Ohio Supreme Court Justice William M. O'Neill says he takes pride in the fact that he always pays his bills and income taxes. But he doesn't always pay them on time. And he hasn't always reported debts in excess of $1,000, as required by law, on his annual financial-disclosure statements. The court's lone Democrat says he expects to finish payments this year on a $16,088 state tax lien filed in 2009.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice William M. O’Neill says he takes pride in the fact that he always pays his bills and income taxes.
But he doesn’t always pay them on time. And he hasn’t always reported debts in excess of $1,000, as required by law, on his annual financial-disclosure statements.
The court’s lone Democrat says he expects to finish payments this year on a $16,088 state tax lien filed in 2009, the latest in a string of 16 state and federal liens totaling more than $60,000 that he has faced since 1992.
O’Neill also has failed to list a court-issued default judgment for $1,364 — dating to 2004 — on financial-disclosure forms he filed as an appellate judge and Supreme Court justice, The Dispatch found.
The junior justice also failed to report two judgment liens from the early 2000s totaling $2,983, which he ultimately paid within two years while serving on the 11th District Court of Appeals from 1997 to 2007.
“Do I find myself to be a poor record keeper? Yes, I’m probably guilty of that,” O’Neill said. “ If I was trying to deceive people, I assure you, I would do a far better job than this.”
Knowingly filing a false statement is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, removal from public office and potential disciplinary action against an offender’s law license. Tax liens are not required to be disclosed, but court judgments of more than $1,000 must be reported, a court official said.
O’Neill, who won election in 2012 while not accepting a cent in contributions that he says taint justice, said any reporting mistakes he made were unintentional and he does not fear potential discipline.
“Absolutely not. ... There’s a lot of things to fear in life, and this is not one of them. We review these (lawyer and judge discipline cases) at the Supreme Court level, and the standard is willful misconduct,” he said.
O’Neill concedes that he never has reported a $1,364 default judgment won in Chardon Municipal Court in 2004 by an oral surgeon over a billing dispute for the care of O’Neill’s children.
“If I don’t believe I owe a debt, I’m certainly not going to list it as a debt owed. ... It remains in the contested column,” O’Neill said, adding that he does not think that medical care for his children is “relevant” to a judicial disclosure filing.
Still, the justice said he will consider amending his previous statements.
“I don’t think there’s any question we should probably review them,” he said.
O’Neill failed to file a financial-disclosure statement in 2007 as he prepared to retire from the appeals court on June 15. He said it did not occur to him that he needed to file because he was leaving the bench.
O’Neill said some of his early, tardy tax payments stemmed from his failed restaurant, O’Neill’s Landing in Avon Lake, in 1989.
Another round of tax troubles followed in 1995 after the death of his wife, Shaylah, and the liquidation of their businesses that included commercial-art studios in Columbus, Geneva and Chagrin Falls, he said.
“I ended up with all the liabilities,” O’Neill said. In a 2004 case, the Ohio Department of Taxation went to court and won an order to garnish O’Neill’s judicial salary to recover $5,108 in unpaid taxes from 2000 and before.
As he ran for the Supreme Court in 2012, O’Neill paid off a $20,411 lien filed by the IRS in 2008 over unpaid taxes.
O’Neill said the $16,000-plus state tax lien, on which he now is making payments from his $141,600-a-year salary as a justice, stems from withdrawing a lump sum from his judicial pension to pay a share of his children’s college loans.
Federal taxes were withheld, but state taxes inexplicably were not, he said, creating an “ unexpected liability.”
“I do take pride in the fact that I pay my bills,” O’Neill said. “I’ve always paid my taxes in full, sometimes early, sometimes late, but always in full.”
A Dispatch review of the other six members of the Ohio Supreme Court found none with a history of tax liens or court judgments.
The Dispatch reported last month that 21 state lawmakers, or their businesses, had been subjected to liens for unpaid taxes. State Sen. Eric Kearney, D-Cincinnati, departed as Ed FitzGerald’s lieutenant governor running mate amid revelations of $825,000 in unpaid taxes and other obligations.