An Ohio Supreme Court filing has prompted questions about the personal relationship between a judge and a contractor for whom she has approved hundreds of thousands of dollars for work he does in her courtroom.
Administrative Judge Leslie Ann Celebrezze of the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court has known Mark Dottore most of her life. Dottore has served as a receiver on cases in her courtroom on numerous occasions. He even served as campaign treasurer when she ran successfully for her judgeship in 2008. Her campaign headquarters is listed under his business address.
Government watchdogs suggest the relationship raises questions about transparency in Celebrezze’s courtroom and whether she rules without bias in cases involving Dottore and his company.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy temporarily removed Celebrezze on May 18 from a divorce case involving Strongsville businessman Jason Jardine, after Jardine’s attorney filed an affidavit of disqualification. The affidavit forbids Celebrezze from presiding over the case until Kennedy rules on the affidavit. Celebrezze, who did not respond to The Marshall Project - Cleveland’s request for comment after the affidavit was filed, has until June 8 to respond to the order.
Kennedy’s order came as The Marshall Project - Cleveland had been investigating the relationship between Celebrezze and Dottore.
In complex divorce cases, judges appoint receivers to act as neutral parties to take possession and control of all marital property, including real estate cash, equipment, deposit accounts and businesses. Receivers have the sole authority to operate and manage the businesses and assets in their discretion throughout the litigation. After taking an oath and posting a $100 bond, they take over.
According to the affidavit of disqualification, Jardine hired a private investigator because he was suspicious of the relationship. The investigator filmed the pair kissing on the lips outside Delmonico’s Steakhouse in Independence on March 22 and Celebrezze leaving Dottore’s house during business hours on several Fridays.
Celebrezze and Dottore deny a romantic relationship.
“I’m Italian,” Celebrezze said in an emailed statement to The Marshall Project - Cleveland before the high court issued its order, “and I frequently kiss my family and friends on the lips when I greet them or say goodbye.”
Dottore’s company has collected nearly $450,000 in payments since 2017, with additional fees pending since invoices have not been submitted in some cases, Cuyahoga County court records show. Dottore charges between $100 and 400 per hour, depending on the task.
Celebrezze and a court spokeswoman did not provide the name of other individuals appointed to be a receiver in her courtroom. A statement from the spokeswoman said the record system does not flag cases in which a receiver is appointed. A public search of the system shows Dottore and his daughter, Camille, are currently listed as receivers in eight divorce cases in Celebrezze’s courtroom, records show.
The judge appointed Dottore or his daughter to be the receiver in six of the eight cases, according to Cuyahoga County court records.
Judge Tonya Jones handled the Jardine divorce case from December 2020 until she recused herself over a conflict in August 2022. She reassigned it to Celebrezze, court records show. Jones appointed Dottore as receiver. She approved one request for Dottore’s fees; Celebrezze has approved nine other requests, court records show.
Dottore said he has known Celebrezze since she was 7. Dottore was also appointed as a receiver on several cases where Celebrezze’s father, James Celebrezze, was the presiding judge.
“She kisses everybody,” Dottore told The Marshall Project - Cleveland when asked about the private investigator’s video. “I kiss everybody.”
Brendan Sheehan, the presiding judge of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, declined to comment about the friendship.
Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to improving transparency and accountability in government, called the friendship problematic because the judge has a duty to be transparent.
“This comes down to perception,” Turcer said. “Most people don’t have the ability to suss out when something is wrong. That is why we need as much transparency as possible.”
Cassandra Robertson, the director at the Center for Professional Ethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said Celebrezze and Dottore’s friendship looks troublesome because judges need to appear impartial.
“It’s so important for the public to have faith in the judiciary,” Robertson said.Celebrezze Succeeded Father on Bench
Celebrezze took office in 2009 after voters elected her to replace her father, who had served nearly two decades on the Domestic Relations Court and two years on the Ohio Supreme Court.
She made headlines that same year after the Ohio Supreme Court ordered her removal from a divorce case involving Marc Strauss, a wealthy real estate developer. Dottore was also the receiver in the case and cited as a reason to disqualify Celebrezze, The Plain Dealer reported in May 2009.
Celebrezze’s father originally appointed Dottore to that case and 10 others during the last six months of 2008, netting Dottore $340,000 in fees. Yet “the judge gave no work to any other receivers during the same period, records show, despite an Ohio Supreme Court rule that such appointments be rotated equitably,” the Plain Dealer reported.
Attorney Jaye Schlachet, who represented Strauss in the divorce case, accused Celebrezze of bias not only because she could unduly make rulings based on what her father had previously ruled, but also because Dottore was her friend and campaign treasurer. Schlachet asked Ohio’s top court to remove Celebrezze from the case.
Then-Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer agreed on the first part and noted his concerns about the second. He cited a provision of the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct that requires judges to remove themselves from cases in which a close relative also has acted as a judge because of the potential for bias, according to the ruling.
Moyer also had concerns that Celebrezze would “continue to engage in the questionable use of Dottore's services initiated” by her father. Celebrezze later removed herself from 88 cases that started with her father, The Plain Dealer reported.
Jardine, the businessman who hired the private investigator after becoming suspicious of the friendly interactions between Celebrezze and Dottore, said he wanted to understand their relationship better.
Mike Lewis, of Lewis Investigations, said he followed Celebrezze on at least seven occasions to Dottore’s office, home, and to restaurants, according to the affidavit of disqualification. The judge and receiver met three to four times each week.
On March 14, Celebrezze exited the Huntington Parking Garage on Lakeside Avenue in downtown Cleveland in her SUV at 3:15 p.m. and arrived minutes later at Dottore Companies on Canal Road in Cleveland. She left 35 minutes later.
On March 15, Celebrezze met Dottore at the Capital Grill in Lyndhurst. They were joined by attorney Richard Rabb, who represents Jardine’s wife, Crystal, in the divorce case, court records show.
Between March 14 and March 21, Celebrezze visited Dottore’s office on three occasions during business hours, according to the affidavit of disqualification.
On March 22, Celebrezze and Dottore dined at Delmonico’s Steakhouse in Independence.
The video shot by Lewis shows Celebrezze and Dottore leaving. She stops, turns around and grabs his chin. “Dottore leaned toward Celebrezze, and Celebrezze and Dottore kissed each other on the lips,” according to the affidavit of disqualification.
On consecutive Fridays, March 24 and March 31, Celebrezze left her home and visited Dottore’s house in Lyndhurst. She parked her SUV in the driveway and entered through the large garage door, according to the affidavit of disqualification. She stayed nearly three hours on March 24 and an hour on March 31.
Celebrezze’s statement cited Ohio Judicial Conduct rules, which allow judges to work with staff and court officials outside the courtroom as long as the judges avoid receiving information that is not part of the official record.
“Having the ability to work remotely during the pandemic, I manage my docket both remotely and in person, as do my colleagues,” she said. “As a judge, the hours I work are not limited to the court’s hours of operation.”
Dottore said they work on court programs from his house.
“I work from home on Fridays,” Dottore said on the telephone. “We work on special projects.”$400 Per Hour Fees For Various Receiver Tasks
The Marshall Project - Cleveland examined thousands of court documents in cases assigned to Dottore to find out how much his firm had collected. The court does not keep totals because parties embroiled in litigation make the payments independently to the receiver.
An invoice in one ongoing divorce case shows Dottore’s firm charged $14,776 for fees in March 2023 for nearly 53 hours. These hours represent work from Dottore, three relatives — Charlie Dottore, Tom Dottore and CB Dottore — and another employee. Records show that Dottore charged $400 per hour for almost 29 hours; his relatives and an employee charged between $125 and $325 per hour.
For this case, Dottore stated that he reviewed emails and business documents, held phone calls with lawyers and examined expenses from the couple’s businesses, among other things.
An invoice from an older case showed that Dottore charged $40,265 for fees in August 2018 for 137 hours. Those hours represent work from Dottore, three relatives and another employee. Dottore charged $325 per hour for 64 hours. Others charged between $250 to $325 per hour, records show.
For this billing period, Dottore stated that he held phone calls to discuss a yacht sale, send emails, and discuss selling multiple vehicles, among other things.
Celebrezze said in the email statement that she doesn’t disclose her relationship with Dottore in court.
“No, nor am I required to,” she said. “My long-standing professional and personal relationship with Mr. Dottore has no impact on the cases in front of me.”
Robert Glickman, Dottore’s attorney, also said his client does not disclose the relationship in court.
“The attorneys on the case know of Mr. Dottore’s friendship with Judge Celebrezze and other judges,” Glickman said in a statement. “However, Mr. Dottore routinely discusses his experience with the court, in Judge Celebrezze’s room and others, in settlement communications with litigants or when answering litigants’ questions.”
Robertson, of the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said when judges control appointments, as with Celebrezze appointing Dottore as a receiver, they should be an arms-length transaction — professional and fully disclosed.
Dottore’s fees and work have come under scrutiny before.
In 2005, Cleveland Scene, a local news site, detailed disputes about how Dottore bills parties in cases. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Nancy M. Russo raised questions then about Dottore's practices.
“I would never appoint him again,” Russo told Cleveland Scene in 2005.
Dottore said the nature of his work created enemies.
“If I took all the money out of your pocket and did it every day for a year, how happy would you be with me?” he told Cleveland Scene in 2005. “A receiver's gotta have the negotiating skills of King Solomon, the mind of a forensic accountant, and definitely the skin of a rhinoceros. Nobody likes you.”