. He gave scenarios that diametrically opposed the testimony of others who pleaded guilty to their part in the beating of the inmate who punched the guard. The jury heard from that inmate, Tawhon Easterly, and the two inmates who said Budd personally attacked them.
During cross-examination, Dettelbach questioned Budd about the testimony this week of Deputy Sam Oliver, who said he was present in a courthouse witness room when Budd threw inmate Brandon Moore, the rapist, to the ground, stepped on his back and then slammed him into a window.
Budd said he wasn't certain that Oliver was even in the room.
"He made up that entire testimony?" Dettelbach asked.
"It's a possibility, sir," Budd responded.
Budd characterized the testimony of Sgt. Gary Wollet as "fiction." Wollet said Budd yanked inmate Stephen Blazo's ear and then pushed a 150-pound table into the burglar.
After Budd, the defense called Wellington to the witness stand.
In a span of 12 minutes, Yavorcik asked very few questions, most of them dealing with Wellington's 40-plus years' experience in law enforcement. Wellington explained that a person appointed to the position of major, such as Budd, is someone a sheriff "feels shares his philosophy."
Dettelbach then spent the next 22 minutes grilling the sheriff, asking why, for example, he would turn over to Budd a letter that named Budd as the one who ordered Easterly be beaten again, be "put in the hospital."
Wellington said he gave Budd the letter because it was "an unusual situation." The sheriff said he felt the allegation was "unfounded" and added Easterly filed no complaint and sought no medical attention.
Dettelbach, through a series of questions, established that Wellington didn't interview the deputies involved nor did he review any logs or reports.
The case was investigated by the FBI and Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation. Dettelbach accused Budd of destroying the letter. Budd said he turned the letter over the FBI. FBI Special Agent Pete Proch said he never received it.
Dettelbach asked the sheriff why he didn't fire Budd instead of demoting him and allowing him to be on paid leave after indictment in October 2004. The sheriff said he fired Budd as a major, which reverted him to deputy and had to pay him by union contract. (A union representative has told The Vindicator that deputies under indictment are supposed to go on unpaid leave).
The federal prosecutor said: "Your personal credibility is on the line because of Mike Budd, isn't it?"
"Yes," came the answer from the sheriff.
"Have you made public pronouncements about Mike Budd's innocence?" Dettelbach asked.
The sheriff said he believes everyone is innocent until proved guilty. He denied having to defend his actions related to Budd to Democratic Part precinct committee people.
Dettelbach said in court that Wellington attempted to contact the U.S. Attorney's Office, during its investigation of Budd, to convey his major's innocence.
Wellington denied the accusation from the witness stand.
He also denied holding pretrial meetings in his office with Yavorcik and Raymond Hull, a deputy who didn't plead guilty until last month to his part in the Easterly beatings.
"That's absolutely false," Wellington said.
Wellington denied that Budd worked on his campaign for sheriff. When asked if Budd drove him around, Wellington said: "I don't believe I knew him before I was appointed [sheriff, in 1999] except on a professional basis."
Wellington denied that he ignored negative information he received about Budd.
Dettelbach asked the sheriff about an Internal Affairs Division investigator's report in a file that stated Budd had "a propensity to become violent."
Wellington said he read the report but had to "consider the source."
He also called "bogus" a sheriff's department pre-employment report about Budd that revealed dishonesty. Budd was hired in 1991 by then-Sheriff Edward P. Nemeth.
After Dettelbach's questioning, Yavorcik asked Wellington about the preliminary investigation he did that led him to conclude the allegation about Budd ordering the second beating of Easterly was unfounded.
The sheriff said he talked to Budd and, "knowing the individual sergeant [involved] -- I put not too much credence in the complaint." He then identified the sergeant as Bill Deluca.
Deluca, now retired, earlier testified that he passed on a order -- via a phone call from Budd -- to have Easterly beaten for a second time. Deluca pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing.
This morning, U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells was scheduled to give instructions on law to the jury. The panel, nine women and three men, would then begin deliberations after closing arguments.
This time around, if jurors deadlock on any count, they will have the option of considering a lesser offense included in the charges.
In all, the inmate-abuse case involves eight now-former deputies. All but Budd pleaded guilty and await sentencing.
Even if acquitted on the three counts now being retried, Budd still faces up to 10 years in prison on the earlier conviction of conspiracy to obstruct justice.