Tuesday, November 14, 2000

Judge diverted fines to charity

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A Hamilton County judge has ordered criminals to pay more than $20,000 to one of his favorite charities instead of paying fines to the county.

        Court records show that Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman required the charitable donations in at least 20 of his criminal cases since 1990.

        In those cases, records show, the donations were made to the Nativity Literacy Center in Price Hill. Judge Ruehlman has been associated with the literacy center for years and is president of its board of directors.

        The donations, ranging from $100 to $5,000, otherwise would have been collected by the county as fines.

        The judge also ordered defendants to perform hundreds of hours of community service at the literacy center.

        “Sometimes I give them a choice to pay a fine to the government or to pay to the literacy center,” Judge Ruehlman said Monday. “Nobody's objected yet. I've been doing it for years.”

        But it did become an issue last year when a probation officer brought the judge's orders to the attention of his supervisors. Probation officials told Judge Ruehlman the practice was unusual, but the judge told them to carry out his orders.

        “We questioned whether this was legitimate,” said Tim Shannon, an assistant chief probation officer. “The order we got was to hold the defendant accountable to (Judge Ruehlman's) order.”

        A spokesman for the Ohio Supreme Court, which sets policy for Ohio's courts, said he was not aware of other judges giving orders to donate to specific charities.

        But ethics committees in seven states recently advised judges to avoid the practice. The American Judicature Society, a not-for-profit group that studies the court system, addressed the issue this year in its journal.

        “Judicial discipline commissions and ethics advisory committees have criticized the practice of judges ordering contributions to a charity as part of criminal sentences,” wrote Cynthia Gray, the society's director. “The practice uses not only the prestige but also the power of the judicial office to raise funds for charities.”

        She wrote that the donations also “improperly divert money from the treasury of whichever government entity would otherwise receive the fine.”

        In most criminal cases, judges assess fines or order community service work when they sentence someone to jail or probation.

        Judges sometimes specify the type of fine or service, but usually the order relates to the crime. If the crime is drunken driving, the defendant may be ordered to do community service work for an alcohol treatment program.

        Fines are typically paid directly to the county's general fund, which covers all taxpayer-supported services.

        Some of Judge Ruehlman's court orders specifically state that a defendant will “make a donation” to the literacy center “in lieu of fine.”

        Judge Ruehlman said ordering donations and community service for the literacy center makes sense because the nonprofit charity is a good cause that provides tutoring services, GED training and sometimes works with criminals on probation.

        “I think it relates to the court system,” the judge said. “I don't make (defendants) go there, but I suggest it.”

        Officials at the literacy center say the money and the service work is appreciated. Tim Naughton, the center's director of youth services, said the center serves about 200 clients a year and operates on a $60,000 budget.

        “We have a lot of volunteers,” Mr. Naughton said. “We're always scrounging.”

        According to court records, several defendants pleaded guilty to lesser charges and made a donation as part of their sentence. The defendants' crimes ranged from theft to gross sexual imposition.

        Judge Ruehlman ordered a total of $20,100 in donations, records show. At least $12,807 has been collected by the literacy center.

        Former Chief Probation Officer Michael Snowden, who feuded with Judge Ruehlman before resigning this year, said he spoke to the judge last year about the donations. He said he was concerned because the judge was personally involved with the charity.

        “I didn't think it was right, but he was the judge,” Mr. Snowden said. “What was I supposed to do?”

        Judge Ruehlman, known for being outspoken and controversial, said Mr. Snowden is the only county official to ever raise concerns about the donations. “I haven't had anybody object to it,” the judge said. “If they objected, I wouldn't do it.”


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