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It's not who you know, it's what you don't know



Published: Fri, July 5, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Those of our readers suffering under the illusion that ignorance of the law is no excuse, should know that the saying is only partially true.

It applies, surely enough, to laymen and other mortals, but not to judges.

Or so it would seem from reading parts of a three-page explanation from Special Prosecutor Dennis E. Barr to Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains as to why no criminal charges should be pursued against Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Lisotto.

Lisotto had accepted thousands of dollars worth of tickets to Steelers football games from one of the sleaziest lawyers in town (which is saying something), Stuart Banks. A principle issue was Lisotto's failure to list those tickets on financial disclosure forms that are required of elected officials by the Ohio Revised Code and whether that failure constituted the filing of a false report.

In his letter, Barr seems to be much taken with certain dates and how they fit into a no harm, no foul scenario. For instance, he takes pains to note that if the acceptance of tickets in 1993 and 1994 were a violation of a criminal statute, prosecution is barred because the statute of limitations has expired.

And he notes that it was only in September 1999, while Lisotto was attending a judicial seminar, that the judge learned that tickets to sporting events are reportable gifts. Upon returning from the seminar, Lisotto sent Banks a check for $3,000 as payment for the tickets he had received over the years. A year later, he filed an amended disclosure form.

Another look at the calendar

There are some dates that interest us, dates that didn't seem to resonate with Barr. For instance, Lisotto took tickets from Banks in 1993 and 1994 and 1997 and 1998. During the first period of time Lisotto was a county court judge. During the second period, he was a common pleas court judge. But in between, when he didn't get any tickets, he wasn't a judge at all. Isn't that curious?

And while Barr seems impressed by Lisotto's epiphany in the fall of 1999, when he went to the judicial conference, we're more interested in what else was going on then. That was the same time that Stu Banks was singing like a canary for federal investigators, and anybody who was anybody in the Mahoning County legal community knew it. In October 1999, just about the time Banks would have been getting his rebate from Lisotto, Banks pleaded guilty to bribing three Mahoning County judges, Lisotto not among them.

Isn't that a curious coincidence? To the layman perhaps, but apparently not to Barr, the chief of the Stark County prosecutor's office. We attempted to discuss these coincidences with Barr.

We started off by wondering if it was appropriate for a judge to be afforded an "I didn't know the gun was loaded" defense. Barr wouldn't discuss the investigation, except to say that he thought our choice of words inappropriate in that the judge didn't kill anybody. (Note for other editorial writers: Do not use metaphors based on old Country Western songs when attempting to discuss legal issues with special prosecutors. They take things very literally.)

Barr said his letter speaks for itself.

Actually it speaks volumes about how lawyers and judges are willing to give each other slack almost any chance they get. Because Judge Lisotto said that he did not learn until September 1999 that he should have listed the tickets as gifts, Barr found that he did not knowingly file a false report.

The law appears clear

But the revised code clearly calls for the reporting of a gift that exceeds $75 in value. It even calls for the reporting of free meals and beverages. Someone who has served on two benches for at least four years should know that without going to a seminar.

There's another issue that we'd have liked to have asked Barr about. If Lisotto had declared the tickets as gifts, he'd have opened himself and Banks to scrutiny from the Ohio Supreme Court, because the Code of Professional Responsibility clearly states "a lawyer shall not give or lend any thing of value to a judge." Might that have factored into Lisotto's oversight?

No one will ever know, because Barr concluded that "no culpable mental state has been shown." His failure to look beyond Lisotto's claim of ignorance shows a lawyer's deference toward a judge. We wonder how often a prosecutor shows such a level of solicitude for someone outside the legal fraternity.

When John Seldon wrote more than 350 years ago, "Ignorance of the law excuses no man," he went on to explain why: "Not that all men know the law, but because 'tis an excuse every man will plead, and no man can tell how to refute him."

Lisotto apparently knew that. Barr didn't, or did and chose to put it out of his mind.




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