ELYRIA — Lorain County Domestic Relations Judge Lisa Swenski tried to get the executive director of the Lorain County Bar Association fired for “actively recruiting candidates” to run against Swenski in the Democratic primary election for Domestic Relations judge, according to documents obtained by The Chronicle-Telegram.
According to documents, Swenski and her husband, attorney Zachary Simonoff, sent multiple letters and emails to county judges, the Lorain County Bar Association and Bar Association Board President Dan Gibbons asking for the termination of Jeannie Motylewski.
Gibbons said he has had phone conversations with both Swenski and Simonoff in which they accused Motylewski of recruiting candidates to run against Swenski.
Swenski sent an email, in her capacity as Domestic Relations Division administrative judge, to Common Pleas Court Presiding Judge James Walther, General Division Administrative Judge Raymond Ewers and all other Common Pleas judges Jan. 19 to address the conduct of Motylewski.
In the email, Swenski accused Motylewski of recruiting Magistrate Charlita Anderson White to run against Swenski in the May primary.
“Note, not to run FOR a judgeship — including any of your seats, but to run AGAINST Swenski,” Swenski said in the email. “Although I had long believed that Ms. Motylewski was engaging in vindictive, vengeful conduct toward me, my staff, court employee, and my husband Zack Simonoff, I believed it would only go so far as ‘deep sixing’ my judicial candidate evaluations that are done during campaigns.
“Imagine my shock when I found out that she had asked at least two lawyers and possibly up to six lawyers to run against me. Most of them said ‘no.’ The magistrate said ‘yes.’ Ms. Motylewski has further engaged in efforts during work hours — work for which the county-paid-dues to the LCBA — has paid for.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Anderson White denied Motylewski had asked her to run for judge against Swenski.
“I don’t know anybody who could convince another person to do this against their will. This is not for the faint of heart,” Anderson White said. “This is something you must have in your belly. You must want this so bad that you can taste it. Nobody can put that taste in your mouth. Nobody — not Jeannie, not my husband, not my mom, not my friends, not my colleagues. People tell you, ‘Run, you’ll be a great judge,’ but nobody can recruit you to do this.
“I’ve wanted to be a judge all of my life. I’ve wanted to be a judge since I became an attorney.”
Anderson White is a member of the Bar Association’s board. Gibbons said it’s not uncommon for judicial candidates to be on the board, adding Judge Frank Janik and Judge Christopher Rothgery both served on the board during their judicial campaigns.
Motylewski denied ever recruiting anyone to run for judge in her time as executive director.
“I did not actively recruit anyone to run against Judge Swenski, never,” Motylewski said. “I’ve been doing this job for 15 years, and I know the legal community really well, and I made it my job. A lot of people that have thought about, and that actually have, run for judge have come to me and said, ‘What do you think about me running for judge? Do you think I have a chance?’ I tell them, ‘If this is your dream, and this is what you want to do, then you should absolutely pursue it.’
“I’ve never ever discouraged anyone that’s come to me. I’ve never gone out and actively encouraged anyone to run. I’ve never called Dan Gibbons and said, ‘You need to run for judge.’ I wouldn’t do that, especially in this position. I take my position here very seriously.”
Swenski sent a formal written request to Walther and Ewers, along with all the other Common Pleas judges, requesting Gibbons to investigate Motylewski on Jan. 25. She also sent a letter directly to Gibbons to “follow up” on a phone conversation the two had on the matter Jan. 17.
Simonoff sent multiple letters to Gibbons that contained the same allegations against Motylewski, Gibbons said.
Gibbons also received a call from Swenski on the matter.
“I got a call — I believe the day after Magistrate Anderson White pulled petitions — from Judge Swenski, and I believe it was during office hours and from her office phone,” Gibbons said. “She was quite unhappy that Magistrate Anderson White had pulled petitions. She seemed to feel like she was being betrayed or something like that. I’m not really sure what it was, but she was very unhappy and she expressed that.”
Swenski told him Motylewski had been “actively recruiting people to run against her during work and business hours and that many people had told her this,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons said his first thought was if the accusations were true, it was something he and the board needed to look into.
“We need to figure out what’s going on,” Gibbons said. “I asked the judge who was telling her this, because I would be happy to talk with them and find out what was going on. She refused to tell me. She said they were all terrified of Jeannie and that they wouldn’t talk to me. There wasn’t much I could do with that.”
What Swenski told Gibbons next concerned him even more, he said.
“She proceeded to go on, and I’m quoting almost verbatim, that ‘Jeannie has bought her buddy Chris Cook a Republican opponent in the election,’” he said.
“I even have it written down in my notes because I was just stunned that she would say that to me,” Gibbons said about Swenski’s alleged threat to find an opponent for Cook, who is unopposed in the May Democratic primary election and faces no Republican opponent in the November general election.
Prior to becoming Common Pleas Court judge, Cook served as counsel for the Bar Association, Motylewski said. During that time, she and Cook formed a friendship.
Cook declined to comment on the allegations that Swenski threatened to have a candidate run against him.
“My feeling all along has been, as an elected public official, any qualified candidate has the right to run for office,” Cook said.
Gibbons said he then called Motylewski and asked her if there was any truth to Swenski’s claims.
“Jeannie was very upset that these allegations were being made,” he said. “She was very vehement that she had never done such a thing.”
Gibbons said that Motylewski has been a phenomenal worker for the Bar Association and has a tremendous amount of credibility with him and the Bar Association’s board.
“When Jeannie said she never did such a thing, I took her word for it,” Gibbons said. “I believed her then, and I believe her now.”
A few days after Gibbons spoke with Swenski, he received a call from Simonoff.
“Again, it was the same allegations against Jeannie,” Gibbons said. “He said she was recruiting people to run against Lisa.”
Gibbons said he asked Simonoff if he could give him the name of a person who made the accusations against Motylewski so that he could reach out to them and discuss it with them. Simonoff gave him the name of the individual, Gibbons said.
“I’m not going to identify who it was, because I did call them and said I wasn’t going to get them involved,” Gibbons said. “It’s somebody I’ve dealt with over the years and who I believe is also very credible, believable and truthful.”
Gibbons said the individual “definitively denied” the allegations.
“I was told in no uncertain terms that was not what had happened at all,” he said. “This person had approached Jeannie, as other people have done, over lunch about running for judge sometime in the future — not this election cycle or even this year.”
During the conversation, Simonoff came into the office and joined in. The person Simonoff had identified repeated that Motylewski was not recruiting candidates.
“Mr. Simonoff and Judge Swenski had kind of taken a conversation that this person had discussed, twisted it and blew it completely out of proportion and made it something that it was not,” Gibbons said. “That’s what the source told me.”
Gibbons said Swenski’s “apparent hostility” with the Bar Association over the past few years stems from a 2015 incident in which Motylewski questioned the payment for two attorneys to attend a Continuing Legal Education seminar put on by the Bar Association. The incident led to confidential disciplinary action, he said.
The Chronicle made a public records request for documents related to the 2015 incident with the Domestic Relations Court, but the request has not yet been filled.
Gibbons also said Swenski has had issues with the association’s bookkeeping, the association’s elections of board members and Motylewski’s compensation as executive director. Swenski has not been a member of the Bar Association for the past 18 months.
“It’s also my understanding that she has instructed her staff that they were not allowed to join,” Motylewski said. “That’s OK. That’s her choice. I won’t hold anything against her if she doesn’t want to be a member.”
After Swenski began alleging that Motylewski was actively recruiting candidates to run against her, Motylewski said she told Gibbons she felt the Bar Association shouldn’t conduct its judicial poll any longer.
“Our judicial poll used to be handled in house,” she said. “I said to Dan, ‘I don’t think we should do it in house; I think we need to outsource it.’ Even though these allegations are not true, I don’t want it to look like I have colored this in any way, shape or form. Dan agreed.”
The poll was outsourced to the American Bar Association. The poll recommended every judicial candidate, including Swenski, except for one. Motylewski said it was the same result as when the local Bar Association had conducted the poll six years ago when Swenski first ran.
Gibbons said he’s very disappointed that Swenski decided to send out letters regarding the Bar Association and Motylewski.
“I’m very disappointed in Judge Swenski that this is the letter she decided to send to her colleagues,” Gibbons said. “I think it contains a lot of falsehoods and in many respects is slanderous against myself, Jeannie as well as the Bar Association itself. That one is an eye-opener for me. I’m very disappointed.”
Swenski did not respond requests for comment on the matter from The Chronicle.
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