JEFFERSON — Former appeals court Judge Colleen O’Toole is running for county prosecutor and seeking the seat from overseas after establishing residency in a rental home owned by Republican County Commissioner J.P. Ducro.
On Friday the Ashtabula County Board of Elections received a challenge of right to vote and correction of registration form against O’Toole, according to Debbie Newcomb, deputy director of the board and chair of the Ashtabula County Democrats.
The form was filed by Thomas Ashcraft, of Jefferson, who is a qualified elector, Newcomb said. Ashcraft could not be reached for comment. The form has been sent to the Ashtabula County Prosecutor’s Office for review and a hearing will be scheduled regarding the matter.
“They’re saying she’s not a qualified elector and that her residence has not been 4604 Elm Ave. in Ashtabula,” Newcomb said.
O’Toole, who has the endorsement of the Ashtabula County Republican Party, acknowledged during a telephone interview the day before the challenge was filed that she is currently working in the United Arab Emirates.
O’Toole is running for the office against two other Republicans — attorneys Malcolm Stewart Douglas and David Per Due — and she filed her petitions about 45 minutes before the Dec. 17 deadline. Whoever wins the primary will face Democratic County Prosecutor Cecilia Cooper in November.
O’Toole’s petition lists an Elm Avenue address in Ashtabula which is a rental property owned by Ducro, who said Friday that the rental agreement with O’Toole was signed Nov. 1, 2019.
“She reached out and asked if we had any apartments for rent, we had an open apartment and we rented it,” Ducro said. “I’m not here to pass judgment. I don’t know how much she comes and goes. Beyond that I don’t keep track of the comings and goings of our tenants.”
O’Toole, who previously served as a judge on the 11th District Court of Appeals, is one of two American judges sworn in March 2019 to hear cases in the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department Commercial Court in the United Arab Emirates.
O’Toole said she has management experience in running her own practice and she served as an appellate judge for 12 years. Although she previously lived in Lake County, she sold her home there in May.
“I am a legal resident of the county and I represented the county as well as four other counties on the court of appeals,” O’Toole said. “I’m also on the Ashtabula County Community Corrections Board. My home where I raised my children was in Lake County, and I lived there for more than 20 years. My goal was always to move to Ashtabula County when they were grown and graduated.”
O’Toole said prior to selling her home in Lake County she had accepted the two-year position in Abu Dhabi which is aimed at modernizing that country’s legal system. In tandem with this position, O’Toole said she’s focused on getting to work in Ashtabula County and using her experience and qualifications to move the county forward.
O’Toole said the fact that she isn’t a lifelong resident of the county has nothing to do with whether she can do the best job in the prosecutor’s office. Being in Abu Dhabi in a foreign country and culture at the behest of the UAE for her skills and expertise is proof of this, she added.
“I travel back and forth from Abu Dhabi but I don’t live here per se,” she said. “I stay here when I’m working, but I am a resident of Ohio and Ashtabula. It’s just like traveling for work. It’s no different than someone living in Ashtabula but traveling to California to do your work.”
The prosecutor’s office needs a highly skilled and trained manager who can not only handle criminal and civil cases, but also day-to-day management, she said.
“I’m very excited about being involved with Ashtabula County,” she said.
O’Toole’s candidacy does not sit well with Per Due, who during a Friday phone interview questioned the party endorsement and her various living arrangements over the years. Per Due said O’Toole has a variety of addresses in various counties.
Per Due also took issue with Republican Party Chairman and Board of Elections Director Charlie Frye’s decision to send out letters to Democrats this week. The letters named O’Toole among the list of Republican candidates the party is asking voters to choose.
Per Due said he has been a lawyer in Ashtabula County for 35 years, has tried more than 20 murder cases, six successfully, and is in the courts just about every day, unlike O’Toole who has never tried a case in the county. Per Due said the Republican Party should endorse the best local candidate and not just the one the party or its chairman supports.
Per Due said it has always been his personal belief that voters should support the best candidate regardless of party affiliation or how the party says to vote.
“If I’m elected I will be fair to everyone and I’m not going to be controlled by Charlie Frye,” Per Due said.
Frye said O’Toole met the legal residency requirements to run for prosecutor, and she circulated and filed her petitions after establishing residency. O’Toole was vetted by a Republican oversight committee and executive committee along with the other candidates and they didn’t consider her residency status an issue, Frye said.
“In the case of O’Toole the committee felt she was the most qualified to receive the endorsement for prosecutor,” Frye said.
Change is in the air in Ashtabula County on a variety of fronts, O’Toole said. Despite the questioning or criticism from her opponents, O’Toole said she is the best candidate for the office. She plans to focus on criminal justice reform and controlling costs to make the office more efficient and accountable.
“We need 21st century solutions for 21st century problems,” O’Toole said.
Douglas said he has served as an attorney in Ashtabula County for 30 years and his record speaks for itself.
“While I am more than qualified to undertake this responsibility, I won’t blow my own horn,” Douglas said. “Just ask the people who know me and know what kind of man and what kind of lawyer I am.”
In terms of any issue with O’Toole’s residency, Douglas said lawyers are mandated by rules of the profession to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
“I think the electorate are highly intelligent and are able to discern fact from fiction,” Douglas said.
Cooper, reached via email, said it would be inappropriate to speak to any questions about O’Toole’s residency without knowing all the facts.
Cooper said although the prosecutors office serves as counsel for the Board of Elections, it would be inappropriate for her — as the Democrat candidate for county prosecutor — to be the one to give any advice to the BOE on the O’Toole issue.
However, Cooper, who moved to Ashtabula County in 2009, said the purpose of residency requirements is to ensure candidates are invested in the county.
Cooper said she’s invested in the community, owns a home here, raises a child here and supports businesses.
“Residency isn’t just where you lay your head at night, although that’s an important part of it. Residency is where your heart is,” Cooper said. “My heart is, has been and will be in Ashtabula County.”
As a prosecutor Cooper said she has prosecuted rapists, child molesters and drug dealers who prey on the vulnerable.
“The future of Ashtabula County is important to me,” Cooper said. “It is important to me that my son and all the children of Ashtabula County have a safe place to live where everyone is treated with respect. It is important to me that someone stands up for them when they are victimized. It is important to me that they don’t lose family members to the drug crisis that has plagued our county. I am and have been doing all I can to achieve those goals.”