Cleveland housing court issues $20 million in fines, Clerk collects only $8,510

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Housing Court Judge Pianka issued $20 million in fines, are they realistic or even collectible?

Cleveland Judge Raymond Pianka has been aggressively pursuing real estate operators that let their properties go into disrepair, creating blight in neighborhoods throughout the city. Over the last 17 months, he’s assessed contempt fines of $1,000 per day for companies that refuse to show up in court to answer charges.

Most of the charges involve companies that bought up foreclosed houses at the bottom of the recession, and then let them fall into disrepair, ignoring notices of code violations on the properties and subsequent court summons. Pianka began charging the fines in May 2009 after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that he could not conduct trials for criminal code violations without the companies present.

While his plan to get the attention, and money, of deadbeat owners seemed reasonable, he didn’t expect that the fines would just pile up, now over $20 million. So far, Cleveland Clerk of Courts Earle B. Turner has managed to collect from only a handful of companies, a total of less than $10,000.

Much of the failure to collect fines, or get companies into the courtroom seems to be as a result of some friction between Pianka and Turner. Both parties have been critical of each other, and have questioned the effectiveness of each other’s actions.

Just recently, it was disclosed that the contract with the collection firm that the Clerk’s office uses in the cases had expired several months ago, and the collection firm, Douglass & Associates was not doing any work on new cases. Since the disclosure, a new contract is in the works.

Judgment liens, an effective way of getting the attention of a party ignoring the court, have not been filed in a majority of the cases. Of the 60 cases involving code violations and contempt rulings, judgment liens have not been filed in over 30 cases.

The Clerk’s office also has not converted more that $4 million in fines into civil judgments as off the beginning of the month. A number of these are those that Pianka ordered converted earlier this year, and some are from last year.

And while it appears that Turner’s office is not keeping up with going after the deadbeats, a department spokesperson questioned whether the $20 million in fines are realistic. Some of the fines are for violations such as putting trash out too early, and some of the companies are bankrupt, meaning that there’s little chance of getting anything.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer

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