Three Cuyahoga County domestic relations judges say they’ve never seen the need to appoint receivers in divorce cases, a move fellow Judge Leslie Celebrezze has done repeatedly for a family friend while costing couples nearly $500,000 in fees.
Two of those three judges also declined to answer questions about whether Celebrezze ever asked them to recuse themselves from a case, which would allow her to assume control as administrative judge and make the lucrative appointments. It’s a practice Celebrezze has denied doing, according to a spokesperson.
The responses to questions from The Marshall Project - Cleveland come as Celebrezze is under scrutiny from the Ohio Supreme Court for approving nearly half a million dollars in receivership work to her longtime friend, Mark Dottore.
The volume of work Celebrezze gave to Dottore raises questions over whether the judge usurped case assignment policy to steer cases to her friend.
In complex divorce cases, judges can appoint receivers to act as neutral parties to take control of all marital property, including real estate, cash and businesses. Receivers have the sole authority to manage the businesses and assets at their discretion throughout the litigation.
The five judges in Domestic Relations Court handle thousands of new cases each year, but three of those judges — Diane Palos, Francine Goldberg and Colleen Ann Reali — each told The Marshall Project - Cleveland that they have never seen the need to appoint a receiver. The three judges have served the court from eight years to more than 30 years.
“Under the facts of the cases I have heard, I never had the need to appoint a receiver,” wrote Palos, who joined the court as a magistrate in 1986 and became a judge in 2009.
Celebrezze declined to comment through a spokesperson.
It’s unclear if Celebrezze has appointed any other receiver since 2009. In May, she 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. How Celebrezze came to appoint Dottore while other judges fail to see a need in their caseload is also raising questions.
The Marshall Project - Cleveland asked each judge if Celebrezze ever requested them to step down from a case so she could preside over the divorce. Goldberg said no.
However, Palos and Reali each said they could not comment, citing an Ohio judicial rule that says “a judge shall not make any public statement that might reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of a matter pending or impending in any court.”
Through a spokesperson, Celebrezze said she has never asked a judge to recuse themselves from any case so she could preside over it.
Judge Tonya Jones initially handled the divorce case of Strongsville businessman Jason Jardine from December 2020 until she recused herself over a conflict in Aug. 9, 2022. She stepped aside because “her former staff attorney left employment with the court and accepted employment with” Jardine’s attorney, court spokesperson Susan Sweeney wrote in an email.
The court’s rules state: “When it is necessary for a case already assigned to a judge to be reassigned due to a recusal, the administrative judge will reassign a judge, at random, and record the reassignment on the docket.”
Jones’ initial recusal didn’t list which judge would handle the case, court records show. But three days later, she vacated it and filed a second one, writing that it was “further ordered that this matter be reassigned to Administrative Judge Leslie Ann Celebrezze.”
The case went directly to Celebrezze.
Jones approved one request for Dottore’s fees; Celebrezze has approved nine other requests, court records show.
The Marshall Project - Cleveland also asked Jones if she ever appointed a receiver to any other case beside the Jardine divorce case.
“The determination as to whether to appoint a receiver is based on the facts of the case,” Jones wrote, adding that Celebrezze never asked her to remove herself from a case.
On May 18, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy temporarily removed Celebrezze from a divorce case after Jardine filed numerous complaints accusing Celebrezze of approving hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to Dottore to work as a receiver in the case. Dottore is paid directly by the Jardines.
Kennedy’s order came as The Marshall Project - Cleveland had been investigating the relationship between Celebrezze and Dottore.
Celebrezze was given time to respond to numerous allegations listed in affidavits of disqualification filed by Jardine. Jardine says Dottore charged thousands of dollars for days when Jardine claims the receiver and the judge met at his home, eateries and his office, according to the affidavit of disqualification filed by Jardine’s lawyer.
Celebrezze filed responses to the allegations but asked Kennedy to keep them sealed from the public. Jardine objected. Kennedy has yet to rule.
Government watchdogs suggest Celebrezze and Dottore’s relationship raises questions about transparency in Celebrezze’s courtroom and whether she rules without bias in cases involving Dottore and his company.
Court records show Dottore’s company has earned nearly half a million dollars since 2017 from complex divorce cases in Celebrezze’s courtroom. He charges between $100-$400 per hour, depending on the task.
In addition to serving as a receiver on cases in Celebrezze’s courtroom, Dottere served as campaign treasurer when she ran for her judgeship in 2008. Her campaign headquarters is listed under his business address. Dottore’s daughter, Camille, is also listed as a receiver on cases in Celebrezze’s courtroom, records show.
Celebrezze’s deputy campaign treasurer, Cheri Tate, has also worked on Jardine’s case as an administrative manager for Dottore’s company.
Celebrezze took office in 2009 after voters elected her to replace her father, James Celebrezze, 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 was cited as a reason to disqualify Celebrezze, The Plain Dealer reported in May 2009.
Celebrezze’s father originally appointed Dottore to that case and several others in 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.
Dottore, who is not an attorney, has been working as a receiver for years in courts across northeast Ohio. His bio on the company website says he “is the most trusted, experienced, and successful court appointed receiver, mediator, and crisis management specialist in the Midwest.”