By Sue Botos
Rocky River municipal court judge Donna Congeni Fitzsimmons was recognized Monday night by the Italian American Heritage Committee with the 2011 Public Service Award during a ceremony at Cleveland City Hall. Fitzsimmons was selected based on her exemplary leadership and accomplishments in the community, as well as her pride in her Italian-American heritage.
The only daughter among four children, the judge credited her family with her success.
“I was raised in a family steeped in Italian tradition with parents who displayed unparalleled devotion to their four children. They strongly emphasized education. They inspired us to attain the American dream,” she commented.
Two of Fitzsimmons’ brothers became physicians, and the third became a dentist. She has sat on the bench of the Rocky River Municipal Court for 18 years after practicing law as both a civil defense council and local and federal prosecutor.
During her time as a prosecutor for the Justice Department, Fitzsimmons gained national attention for her successful prosecution of Cleveland Mafia members, including the conviction of acting boss Angelo Lonardo and five of his associates. Her work earned her mention in the book “Kill the Irishman,” Rick Porello’s account of mobster Danny Greene.
During Lonardo’s three-month trial, Fitzsimmons and her family received death threats that resulted in additional convictions. The Mafia never again came to power in Cleveland, and Lonardo’s subsequent testimony secured Mafia convictions nationwide. Fitzsimmons later served as deputy counsel to Ronald Reagan’s Commission on Organized Crime in Washington, D.C.
Youth and family are important community assets to Fitzsimmons.
“What defines me the most are my contributions to my Greater Cleveland community, especially my commitment to improving the plight of domestic violence and stalking victims and my efforts to make youth and families aware of the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse,” she commented. She heads the Violence Against Women Act Committee of Cuyahoga County and serves on the advisory board of Fairview Hospital.
Reaching out to the youth of the community, Fitzsimmons has brought the court to the five high schools in her jurisdiction, which includes Rocky River, Westlake, North Olmsted, Fairview Park and Bay Village. She has spoken yearly at DARE graduations and has brought programs dealing with topics such as teen dating violence to the high schools. Her court has also been a stop for Rocky River second-graders on their annual end-of-the-year trolley tour of the city.
“My greatest loves and priority are my family and my Italian roots. My husband Matt and I have three children. My children keep me grounded and raise my awareness of the importance of reaching out to youth to show them the importance of giving back to the community,” Fitzsimmons added.
The judge is an active member of several Italian-American organizations. She is on the board of the Italian-American Cultural Foundation and the Justinian Forum, and founded the Italian-American Mothers’ Club of Rocky River. This organization gives members the opportunity to share family history and, of course, recipes, especially those for the successful nurturing of children.