By Janet Phelan
“Basic economics would tell us that it is much cheaper to purchase the votes of 5 or 6 justices every six years than it would be to procure the votes of the majority of the 132 members of the Ohio General Assembly every two to four years.” — David Palmer, author of Judicial Misfits: A Factual Expose of an Industry Answerable Only to Itself.
“If experience demands a presumption that a judge will seize every opportunity presented to him in the course of his official conduct to line his pockets, no canon of ethics or statute regarding disqualification can save our judicial system.” — Justice William H. Rehnquist, Sense and Nonsense about Judicial Ethics, 28 Record/Assn. of the Bar of the City of New York p. 694, 699-700 (1973).
While people are wringing their hands over the refusal of US justice agencies to prosecute “political royals” — notably Hillary Clinton for crimes stacked on crimes and Wall Street banks deemed “too big to fail” — there are also smaller fish — “remoras” — who are also hitching a ride on the general disinclination to prosecute those clearly serving government interests.
Google defines “remora” thus: “a slender marine fish that attaches itself to large fish by means of a sucker on top of its head. It generally feeds on the host’s external parasites.” In fact, “remoras” keep the big fish clean.
And in so doing, incur the general benefits of being in a big fish’s retinue.
While public attention is generally riveted on the big fish, smaller actors may be involved in activities every bit as concerning as a Secretary of State lying to Congress. While not basking in the glamour — or alternately caught in the glare — of the national spotlight, these little fish may be quietly having a major effect on those they come into contact with while escaping the attention of a jaded and sometimes complicit media.
You have probably never heard of Leonard Holzapfel. Holzapfel is a retired judge who was formerly the sitting common pleas judge in Jackson County, Ohio. Holzapfel retired from the bench in 2012 shortly after voters defeated him in his bid for a seat on Ohio’s Fourth District Court of Appeals and now takes “visiting judge” assignments, traveling from county to county in Ohio to hear cases that sitting judges don’t want. Holzapfel may have been flying under the radar for years, as a thorough investigation into his financial affairs reveals that he appears to have been engaged in financial improprieties for decades.
When a judge regularly makes bizarre and illegal decisions, decisions which may serve some problematic political or personal interests, questions must of necessity be raised as to whether his financial dealings are clean. As “Justice, American style” becomes increasingly elusive, one finds correlating indications that judges are apparently enriching themselves, through some rather covert means.
Holzapfel’s judicial actions prompted one attorney to call his decisions smacking of “judicial terrorism.” Attorney Kyle Gilliland filed an affidavit to disqualify Holzapfel from a case after Holzapfel repeatedly ignored pleadings and procedural requirements. Gilliland’s declaration reveals a potential financial motive for Holzapfel’s failure to provide due process for Gilliland’s client. In the disqualification, Gilliland states that Judge Holzapfel “desired to purchase real estate” owned by a party to the case, a perception supported by the party’s affidavit. Holzapfel subsequently removed himself from the case. Gilliland has stated that another judge then took over and made decisions entirely contrary to Holzapfel’s. Gilliland states, “We won the case.”
Holzapfel has shown significant favoritism in some of his other decisions. When another judge fell ill, the John Lentes case dropped into Holzapfel’s lap. Lentes was a former Meigs County prosecutor who had been disbarred. Following revocation of his license to practice law in 2008, Lentes had been charged with forgery and theft.
Lentes seemed to have buddies in law offices, public and private. The assistant Ohio attorney general sent to prosecute the case, Melinda Kowalski, repeatedly moved to have the charges dropped. Eventually, Lentes pled guilty to four counts of forgery and theft. His probation agreement required him to pay restitution to his victims. According to the judgment entry, the defendant was ordered to pay $62,000 to the first victim in this case,$75,000 to the Ohio Supreme Court’s Client Security Fund , $500 to the second victim, and $750 and $400, respectively, to the remaining four victims as listed in the entry.
Holzapfel not only gave Lentes no jail time but also ignored the order for restitution, refusing to enforce it. Lentes, who received a rap on the knuckles constituting five years probation, appears to currently be still working in the legal services industry.
Based on these and other indications of judicial bias, this reporter launched a study of Holzapfel’s financial affairs, looking at what is publicly available in terms of financial disclosure forms and also loan records, on file with Jackson County. Holzapfel’s loan records are stunning.
An initial article exploring the possibility that judges were using home loans to launder payoffs and bribes first appeared in the San Bernardino County Sentinel in September of 2009. The scam is brilliantly simple and almost undetectable. This is how it works — Mr. X takes out a loan and Mr. Y pays it back. As the loans themselves are public record, but the proof of who paid them off is not — one must look at the numbers and frequencies of the loan history in order to get a feel for whether or not the activity is excessive.
And excessive does not begin to describe Holzapfel’s loan activity. Parenthetically, it is a poorly kept political secret that loans are an excellent way to bribe a public official. When Dick Nixon was running for the California gubernatorial seat in 1962, he was neck and neck with the incumbent, Democrat Pat Brown, until a national story broke concerning Howard Hughes making a large loan to Dick’s brother, Donald. Unable to adequately explain this loan, Dick’s political ship floundered and ran aground, at least for that race.
Since ascending to the bench in 1993, Leonard Holzapfel has run over $2,400,000 through home loans. His activity has been frenetic and compulsive in nature.
A graph of his loans since ’93, the year he ascended to the bench, follows:
- $180,000 M dated 12-31-93 R dated 11-13-98 1st National of Wellston
- $150,000 open end M dated 4-12-96 R dated 6-18-01 Milton
- $254,000 M dated 4-19-96 R dated 7-1-98 1st National
- $41,000 open end M dated 12-6-96 R dated 10-26-99 1st National
- $68,000 m dated 4-4-97 R dated 1-14-98 Oak Hill
- $69,000 open end M dated 1-08-98 R dated 1-18-99 Oak Hill
- $230,000 open end M dated 6-26-98 R in 3-24-08 1ST National
- $70,000open end 1-4-99 R dated 12-22-99 Oak Hill
- $49,000 open end M dated 5-21-99 R 5-15-2000 Jackson
- $80,000 open end M dated 12-10-99 R dated 8-13-2001 Oak Hill
- $32,000 open end m dated 1-27-2000 R dated 4-27-2000 1st National
- $106,000 open end m dated 4-28-2000 R dated 10-17-03 Jackson
- $225,000 M dated 4-21-01, R dated 5-23-06 1st National
- $53,000 M dated 10-06-03 R dated 5/30/06
- $302,000 M dated 5-19-06 R dated 3-25-08 1st National
- $20,000 M dated 11-06-07 R dated 3-24-08 1st National
- $320,000 M dated 3-17-08 R dated 1-16-2014 1st National
- $244,750 M dated 12-14-2013 R dated 7-6-2016 1st National
Several items should be noted. It appears that Holzapfel began the extensive loan activity in 1996. In 1996 alone, he took out loans totaling $445,000. While these loans were still pending reconveyance, in 1998 alone he took out more loans, from Oak Hill and 1st National, totaling $367,000. In 1999, he took out three more loans, totaling $199,000.
No sooner was a loan paid back than he would take out another. For example, a loan of $225,000 (13) appeared to have been paid back on May 23, 2006. However, he had taken out a loan for $302,000 (15) from the same bank, 1st National Bank of Wellston, less than a week before the $225,000 loan was paid off. Similarly, when the $302,000 (15) loan was paid off — on March 25, 2008, he had already taken out yet another loan — this time for $320,000 (17) — from the same bank eight days prior.
Of special note is how quickly many of these loans are paid off. For example a $244,750 loan was paid off 2 years and seven months later (18). A $302,000 loan was paid off in less than two years (15). A $254,000 mortgage was paid off a scant 15 months later (3). A $20,000 loan was paid off only four months later (16). This level of financing exceeds a judge’s salary and ability to pay. One has to ask 1) where is all this money to pay back the loans coming from and 2) where is all the money taken out in loans going? Is the judge paying these loans back himself or is he getting “help?”
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In fact, Holzapfel is gorging himself on home loans like a toddler in a Willie Wonka chocolate factory. Like many on the bench, he also exudes contempt for financial transparency laws. After checking his mandated yearly financial disclosures, filed with the Ohio Supreme Court, one is left with the uncomfortable sensation that Holzapfel is evidencing disdain for the entire transparency process. For example, the financial disclosure forms he must file have boxes to check. The forms are actually rather minimal in terms of what must be disclosed but Holzapfel fails to meet the challenge of even the most basic reporting requirements. When a box indicates level of income, Holzapfel simply skips over it, checking nothing. This could be understandable if it happened just once, but Holzapfel has been skipping over the box checking requirements for years.
One law student explained the psychology behind how judges fill out these forms. “The complete scofflaws,” he told me, “check nothing, disclose nothing. They are thumbing their noses at the whole process.”
Other concerns arise when looking at Holzapfel’s financial disclosures. For example, he lists as a family business interest a corporation called Second Street Properties, Inc. However, the Secretary of State lists this corporation as having been canceled in 2007, due to failure to file or pay taxes. Yet Holzapfel continues to list this business on his yearly financial disclosure forms up to the most recent.
When asked about this disparity, Holzapfel was initially cordial but cagey, replying,
Thank you for the info on Second Street Properties, Inc. This is a corporation owned by family members which I am required to report. I do not have an interest in the corporation. I was not aware of the status of the corporation with the Ohio SOS. I will tell the stockholders to look into this.
In subsequent correspondence, this reporter repeatedly asked Holzapfel if taxes were ever paid on Second Street Properties, Inc (The Secretary of State reports that this corporation is not listed as a tax paying entity). Holzapfel has consistently declined to respond.
However, he attempted at one juncture to reply to the queries about his excessive loan history, writing that,
As to the mortgages you list, the ones from Oak Hill, Milton, and the smaller ones from First National (except the $53,000 which was a 2nd mortgage for a kitchen my wife and I added to our home in 2006) were either for the construction of houses for resale through a small family construction business or rental properties my wife and I owned, which we sold the last ones 4 years ago. The rest of the First National mortgages were on our personal residence which were refinanced at various times to obtain better terms or to consolidate with other loans. …
It was expected that Holzapfel would claim that many of the mortgages were on his personal property. That is the fall back response. I was going to go ahead a bit later and challenge the rapidity with which these loans were paid back. However, when I responded asking him if Second Street Properties, Inc. ever paid taxes and if this company were the same as the “family construction business” he referenced in the correspondence quoted above, he abruptly terminated contact.
It should be noted that the entire amount of home loans taken out by Holzapfel since 1993 exceeds his cumulative salary as a judge.
Years of issuing edicts over other people’s lives have apparently turned Holzapfel into a bit of an “Alpha.” His communications radiate confidence and thinly disguised contempt. This reporter is still somewhat confused why he ended his email communication to me in the following manner — “Say Hi to Katherine and Dave.” In my communication with him, I had never mentioned that I was first alerted to his bizarre brand of justice through the John Rohrer case, which has so utterly impacted Rohrer’s mother, attorney and talk show host Katherine Hine. Holzapfel has relentlessly run roughshod over Rohrer’s rights, extending what should have been a brief psychiatric stay to over seven years and repeatedly refusing Rohrer his rights to a review hearing every six months. Hine now wonders if Holzapfel will ever release Rohrer, who was originally ordered into Ohio’s psychiatric system due to a 2006 trespassing charge.
So I can only assume that Holzapfel was referring to Dave Kastner, attorney for John Rohrer. I have never had communication with Rohrer’s attorney but public records shows he has consistently stood up for Rohrer’s rights under an onslaught of what Kyle Gilliland, quoted earlier in this article, referred to as acts of judicial terrorism and bastardization of the law. Rohrer has a right, under Ohio law, to a review of his commitment every six months. Accordingly, Rohrer’s attorneys filed a request to terminate Rohrer’s involuntary commitment in March of 2015. The hearing has yet to take place. Holzapfel recently again continued the matter using the fact that Rohrer’s attorneys filed a perjury claim against the state’s attorney as a reason to further delay the hearing. Holzapfel’s order claims that the parties who filed the criminal perjury complaint asked for service to be delayed but a review of the documents reveals this to be a falsehood. Holzapfel used this fabrication to further delay Rohrer’s right to a hearing.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who is charged by law with assigning visiting judges, was contacted for comment about Holzapfel’s financial disclosures and loan history. At the time of going to press, she has not responded.
Janet Phelan is an investigative journalist whose articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The San Bernardino County Sentinel, The Santa Monica Daily Press, The Long Beach Press Telegram, Oui Magazine and other regional and national publications. Janet specializes in issues pertaining to legal corruption and addresses the heated subject of adult conservatorship, revealing shocking information about the relationships between courts and shady financial consultants. She also covers issues relating to international bioweapons treaties. Her poetry has been published in Gambit, Libera, Applezaba Review, Nausea One and other magazines. Her first book, The Hitler Poems, was published in 2005. She is also the author of a tell-all book EXILE, (also available as an ebook). She currently resides abroad. You may browse through her articles (and poetry) at janetphelan.com