Prominent prosecutor backing judge candidate with troubled past

CLEVELAND - The prosecutor in Ohio's largest county is opposing a local judge who he says is lazy and soft on criminals. The problem, some say, is that the candidate Bill Mason is backing has a troubled past that includes a drug arrest.

All three -- Mason, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Ann T. Mannen and judicial candidate Christine Agnello Russo -- are Democrats.

Court documents show that police in suburban Berea arrested Russo in 1994 on a charge of possession of marijuana while she was employed as an assistant county prosecutor. She resigned from her job but later insisted that Mason's predecessor forced her out.

Russo pleaded no contest to drug abuse in January 1995 and paid a $100 fine. She later had the conviction expunged.

Drug-tainted allegations reappeared in 2003, after Russo's brother-in-law accused her and her husband, Frank, of assaulting him at the family's Thanksgiving dinner.

Vince Russo, a convicted marijuana dealer, sued the couple for assault and battery. He later accused Christine Russo of conspiring with him to set up a pot-growing business and of laundering his drug profits. He produced a tape that he said backed up his claims.

Russo denies her brother-in-law's allegations.

"I'm the victim here," she said, accusing Vince Russo of lying to ruin her judicial aspirations. "And I'm naive. Every time I try to lend these people a hand, they bite my arm off."

Christine Russo and her in-laws are unrelated to any of the county's six Russo-surnamed judges or to county Auditor Frank Russo.

According to

The Plain Dealer,

party insiders said Mason pledged to back Russo while he compiled a list of complaints against Mannen and discouraged others from entering the primary.

Mason has since begun to distance himself from Russo and said he won't campaign for her. He said he was unaware of her arrest record or the lawsuit's allegations.

As for Mannen, Mason still opposes her election. "As far as I'm concerned, anybody else but Mannen is going to be better," he said.

Mason, asked for further comment Wednesday, said through his spokeswoman, Jamie Dalton, that he hadn't endorsed anyone in the race and didn't intend to.

Mannen, 50, a judge for eight years, maintains that Mason and the party bosses had ample warning about Russo. At last month's executive committee meeting on endorsements, Mannen said there were "issues and problems in Russo's background that are much worse" than any of the criticisms being lodged against her, party chairman Jimmy Dimora said.

Mannen predicted Russo's skeletons probably will come out eventually, although she declined to discuss them herself, Dimora recalled. The committee declined to endorse either candidate.

"There's no point in mudslinging," Mannen said. "I don't consider it ethical. If that's what it takes for me to win, then I don't want the job."

Mannen said she is proud of her judicial record and denies being soft on criminals or lazy. She confirmed, however, that a former court administrator scolded her several years ago for working short hours and allowing her docket of pending cases to become clogged.

Last year Mason criticized Mannen's record in 36 non-jury bench trials: half the defendants were acquitted and charges were reduced against 13 others. Five were convicted as charged.

Mannen defended her bench-trial conviction rate and estimated Wednesday that it exceeded the rate of convictions in jury trials in her courtroom.

James Satola also filed to run against Mannen in the Democratic primary. The winner will face former Common Pleas Judge Peggy Foley Jones on Nov. 7.

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