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New Bias Complaints Continue to Target Top Cuyahoga County Judge

Already temporarily removed from a divorce case, Judge Leslie Ann Celebrezze is slated to answer new allegations by June 22.

A White, blonde woman stands in a black robe behind a judge’s podium.
Leslie Ann Celebrezze, administrative judge of the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court.

The controversy around Judge Leslie Ann Celebrezze of the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court has grown amid additional complaints of potential biases lodged with the Ohio Supreme Court.

New affidavits of disqualification filed by a Strongsville businessman say Celebrezze approved thousands of dollars of payments for work done by her current deputy campaign treasurer, Cheri Tate, in the businessman’s divorce case. Tate works as an administrative manager for court-appointed receiver Mark Dottore, whose longtime friendship with the judge is under increased scrutiny.

Businessman Jason Jardine also complained about billing practices in his divorce case to the Ohio Supreme Court. 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.

This article was published in partnership with News 5 Cleveland, the Cleveland Scene and Ideastream.

Dottore’s company has earned nearly a half a million dollars since 2017 from complex divorce cases in Celebrezze’s courtroom, court records show.

Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy gave Celebrezze until June 8 to respond to Jardine’s initial complaints. Kennedy extended the deadline to June 22 for Celeberezze to respond to all the allegations. Celebrezze may file a request for extension of time to respond to the affidavit.

Kennedy temporarily removed Celebrezze from the divorce case on May 18 after Jardine raised questions about the friendship between Celebrezze and Dottore.

Celebrezze is prohibited from commenting, according to an email from a court spokesperson. Through an attorney, Dottore and Tate also declined to comment.

Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to improving transparency and accountability in government, said Ohioans need impartial courts — absent of hidden conflicts.

“We need transparency where it’s meaningful and accessible,” Turcer said. “At the end of the day, we want justice that is fair. Judges need to be thoughtful for how appearances look. That’s a problem.”

A black and gold plaque reads: “Judge Leslie Ann Celebrezze.”

Administrative Judge Leslie Ann Celebrezze’s courtroom is in The Old Courthouse on Lakeside Avenue.

Kennedy’s first order came as The Marshall Project - Cleveland had been investigating the longtime friendship between Celebrezze and Dottore.

The Marshall Project - Cleveland reported June 1 that government watchdogs suggest the pair’s friendship raises questions about transparency in Celebrezze’s courtroom and whether she rules without bias in cases involving Dottore and his company.

An affidavit of disqualification filed June 6 with the Ohio Supreme Court states Tate has been Celebrezze’s deputy campaign treasurer since 2009 and has also worked for Dottore for over 15 years. Tate serves as a liaison to the court while overseeing Dottore’s accounting, taxes and billing.

Dottore served as campaign treasurer when Celebrezze ran successfully for her judgeship in 2008. Her campaign headquarters is listed under Dottore’s business address.

Celebrezze’s husband, Charles Zonfa, serves as the judge’s campaign treasurer, but has not “executed any of the finance reports” filed with the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, according to the affidavit of disqualification.

Since Aug. 25, 2022, Tate has billed for nearly 144 hours at $125 per hour, totaling nearly $18,000, according to the affidavit of disqualification. Her tasks included issuing checks for Jardine’s businesses and reconciling deposits and accounts, records show.

For the April 2023 billing period, a Dottore Companies invoice showed Tate billed nearly 15 hours for $1,800, according to the affidavit of disqualification. The March 2023 billing period showed Tate billed for 21 hours, totaling $2,625.

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.

In complex and often contentious 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. Some receivers, such as Dottore, are not licensed attorneys.

Celebrezze has known Dottore most of her life. He 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 Dottore’s business address.

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. He charges between $100 and 400 per hour, depending on the task.

Celebrezze and Dottore said last month that they do not disclose their friendship in court.

Jardine hired a private investigator after he became suspicious of the friendly interaction between Celebrezze and Dottore. A private investigator 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.

The investigator filmed the pair sharing a kiss on the lips outside Delmonico’s Steakhouse in Independence on March 22 and Celebrezze leaving Dottore’s house during business hours on several Fridays.

Jardine raised questions about the way Dottore Companies billed when Dottore met with Celebrezze at his home or at restaurants. The allegations include one occasion where the pair dined and drank with attorney Richard Rabb, who represents Jardine’s wife, Crystal, in the divorce case.

On seven occasions when Celebrezze and Dottore met privately, the receiver billed a total of $3,880 for performing various services, according to the affidavit of disqualification.

On March 15, Celebrezze met Dottore and Rabb at the Capital Grill in Lyndhurst. Dottore billed $680 for that day. The invoice noted Dottore had a conference with his brother and Rabb regarding bank documents, among other things.

“It’s not a coincidence that Mark E. Dottore, Richard A. Rabb and Judge Celebrezze were observed dining and drinking together on the same date that Dottore billed for a conference on my case,” Jardine wrote in the affidavit of disqualification.

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Mark Puente Twitter Email is a staff writer leading investigative reporting efforts for The Marshall Project - Cleveland. Puente, a former truck driver, has nearly 20 years in journalism and a proven track record in accountability reporting. He has worked for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, The Baltimore Sun, the Tampa Bay Times and the Los Angeles Times. Puente is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.