CINCINNATI – After suspended Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Hunter pleaded not guilty Friday to nine felony charges, her supporters gathered to declare her innocence.
Hunter appeared with an attorney for a brief hearing in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court at about 11 a.m. and was later released on a promise to return for future court dates.
Hunter's felony charges include tampering with evidence, theft in office, forgery, having an unlawful interest in a public contract and misuse of credit cards.
But Hunter's supporters like former Councilman Cecil Thomas said the charges are "trumped up."
"We just have to pursue this issue and the truth will come out," Thomas said. "It's as simple as that."
According to court records, Hunter is accused of using the county juvenile court's Fifth Third Bank credit card to make purchases illegally between Nov. 6 and Nov. 20 of 2013.
Grand jurors said Hunter used the card, despite knowing it was expired or revoked, to pay for Supreme Court filing fees and the purchases made were between $1,000 and $7,500.
“There's no way that a corporate employee should be charged with using corporate credit cards to pay for a corporate expense,” said Bishop Bobby Hilton of the Cincinnati Chapter of the National Action Network. Hilton is also supporting Hunter in this case. “We're just hoping that everyone keep their eyes and ears open for the truth.”
The tampering with evidence charge against her involves the backdating of judicial entries to reflect they had been created and signed on a certain date -- when they had not, prosecutors said. Hunter is also accused of unlawful conduct with regard to her brother Steven Hunter's employment with the Hamilton County Juvenile Court.
Prosecutors said the theft in office charge against Hunter refers to the unlawful expenditures of public funds to pay unauthorized filing fees with the Supreme Court of Ohio.
"Our system works only when everyone plays by the rules and these allegations would seem to indicate that Judge Hunter didn't," former Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said. "People in the system have to be accountable."
The juvenile court opened this work week without Hunter on the bench. In an email sent to the entire Hamilton County Juvenile Court staff on Jan. 10, Hunter said the county “was not ready for its first African-American Democrat judge.”
Hours after her indictment, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered that Hunter be disqualified from acting as a judge while charges are filed against her.
In the one-page email obtained by WCPO, Hunter did not deny the charges against her and only acknowledged them once. The letter was titled, “Thank you and goodbye for now.”
Hunter said she has “learned and understand that change is difficult for most people, especially after 110 years.”
"I would disagree with that,” juvenile court Administrator Curt Kissinger said.
Kissinger said Hunter was not treated any differently because of the color of her skin or her political views.
But Thomas said Hunter is pointing out an issue that has long plagued the county.
"This whole issue of race has been problematic in Hamilton County for a long time," Thomas said. "This is why there's got to be some reconciliation and the realization that this is a problem."
Judge John Williams is taking on all of Hunter’s cases during her suspension. Two other outside judges -- Judge Tom Lipps and Judge Sylvia Hendon -- will also shoulder the workload.
Kissinger said Hunter’s indictment has been a distraction and hurt morale inside the court.
“It's stressful to have these types of circumstances,” Kissinger said. “It's very stressful too when our staff go out there in the public and run into friends and family over the holidays, and they're constantly asked questions.”
Hunter’s personal items were removed from her office last week. Some members of Hunter’s staff arrived for work Monday unsure if they sill had their job. Kissinger said court officials are deciding her staff’s future.
Bishop Hilton said Hunter hopes the "truth" will come out in this case and now is her chance to show the public she is being "retaliated against."
"She's been prayerful and waiting for her day in court for all truth to come out," Hilton said. "We have people in this county, which I've been calling a gang of bullies, who were willing to spend almost $2 million of taxpayer money to keep her off the bench."
Hunter is scheduled to appear in court again on March 4 at 10 a.m.
WCPO's Jason Law contributed to this report.