As part of Cleveland Magazine's 30th anniversary celebration, the editors have chosen 52 of their favorite stories from the magazine's archives, and wish to share them with you. A new story will appear every week at Clevelandmagazine.com. It might be controversial, comical, nostalgic or nonplussing. But it will be Cleveland.
From Cleveland Magazine, May 1982
From his strange meeting place in a dingy downtown furniture store, to his select circle of friends, the conduct of U.S. District Court Chief Judge Frank J. Battisti sparks disturbing questions. Battisti, the most powerful man in Cleveland, for years has allowed his friends to win extraordinary favors through the federal court system. Part of that system, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, has now come under the scrutiny of the FBI.
Timothy Hagan, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic party, had just received an unusual telephone call. He was asked to report to the Norton Furniture Store at 652 Huron Road, one in a row of weather-beaten buildings on the fringe of downtown Cleveland. There he was to meet with Frank J. Battisti, the chief judge of the U. S. District Court.
No matter how strange the request, Hagan did not hesitateto oblige. He had been beckoned by the most powerful manin Cleveland, and Hagan had no intention of questioning thejudge's choice of a meeting place.
As Hagan approached the store, he must have beensurprised; the store appeared to be a second-hand outletcatering to those on the poverty-stricken underside of thecity. It was, to say the least, a curious setting in which to meet a judge, especially so prominent a figure as the chiefjudge of the federal court.
But it was here, in a secluded back office furnished withan old desk and sofa, that Hagan was greeted by FrankBattisti. In shirtsleeves and with a bottle of Chianti in frontof him, the judge poured his guest a glass of wine, theneased into the topic he wanted to discuss: putting himself onfriendly terms with the Democratic party.
For Judge Battisti, the meeting with Hagan was routine. Hagan was not the only important public figure to be summoned to the dingy furniture store. Over the years other prominent politicians and lawyers would find themselves in the dank confines of the store wondering just what it was that made a federal judge seek this kind of refuge. One of those who visited the back room compared the experience to a scene out of The Godfather.
While Norton Furniture appears to be just another storefront along a decaying strip strewn with debris and peopled with the hopeless and dejected, it has long been the judge's preferred office away from his majestic judicial chambers. The back room has fulfilled a variety of purposes for Battisti-from being a quiet place where he can accept telephone calls and messages, to functioning as a comfortable workshop where he has operated many of the levers which control the destiny of Cleveland.
Over the years the furniture store has become Judge Battisti's retreat, his headquarters for conferences with leading figures in the city. The back room of the store is, for instance, where Battisti and the friend he chose to be the special master of the Cleveland school system, Daniel McCarthy, mapped out desegregation strategy.
But there is a deeper significance to the furniture store than its function as a neutral territory amid political battle lines, or a comfortable hideaway from the overpowering environment of the federal courthouse. The store also provides a revealing and startling insight into Battisti a view in sharp contrast to the judge's carefully cultivated public image of self-righteousness and courage.
While federal judges are among the most autocratic individuals anywhere, with almost omnipotent power to have their commands obeyed, in Cleveland judge Battisti has used that power so boldly and so flagrantly to get what he wants that he must be counted as the city's single most powerful and fearsome figure. Not just courthouse employees and young attorneys quake in his presence, but even partners of Cleveland's major law firms, leading politicians, newspaper editors and U. S. government investigators are loathe to cross him.
Battisti has expressed a strong interest in the subject of judicial independence, an interest he has promoted with vigor and one that some say is prompted by his own unusual conduct as a federal judge. Those who know him say he bridles at criticism and regards himself and his position as being beyond accountability.
Several years ago, writing in the Case Western Reserve Law Review, Battisti noted the conduct that could lead to the removal of a federal judge from office.He stated: "Specifically, judges are prohibited from accepting bribes, hiring relatives, and practicing law. The judge must also disqualify himself in cases where he has a 'substantial interest' and has been of counsel, is or has been a material witness, or is so related to or connected with any party or his attorney to render it improper ... for him to sit on the proceedings therein."
Applying the judge's criteria against his own conduct results in a compelling study of the abuse of power.
Perhaps the most vivid example of the judge's enormous ego and unbridled authority is his handling of the Cleveland schools' desegregation case. Against all opposition, and despite his numerous humiliating failures, he has insisted that his hand-picked appointees carry out his commands-no matter what the cost, both in financial and human terms.
Yet while the desegregation case illustrates the judge's extravagant use of power, a much clearer picture of his character and personality emerges in a study of the friends with whom he has chosen to surround himself, and his methods for rewarding those who are a part of that privileged circle.
For those lawyers who have come in contact with Battisti in recent years and have learned of his refuge in the furniture store, the relationship between the judge and the store's owner adds further consternation as to the sanctity of federal court. The operator of Norton Furniture is one of Judge Battisti's closest friends and confidants.
What most find puzzling about the relationship is that Battisti as a federal judge is expected to choose his associates carefully and with an eye toward propriety. But the fact that the man who runs this depressing store was once the subject of embarrassing legal inquiries and newspaper investigations that revealed his checkered business past does not seem to phase Battisti,
The man, Leslie S. Brown, better known simply as "Les," is in many ways as anonymous as his shabby store. Nevertheless, he wields great influence with the enigmatic Battisti. That influence was used by the 61-year-old Brown to help obtain for his son-in-law, Mark Schlachet, the appointment of a judgeship in federal bankruptcy court. Battisti was instrumental in appointing Schlachet, an act that would have widespread ramifications for all involved.
The court itself lies in the recesses of the federal courthouse on Superior Avenue, receiving little attention from the news media. On the surface, the court serves as a morgue-the final resting place for the financial corpses of people and businesses. But bankruptcy court has also served as the conduit for the crass profiteering of friends of Battisti and Brown.
As a bankruptcy judge, Schlachet has opened the way for cronies of his father-inlaw, relatives and friends of Battisti and, not surprisingly, his own friends to be awarded dozens of court assignments. As a result, the financial remuneration of this select circle has grown in almost direct proportion to the misfortunes of others.
Sitting behind the scenes of bankruptcy court, as he does at the furniture store, is Judge Battisti. From his comfortable vantage point, the judge has reduced one of the most powerful and far-reaching legal institutions to the level of a small-town courthouse, rife with petty political favors and backscratching. But also cashing in on his favors, and the favors of Judge Schlachet, have been such high-rollers as real estate speculator Lewis A. Zipkin, a prime benefactor of court assignments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.Perhaps in some respects Battisti is a product of his background. He grew up in the steel town of Youngstown, a city of corruption, a city of machine politics, a city of clearly defined divisions and alliances. It is a city where deals have to be made for survival, a city where votes are bought along with political favors. It is a city where loyalties and trusts run deep, and mistrust and suspicion run even deeper. It is in this atmosphere that Battisti, a man of humble origins, rose quickly to prominence at the behest of men like the powerful late U. S. Representative Michael Kirwan, whom authorities suspect had been linked to the mob, and shopping center developer and longtime friend, William Cafaro.
In 1974 Battisti named Cafaro the special master in the merger of Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio) with British Petroleum, a job which entailed selling off more than 200 filling stations. Although the figure curiously is not recorded in federal court records here, Cafaro was paid well for his work. He received at least $1 million and perhaps even more; in Youngstown he is rumored to have received 10 times that amount. And Cafaro has not forgotten his friend, the judge.
While it goes without saying that a federal judge ought to comport himself in a manner that precludes any question of conflict, Battisti has shunned propriety on more than one occasion. The most stunning example of this occurred after the Standard Oil case.
Records show that one of Cafaro's companies, Marion Plaza Inc., purchased a condominium in Bratenahl Place on July 26th 1977. Cafaro says the unit was purchased so that the Cafaro company would have a facility for meeting and dining in Cleveland. Yet according to voting registration records, as of September 2nd 1977 just five weeks after the acquisition Judge Battisti's sister Lillian was living in the building.In fact, Lillian and Jean Marie Battisti, another of the judge's sisters, acquired the condominium themselves in January 1981. When asked about that unusual transaction, Cafaro said it was actually Leo Battisti, the judge's brother, a Teamsters official in Florida, who approached him on the purchase.
Cafaro says Leo Battisti had an option to buy the unit, which he exercised, and paid for the condominium properly. But nowhere 'on public records does Leo Battisti's name appear in connection with the condominium; it is deeded to Lillian and Jean Marie Battisti directly from Cafaro's company.
According to Cafaro, Leo Battisti purchased the condominium for $20,000, According to a real estate agent for Bratenahl Place, such units were worth from $85,000 to $90,000 at the time of the sale.
Cafaro, insists that Judge Battisti had nothing to do with the curious exchange. "It's improper to involve the Battisti family in such matters," he said. "It's a family matter that Leo was involved in. The judge was not involved in it. To mention this in a story would not be fair."
Efforts to ask Judge Battisti about this matter were unsuccessful; he refused to be interviewed for this story.
For his part, Leo Battisti says he did invest in a condominium in Bratenahl but does not recall details of the deal. "My mind is hazy. I'm ill. I don't have my thinking cap on. I have to get back to bed."
Suggestions that Judge Battisti has misused his position to benefit those around him extend to additional matters that seem far beneath the dignity of a federal judge.
For instance, a niece of Cafaro, Ann Nair, was once on Battisti's payroll as an administrative secretary. In 1974 she was replaced by Faye Kaufman, who previously had worked for Lewis Zipkin's real estate corporations. Further down the line, the wife of a fishing friend, Bob Cope, was put into a job in the bankruptcy clerk of court's office after Battisti had Cope hired by the Cleveland public school system.
Battisti always made sure that Cafaro's relatives enjoyed employment. Jay Napoli, Cafaro's brother-in-law, served in federal court first as Battisti's secretary, despite a lack of typing ability, and later was sent back to Youngstown as clerk of the court office there. He recently resigned that position to go to work for Cafaro.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Battisti's power is that it has largely gone unchecked. One of the few persons to challenge his authority was former Cleveland school board president John E. Gallagher Jr. For his impudence, Gallagher was shackled and held in a jail cell for a few hours. With the power of the federal court at his disposal, Battisti not only has the means to ruin school board presidents and superintendents, but attorneys and their law practices as well.
In fact, there are dozens of attorneys who shudder at the mere mention of Battisti's name. Some even refuse to have anything to do with the federal court for fear they may have to deal, in one way or another. with Judge Battisti. There are lawyers in Cleveland, some of them quite powerful in their own right, who follow a hard-and-fast rule of not wanting to know anything about Battisti or how he and his friends operate.
Even in the premier law firms such as Squire, Sanders and Dempsey and Jones, Day, Reavis and Pogue there is extreme care taken when it comes to dealing with Battisti or even speaking of him in public. The last thing a lawyer would want to do is run afoul of the judge, and the easiest way to do so is to be labeled a critic. Battisti is extremely thin-skinned.
He enjoys power displays, i.e., summoning the Democratic county chairman to Norton's to discuss politics, and often speaks with pride about those who arc loyal to him and the far-reaching extent of this "organization."Recently. in fact, Battisti sat drinking in a Cleveland restaurant boasting of his strength and his organization, an organization which has tentacles extending to the Teamsters union. of which his brother, Leo, is a member; to the Ohio Industrial Commission's Cleveland Regional Board of Review where his sister, Lillian, hears workmen's compensation cases; and to the U. S. Bankruptcy Court.
So intimidating is Battisti's spectre of power that editors at The Cleveland Press were humbled into quietly setting aside a series of articles written about the abuses in bankruptcy court under Schlachet. Battisti's actions enraged some reporters who later learned the judge had bragged to friends that his influence was so vast that he had prevented the publication of critical articles.
The trail of Battisti's web of power begins on the fourth floor of the federal courthouse, which houses the courtrooms of Schlachet and two other bankruptcy judges as well as the office of Battisti's niece, Linda. From there, the paths lead from the courthouse to the Norton Furniture store, and from the furniture store to Judge Battisti, to Schlachet and attorney Lewis A. Zipkin. But of all the tracks, the clearest connect Battisti to the furniture store and its operator, Leslie S. Brown.
Leslie S. Brown is a curious man who does much to insure his anonymity, although there have been times in his life when his name was emblazoned across the top of newspapers. The articles were far from laudatory. In the 15 years since his name was tied to highly questionable business practices, including posing as a lawyer, Les Brown has shied from public life. In fact, his past has an aura of mystery; searches of newspaper files and court records reveal that clippings about him have been removed and legal records regarding some of the cases in which he was involved have disappeared.
But perhaps the most curious thing about Les Brown is his close relationship with U. S. District Court Chief Judge Frank J. Battisti. It is not a friendship that Battisti has hidden, but it is one that has generated all manner of speculation and unanswered questions, especially since the judge has used Brown's dank firmiture store as an official annex of his courtroom. It is safe to assume that Brown is privy to the comings and goings of persons involved in some of the most sensitive legal cases in town.
While Battisti is outspoken, almost bellicose on occasion, and aggressive in his dealings with the media, Brown avoids reporters who want to ask him about his past and how it may relate to his relationship with a federal judge.
That Brown enjoys immense influence with Battisti is demonstrated by the fact that it was the judge who did the necessary bidding and political manipulation to attain a federal bankruptcy judgeship for Brown's son-in-law, Mark Schlachet, who was only 31 at the time of the appointment. It is also interesting to note that Battisti has gone to great lengths to deny his role in the appointment, while those close to federal court acknowledge that the judge pushed hard for Schlachet.
Despite Brown's coveted position as the confidant of the federal district court's most powerful oligarch, only a handful of people acknowledge knowing him personally. Details of his life are pieced together through scattered newspaper clippings, court records and occasional glimpses of him in assorted businesses and on the fringes of the legal establishment.
In some respects, Brown and Battisti are similar in style; both operate much like old ward politicians, calling the shots from behind the scenes. But unlike Battisti, whom he met in the late sixties, Brown rarely leaves the security of the shadows.
"Brown comes out of the mist and then disappears again," offers retired attorney Gilbert Weil, who once represented the Cleveland and Cuyahoga County bar associations in a lawsuit against one of Brown's businesses.
Brown's aversion to the public light extends even to his ostensible business. He recently evaded two reporters who went calling on him at his store, Norton Furniture, located on the seamy fringe of the Central Market.'
The store plays an important role with federal court; aside from acting as the meeting place for the court's chief judge, other persons associated with the court have also been associated with the store.
Norton Furniture was incorporated in 1972, according.to records on file with the Ohio Secretary of State and the Ohio Department of Commerce. The stock was owned by Les Brown's son and daughter, Marc Brown and Barbara Schlachet, according to documents. Mark Schlachet is listed as the company's registered agent.
The Cleveland Acceptance Corporation, a finance company set up for Les Brown, pays the rent and utilities for Norton Furniture to Bob Henfield, Inc. Leases on file at the Cuyahoga County Recorder's Office disclose that rental agreements have been prepared or witnessed or notarized by Daniel McCarthy, formerly Battisti's handpicked special master of the Cleveland school system; Morris Blane, a bankruptcy lawyer who has a prison record for fraud; and Sam Silver, the supervisor of the federal bankruptcy clerk of court's office.
The store deals in second- or third-line furniture, and also operates a fast-cash,easycredit loan company. But except for a flashing table lamp display in the store's front window, Brown does not advertise his businesses. Customers apparently find out about the furniture store by word-of-mouth.
A precursor to the present store was more visible, yet more primitive. In the late fifties Les Brown's Furniture Store at 8511 Euclid Avenue shared a business telephone with a used-car lot called AI's Market. In those days Brown aggressively peddled furniture and appliances door-to-door to poor people, mostly ghetto blacks.
Brown had chosen a high-risk business, but was gambling on making handsome profits on high-interest loans which he arranged through his finance companies, among them the Cleveland Acceptance Corporation. Brown was so enterprising that he would distribute flyers advertising his furniture store to persons who had just filed for bankruptcy. To those in need of money, Brown promoted himself as the man who could solve their financial difficulties.
Brown also established a secondary business which aided his furniture business. That enterprise was a firm called Brown, Weiss and Wohl which specialized in presenting workmen's compensation claims before the Ohio Industrial Commission. In his door-to-door sales, Brown was occasionally rebuffed on sales because prospective clients were laid-up from work. Brown, Weiss and Wohl was his answer to that dilemma.
"If he saw a person who had a broken leg, he'd encourage them to file a workmen's compensation claim," recalls Gilbert Weil, the local bar associations' attorney in their 1959 suit against Brown, Weiss and Wohl, for practicing law without a license.'
Although Weil was able to put Brown, Weiss and Wohl out of business, Brown continued to operate his furniture store/ finance companies smoothly until 1967. That year Paul Lilley, one of the premier reporters for the Cleveland Press, revealed that Les Brown's Furniture store was victimizing hundreds, if not thousands, of unsuspecting customers through garnishment proceedings.
Day after day, often in blazing frontpage headlines that were so commonplace during the Press' heyday, Lilley reported how Brown had enticed customers, mainly blacks and bankrupts, into signing cognovit notes and loans from the Cleveland Acceptance Corporation and Elsims, Inc. When customers were unable to keep up their monthly installments, Brown began proceedings in Cleveland Municipal Court.
Many of the people who had defaulted were simply unaware of the details of the contracts they had signed. In the case of cognovit notes, a lapse of one payment meant Brown legally could sue the customers for payment without even notifying them. And he did not hesitate to do so.
Brown, through his Cleveland Acceptance Corporation, continues that practice today, although on a smaller scale than in the sixties. In 1966 alone Brown filed more than 3,000 garnishment and cognovit note defaults, smothering the court with paperwork and, in effect, turning the court into his private collection agency. Lilley also reported that Elsims, Inc. had not paid franchise taxes and that Brown owed approximately $47,000 in back sales taxes.
The stories spawned a number of investigations of fast-cash credit operations. Not surprisingly, Brown's were the leaders in the Cleveland area. Also, there were several lawmakers and politicians who called for laws to be enacted to protect the consumer in dealing with finance companies.
Rallying against the type of business Brown operated were Governor James Rhodes, Ohio Attorney General William Saxbe and state representatives Tom Hill and Frank Gorman. Ultimately, Brown's furniture business was ordered into receivership by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Earl Hoover, the same judge who had originally heard the case against Brown, Weiss and Wohl.
Assets of the furniture store were sold at public auction in March 1967. "1 remember people carrying things out the door," recalls Carl Mintz, the court-appointed receiver. In the end Brown thanked Lilley for his part in putting him out of business.
"Actually, I think you have done me a favor. The way things have been going on in the neighborhood, you might even have saved my life," Brown was quoted as saying. At the time Brown, 46, claimed he had no future plans for another business. "I certainly won't go back into the furniture business," he vowed. Nothing could have been ftirther from the truth.
Almost immediately the store reopened at the same location with the same type of merchandise, but under a new banner, Frankie's Furniture, the name derived from Brown's salesman, Frank Brick. It appears that Brown continued working at the store, that he continued to operate the Cleveland Acceptance Corporation and that he paid little of the $47,000 he owed in back sales taxes.
For the time being, Brown was relieved to be out of the limelight. Then in a chance meeting, his lawyers, Duvey Kirschenbaum and 1. Joseph Berger, introduced him to Judge Battisti. It was at the Theatrical Grill, the popular hangout for everyone from mobsters to prominent lawyers and politicians.
Friends cautioned Battisti and warned him of Brown's background, but Battisti ignored the advice. He enjoys the company of men who spent time on the street and grew up in hard times and harbor little social pretension. Brown often calls Battisti "The Chief" when addressing him or referring to him.
Soon after Battisti and Brown became friends the judge began to make regular stops at the furniture store each morning, particularly after Brown opened a store at the present location, 652 Huron Road. Battisti's routine was as regular as clockwork. He would arrive at Brown's store between 8:30 and 9 a. in. each day. On Fridavs Battisti would make two visits with a much longer stop in the afternoon after closing up his office at the courthouse between 1:30 and 2 p. in. Usually, however, the stops lasted only 30 to 45 minutes, during which time the two men would discuss various investments.
After a while Brown made a room available where Battisti would meet with Daniel McCarthy, as well as with other key lawyers involved in the school desegregation case, including George Meisel of Squire, Sanders and Dempsey.
Battisti also has met in Brown's furniture store with other attorneys, politicians and friends. But the store has served Battisti as more than just a place where he has granted audiences to a privileged few: It has functioned as a very private office where he has received confidential telephone calls and messages. And there is good reason for Battisti's apparent efforts to prevent curious courthouse employees from learning about his personal affairs.
Among the frequent telephone callers at the store, according to knowledgeable sources, were "Bill P," who was actually the late Teamsters leader William Presser, father of Jackie Presser,4 and William Cafaro, the Youngstown developer and a close associate of the judge.
Because the furniture store acted as the relay station for telephone calls, it became known by the courthouse employees as the "communications center." Although Battisti continued to use the store as a quiet meeting place through McCarthy's tenure as special master, it is said he has cut back on his visits.
One explanation offered is that Brown reports less regularly for work since having undergone a triple-by-pass heart operation in recent years. Nevertheless, in 1971 when Les and Edith Brown's only daughter, Barbara, married a young lawyer named Mark Schlachet, the son of an aluminum siding salesman, Brown lobbied on Schlachet's behalf with his friend, Judge Battisti. Brown's efforts proved highly beneficial for the young Schlachet.There was little that was outwardly unusual when, in October 1977, Mark Schlachet was sworn in as a federal bankruptcy judge in the ornate courtroom of Chief Judge Frank J. Battisti. Certainly the new judge seemed surprisingly youthful for such an important post, but this was not the first time an aggressive and ambitious attorney had attained a position of power early in his career. As for Battisti hosting the ceremonies, the chief judge's office is the traditional setting for the official induction of a new member into the federal judiciary-a symbolic demonstration of the chief judge's preeminence among his colleagues.
Odd, however, was Battisti's refusal to openly take credit for Schlachet's appointment to the federal bench. It is commonly known by those who practice before the federal bench that Battisti was responsible for Schlachet's appointment, but Battisti has weakly suggested instead that Schlachet was recommended by a fellow jurist, U. S. District Judge John Manos. Actually Battisti himself had maneuvered Schlachet's appointment in a patronage trade-off with Manos: In exchange for the appointment of Schlachet, Mancis had hired a friend for another courthouse job.
Regardless of the circuitous route that led to it, the ceremony itself was impressive. "It was a coronation," one courthouse employee recalls.
In attendance were Schlachet's friends and relatives, including his in-laws, Leslie and Edith Brown. So close were the couple to the judge, in fact, that Battisti made a special point of introducing them to the gathered guests as "two of the finest people in Cleveland."
To Schlachet, at least, Battisti's esteem for the Browns was obvious even without the platitudes; he owed his job to the friendship between his wife's parents and his new boss.
After marrying the Brown's only daughter, Barbara, in 1971, Schlachet's legal career had begun to soar. Three years after the wedding, at the age of 28, Schlachet was named chief clerk of the federal court. Now, at the age of 3 1, he was already a federal judge.
It was a heady day and evening for the new judge. Following the rit