Summoning neglectful property owners to Franklin County Environmental Court has hardly been a deterrent to breaking the city's housing-code laws. The court has spent more time on cases involving unlicensed or unvaccinated dogs, overweight trucks and littering offenses than it has on housing violations. In fact, nearly half of all charges filed since 2000 relate to household pets.
Water dripping from the ceiling soaked Jaz Robinson's pillow during her first night in the off-campus house.
She called her landlord and left a message asking him to fix the problem. She never heard from him.
As the semester continued, the Ohio State University junior would have to scrape black mold from her clothes and step around a hole in the bathroom floor.
Her pleas to the landlord were typically met with grumbles or empty promises.
The leaks in the ceiling spread to three bedrooms, and mice eventually moved into the Frambes Avenue house.
A trip to the landlord's $427,000 Upper Arlington home by a friend and one to see lawyers connected to the university still didn't motivate Patrick McGreevy to fix the house, which was costing four students a total of $1,550 per month.
"We knew it would do no good to take it into court, either," said Robinson, 21, now an OSU senior. "We were told that Pat and the other guys who had trouble with their houses were in tight with the judge."
For McGreevy and nearly 100 other neglectful property owners, being summoned to Franklin County Environmental Court during the past quarter century has hardly been a deterrent to repeatedly breaking the city's housing-code laws.
The court has spent more time on cases involving unlicensed or unvaccinated dogs, overweight trucks and littering offenses than it has on housing violations. In fact, nearly half of all charges filed since 2000 relate to household pets.
Collectively, the chronic housing-code offenders landed in court to face 620 criminal or civil cases because they ignored orders by the city's code-enforcement officers to fix problems at their properties. Seventeen of them have had at least 10 cases.
But in court, they found leniency, a Dispatch investigation found.
If they were fined, they paid an average of $100.
And, until Oct. 30, only four of them had ever been sent to jail.
They found new ways to delay repairing their properties. Their cases lagged, on average, for eight months while the judge waited for the problems to be fixed. Some dragged on for years.
In a majority of the cases involving repeat offenders, Judge Harland H. Hale presided and allowed them to skate with few consequences. He declined an interview request.
McGreevy, who died on Oct. 1, led the way with 35 court cases involving 13 properties dating to his first in 1989. That case was dismissed more than seven years later.
The landlord owned 33 properties in Columbus and near the OSU campus, but his death came before The Dispatch could ask him about his record with the court. His widow, Connie, declined to comment.
In one case involving a campus-area property on Northwood Avenue, Mr. McGreevy was charged with renting a house with improperly grounded electrical fixtures, holes in the walls, missing handrails, trash and other problems.
Over time, Hale issued six arrest warrants against Mr. McGreevy because he repeatedly failed to appear in court. In the end, the case took 553 days to resolve, and Hale fined the landlord $50 - less than the typical fine for running a red light in Columbus.Law and disorder
Suggestions that Hale appeared to be too close to Mr. McGreevy and some other repeat offenders dogged the judge during his decade on the bench from February 2003 until his retirement on May 24.
Such accusations surfaced in a case that spanned nearly 13 years as three Franklinton homes owned by Mr. McGreevy eroded into what amounted to piles of rotting wood.
Numerous housing-code violations at those Meek Avenue properties led to 17 court cases.
The majority of those cases were heard by Hale. After years of no results, a longtime community activist questioned Hale's impartiality. Susan
Peters, a Franklinton resident,called the relationship between Hale and Mr. McGreevy "overly friendly."
Hale acknowledged his relationship with Mr. McGreevy in court, admitting that he'd likely never put him in jail.
"If it comes to the point where it looks like jail time is deserved or warranted, or whatever, I will probably recuse myself; because there comes a point in time where, you know, of all the landlords and folks that come in here, I probably know Patrick McGreevy as well as anyone," Hale said during a hearing in June 2012.
"He is here virtually every month on something, because he is a large landowner or property owner and he tends to want to take care of everything himself," Hale said. "I have known Mr. McGreevy for 20, 30 years, whatever. For a long, long time. And I know Mr. McGreevy well enough to know that if you work with him, he will try and do what is right in good faith.
"On the other hand, a lot of times he gets in over his head," Hale said.
Two months later, Hale stepped away from the case.
A visiting judge from Athens County accomplished in minutes what Hale couldn't in a dozen years. That judge threatened to send Mr. McGreevy to jail for six months if he didn't demolish the houses. They were flattened within weeks.
When Mr. McGreevy died in October, Hale, a Republican, posted an online tribute to the landlord, who was also a Republican and former Statehouse lobbyist.
"Throughout the years, I always looked forward to seeing Pat at meetings and events," Hale wrote. "He had a heart of gold. I will miss his wit and wisdom, but I will miss him more. He could certainly liven up any venue, including a courtroom."
Other landlords also speak as fondly of Hale.
Philip Schirtzinger has had 22 court cases in the past two decades. He didn't want to comment on his cases, the city's code-enforcement system, or the properties he has owned.
But he praised the former judge.
"The man was wonderful. He was fair to all these people. He gave them time," said Schirtzinger, who lives in a $161,300 house at 1966 Charmingfare St. on the West Side near Wilson Road Golf Course.
"I'd vote for him again."'No incentive to comply'
City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr., who was the first environmental court judge and preceded Hale, said he didn't see a cozy relationship between judges and defendants.
Pfeiffer said his approach was to work with property owners to fix the violations.
"When I was judge, it was 'What does it take to abate the nuisance?'" Pfeiffer said.
He once ordered a landlord to move out of his Bexley mansion and into one of his hovels.
When city officials were asked about Hale's approach to housing-code scofflaws, they didn't respond with praise.
"Let's just say we're encouraged by what we're seeing with the new environmental court judge," said Columbus Development Director Steven Schoeny.
Mayor Michael B. Coleman said he didn't want to point fingers, but "I think if you stick these people in jail for 30 to 60 days, things will change."
Hale's later years on the bench teemed with controversy as he dealt with sexual-harassment complaints.
In May, Hale announced that he was retiring after a complaint against him was filed with the Ohio Supreme Court. It accused him of violating the code of judicial conduct by dismissing a traffic ticket against a lawyer who was defending him in state and federal lawsuits related to the harassment complaints.
Teresa Liston filled in as judge until Hale's replacement was named. She said she found a court in disarray and contributing to neighborhood decay.
"There have been so many community issues that have been unaddressed," she said. "It couldn't help but have a negative impact."
When property owners were able to persuade a judge to postpone a case over and over, "there was no incentive to comply. Because there was no incentive to comply, there were no repercussions when they failed to comply," she said.
"Complying means spending money."
Chronic code violators should be treated like repeat offenders in the court's criminal division - with progressively higher penalties - to send a message that such behavior won't be tolerated, Liston said.
"It shouldn't be any less true in ... environmental court," she said. "There's no reason not to do it."Environmentally friendly
For some, the entrance to the courtroom has been a revolving door where familiarity and friendliness emerge if for no other reason than the frequency of the visits.
That was the case for Joseph S. Alaura at a hearing in September. Alaura, who has had nearly two dozen court cases, was facing possible jail time until a bailiff whispered to him that he needed to hire an attorney.
"I like you, Joe. I don't want to see you go to jail, and you may be going to jail today," the bailiff told him in September.
The bailiff's warning left Alaura visibly shaken. He took her advice and hired an attorney, which delayed the case.
In Cleveland, Judge Raymond Pianka warns his staff against getting cozy with the offenders whom he sees time and again. "We have to make sure we don't become their allies or buddies," he said.
Newly elected Environmental Court Judge Daniel R. Hawkins said his bailiff, who has worked for the court for 30 years, has a heart that's sometimes a little too tender.
At a hearing on Oct. 30, Alaura arrived with his new attorney, who pleaded with the judge for another reprieve.
"I'm not going to keep kicking these cases along," Hawkins told Alaura. "It would take years (to fix the properties) if we keep kicking these cases along."
He sent Alaura to jail for 60 days.
As a Columbus police officer led him away, Alaura said, "I guess I do my time."New judge, new attitude
Court observers immediately noticed a new tone in environmental court when Hawkins took the bench in late July.
For starters, he arrives early and stays late. He set new order and efficiency - and displays an intolerance for lawbreakers.
"Since Judge Hawkins came in, we've gotten quite a few resolutions on cases," said Assistant City Attorney Kristen Kroflich.
Hawkins, a former criminal prosecutor, says he isn't there to make friends but to clean up blighted areas in Franklin County.
"I've tried to present decorum from day one that this is serious," Hawkins said. Offenders "are going to be dealt with fairly but sternly."
The court's housing caseload differs from that of virtually all other courts because the violations are ongoing. Offenders have been cited into court because they haven't fixed the problem. In other courts, guilty offenders are punished for past actions such as driving drunk, hitting a spouse or making prank 911 calls.
"This is a court of compliance. By the time the case is done, you want the property in compliance," Hawkins said.
But unlike Hale, Hawkins uses a carrot-and-stick approach to compel compliance by hanging jail sentences and hefty fines over landlords' heads. If they fix the property within the given time, Hawkins might reduce the fine. If they don't comply, they face full sanctions.
Though he is the only judge in environmental court, Hawkins also is in the rotation with Franklin County's 15 Municipal Court judges to handle routine arraignments in traffic and criminal court and take his turn as the duty judge, who is available 24 hours a day to sign search warrants or handle other urgent matters.
Those responsibilities take him away from environmental court.
In Cleveland, Judge Pianka handles only matters relating to housing - evictions and code violations.
Such an arrangement gives the Cleveland Housing Court additional leverage over landlords who are chronic offenders. Pianka said that he routinely delays eviction cases if properties are out of compliance. He will order an inspection if a tenant on the verge of eviction complains about code violations.
He also has at his disposal a city law that makes code violations first-degree misdemeanors. That means an owner can be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced up to six months in jail for each day the property is in violation.
The average fine, Pianka said, is $2,000. That's $1,900 more than Hale typically fined the worst offenders.
"We're finding a way to get a handle on housing," Pianka said.
In Columbus, violations that could potentially put lives at risk in unsafe houses are third-degree misdemeanors, meaning that violators face a maximum $500 fine and/or 60 days in jail. It's the same maximum punishment for litterers and street vendors who don't display their licenses.
None of the chronic code offenders identified by The Dispatch, however, has ever faced that maximum penalty.
For real-estate investors, the potential fines are a cost of doing business.
"It's cheaper not to fix up the properties," said Bill Faith, executive director of the Ohio Coalition on Homelessness and Housing. Special attention by code enforcers and the court "should be given to people who own houses as an enterprise, and their violations should be enforced at a higher level of authority."
Some areas of Columbus have been decimated in part because of a lax code-enforcement system.
"Columbus is such a great city," said Hawkins, who grew up on the North Side. "It's too nice for as great of a problem as we have."New judge, no leniency
Landlord Yhezkel Levi, who lives in a $798,500 house at 141 Stanbery Ave. in Bexley, is a frequent visitor to environmental court, with 16 court cases since 1997.
He landed in court again in September relating to violations at properties on W. Town Street and Wisconsin Avenue.
Levi told the judge he was in the process of demolishing one house and that he had made some repairs at the other the night before.
Hawkins told him if the work wasn't completed in 30 days, he'd lock him up.
"Bring your toothbrush," Hawkins warned.
Outside the courtroom, Levi said of the jail threat, "It's good, it's good. You need to have some kind of teeth.
"I don't want you to think I'm a slumlord," he added. "I'm nice, really nice."
A month later, Levi returned to court and reported that he had sold the Wisconsin house and demolished the Town Street property.
Even so, Hawkins fined him $400 and placed him on probation for two years. He also issued a stern warning: If he sees Levi again, he will send him to jail for six months.
"You've been in this court a few times in the past," Hawkins said. "I want to ensure you're not back here."