Let's say you're knee-deep in a courtroom battle, and one day you pop open the morning paper to find the judge has been arrested by the FBI for fixing cases. And not just any case — your case.
That's how it went down for Lee Squire, a building contractor from Wellington who was involved in one of the two known cases that sank the career of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Steven Terry.
The whole fracas started back in 2003, when Squire's business, K&L Excavation, was hired by a contractor to do foundation work on a lot in Berea. The crew dug the driveway and basement, and the bill climbed to around $14,000. But the project was halted after the local inspector discovered the land had once been a landfill. When it came time to make good on Squire's labor, the homeowners never paid up. So he put a lien on the property, figuring the legal system would squeeze out what was owed.
But then the original contractor on the project filed for bankruptcy, and the homeowner's bank jumped into the fray. In spring 2008, the bank filed a motion for summary judgment against the contractor — a move that would have opened the door to foreclosure, putting the matter to rest.
That's when Joseph O'Malley, the lawyer representing the homeowners, called in a favor to pre-disgraced Auditor Frank Russo, who asked Terry to deny the motion. Terry complied, and the case continued. Then came a countersuit by the homeowners against Squire, alleging that they'd already settled their bill and the lien was unnecessary. The suit came at a bad time for Squire, who was between lawyers. When he failed to appear in court, a judgment was issued against his company for $100,000. How exactly he owes money for a job he completed but was never paid for, Squire is clueless.
"You want to talk about foundations and dirt, I'm your guy. But this court stuff, I'm lost," he says. "If I had done something wrong, absolutely. But to go out and work so hard, and not only not get paid, but to have a crooked judge — it's the last straw on my back.
"I have absolutely no faith in the court system."
Terry and O'Malley were indicted in September 2010. According to federal prosecutors, the judge took campaign help from Russo in exchange for favorable rulings. Last June, a jury found Terry guilty of three corruption-related charges. Squire's case, however, continued to tread water.
In the fall, Squire's new attorneys asked the court to make good: They wanted the $100K tossed out, arguing that everything should have been dismissed after Terry traded his robe for an orange jumpsuit. "At the end of the day, I just want a fair trial," Squire says.
But a magistrate in the courtroom of Common Pleas Judge Joseph Russo — no relation to smiling Frank — recently denied that motion, saying Terry's misdeeds had nothing to do with Squire's company.
Squire plans an appeal, but further complications have marred the proceedings. Squire's legal team says it was never properly served with the magistrate's decision, leaving the case — once again — stalled in the middle ground.
Squire, meanwhile, has had to pull the plug on K&L until the economy picks up. He figures there's probably not even any money left to collect from the suit; these days, he'd be happy just to free his business from the courts.
"I worked my butt off for this company," he says. "And I definitely didn't do anything to give it a bad name."