Report: Judge steers fees to friends and supporters

CLEVELAND (AP) - A probate judge has been handing out real estate appraisals -- and the accompanying fees -- to longtime friends and supporters who are not licensed appraisers and often drastically misjudge the property's value, The Plain Dealer reported.
Cuyahoga County Chief Probate Judge John J. Donnelly's has assigned two longtime friends to perform several hundred appraisals over the last five years. Records examined by the newspaper for a story Sunday show that attorneys Charles Neuger and Robert R. Frost have each earned up to $30,000 a year in fees.
Property values determined by Neuger differed from later sale prices by 20 percent or more in at least 20 cases the newspaper examined.
Neuger appraised Earl McMaster's home at $245,000 after his death. His brother and executor of his estate, John McMaster, said city investigators later found 15 pages of code violations. The house sold for $150,000 a few months later.
"He never went inside the damn thing," McMaster said of Neuger's appraisal. "He might have driven by, if that."
Only two states -- Ohio and California -- require probate appraisals. In California, appraisers are court employees.
Donnelly said he allows estate executors to hire their own appraisers. But some probate lawyers in the county say one often is appointed before executors realize they need a professional appraisal. Records show the appraisers deliver oral reports, often without going inside the property.
Other counties in Ohio handle appraisals differently. In Lorain and Medina counties, the court evaluates the appraiser's qualifications. Hamilton and Lucas counties require that appraisers be licensed or at least actively involved in real estate. In those counties, estate executors hire their own appraisers.
Franklin County appraisers fill out a standard appraisal form that states they inspected the inside and outside of the property and valued it based on several characteristics, including neighborhood, lot and building condition.
An oral report isn't worth the money, Franklin County Probate Judge Lawrence Belskis said. "You want to see the basis of the appraisal. I want a written appraisal."
Belskis appoints appraisers from an approved list. Any new appraisers added to the list have to be licensed and the court asks estate executors to evaluate appraisers.
The newspaper's examination of records of probate cases since 1998 show that almost a third of the 12,000 appraisal appointments have gone to 25 people.
Neuger, 77, has done almost 360 appraisals in that time, earning an average of $375. He's collected more than $105,000 in fees, and settlement documents show he's due to receive at least $25,000 more. A message seeking comment was left at Neuger's home Sunday.
Frost has been appointed to about 500 cases since 1998 and collected more than $150,000. Frost said his experience and competence lead to his high rate of appraisal assignments.
"I've seen a lot of property and had a lot of dealings with property," he said. Frost said he visits and photographs each property and consults public records, but rarely goes inside.
"We do a thorough job," he said.
Donnelly received $14,265 in campaign contributions from court-appointed appraisers last year. He said that has nothing to do with appointments.
"The people I'm appointing do a good job," he said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)