Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pressure builds on Mason: How will he respond?

A month ago, it seemed like a great time to be Bill Mason. After Issue 6 passed, Cuyahoga County’s prosecutor looked both principled and shrewd: He was the only county official who supported the issue, and the only one who keeps his job under the new charter. By signing up for reform, he softened his machine-politics reputation, distanced himself from the Dimora-Russo scandal, and again proved his skill at reading voters’ moods and picking winners. He was the last man standing, the survivor.

Today, though, Mason’s problems are gathering and cresting like an angry wave. The news that Mason was in the car when his campaign treasurer got pulled over and charged with drunk driving is only his latest, most obvious challenge. Long-brewing troubles and a new round of bad press have sparked lots of buzz in town about how he’ll respond and what the future holds for him.

Mason’s woes began with the July 2008 FBI raids on the county building. Ever since, a tough question has hung over him: Where was the prosecutor when county government got so corrupt on his watch? That question still lingers as the feds dig deeper and get more allies of Dimora and Russo to plead guilty.

The prosecutor also faces a little-noticed Ohio Ethics Commission investigation into his financial ties to Bedford Municipal Court clerk Tom Day, a political ally and a likely successor to Dimora as county Democratic chairman. Mason and Day are partners in a political consulting firm, Victory Communications. Ethics investigators are looking into whether Mason’s office continued to give no-bid printing contracts to another company, Qwestcom Graphics, after Day became an investor in Qwestcom. It’s illegal for a public official to give public contracts to a business partner. Mason self-reported this question to the Ethics Commission this summer, after WKYC-TV3 reporter Tom Meyer brought it up; the commission responded by opening an investigation.

“I do not think there has been any ethics violation here,” Mason told Meyer in July. The prosecutor’s office did stop giving work to Qwestcom around the time Day invested in the company. But, perhaps more interestingly, Mason’s political campaign kept hiring Qwestcom long after the prosecutor’s office stopped. During Mason’s 2008 re-election effort, his campaign paid Qwestcom $141,000. That’s not an ethics-law problem, but it’s an interesting glimpse at how his political machine operates.

At the height of the Issue 6 debate this fall, Mason’s enemies in the Democratic Party, trying to tag him as a fake reformer, attacked him for taking $100,000 in contributions from his own employees. Though legal, such donations are a prime target of campaign-finance reformers, since they raise the question of whether political patronage plays a role in government hiring. Cornered, Mason pledged to return the contributions. He started doing so just before Christmas, WKYC-TV3 reported.

The patronage questions escalated in December, when the alt-monthly tabloid The Independent published the names, photos, and salaries of several politically connected Mason employees. It was billed as “the article the Plain Dealer was too afraid to publish” and styled after the patronage exposes the PD ran in 2008 of the recorder and auditor’s offices under Pat O’Malley and Russo. The Plain Dealer did drop a similar story on Mason’s office, former PD reporter Joe Wagner told Roldo Bartimole in December – but the Independent piece seemed more a backhanded homage to the newspaper’s work than a leaked draft.

Mason’s critics feel the Plain Dealer has been underplaying Mason controversies since its 2008 dust-ups with him over racial disparities in justice and open discovery. But the paper sure hasn’t given the prosecutor any breaks in the past month or so.

The bad-news floodgates opened with this Dec. 24 article about Judge Nancy Margaret Russo’s angry protest when Mason nudged her about changing a court date for a high school acquaintance of his. Then came a story about how Mason’s campaign finance reports got pulled off the board of elections Web site for a month. They’re back up now, with the addresses of all those assistant-prosecutor donors edited out. Mason’s office had a legitimate point -- law enforcement officials’ addresses are exempt from Ohio’s public-records law, for security reasons – but the PD, ever the open-records advocate, wrote the article with skeptically raised eyebrows. (In a similar move that’s been misconstrued in the blogosphere, Mason filed an affidavit with the auditor’s office to have his name taken out of the county’s online property records database under the exemption in the records law.)

Then, Mark Puente (the reporter who brought down Sheriff Gerald McFaul) broke the news that Mason was the passenger in Parma city councilman Tom Regas’ car when Seven Hills police pulled Regas over Dec. 30. Regas now faces a DUI charge, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving is lashing Mason for getting in the car with his allegedly intoxicated campaign treasurer.

{Update, 1/17: The PD takes on Mason again with a huge Sunday-front headline, "Mason gives $1.1 million in work to ex-employee." Peter Szigeti officially left his job with Mason, got a no-bid contract to stay and run Mason's office computer system, and also did a bit of campaign work for him. The contract started small but grew to $1.1 million. Mason's spokesman defends Szigeti's contract as a quality and cost-saving (!) measure, and an Ethics Commission lawyer offers some mild comments about "revolving-door" contracts like this one. But $1.1 million is a lot to award without competitive bidding.

Likely sources for the story include the judges feuding with Mason over a different computer upgrade for the courts; Szigeti has a tie to the company Mason favors for that job. The story's interesting as another example, like Qwestcom, of how lucrative it can be to join the Mason machine. (It's a sharp story, but one nitpick: the article says Mason "authored" Issue 6. It was actually written by several political and business figures.)}

Add it up -- an ethics investigation, patronage and campaign finance controversies, nudging a judge, passenger during a police stop, all while a massive FBI investigation digs in down the street – and some political-watchers wonder if the pressure is getting to Mason. Will he resign? rumors shot back and forth across town this week -- though I couldn’t tell if they’d originated inside Mason’s camp or were just speculative gossip in an echo chamber.

Here’s the unfashionable counterargument: Mason is a tough politician. He has survived deep scrutiny of his alliances and connections before (see his campaign contributions to Pat O’Malley). He’s just come off a big strategic win. Voters like him: He got 74 percent of the vote in 2008. He has three years left in his term and an awful lot of allies in town. Surely, many of them are telling him to stay cool and ride out his bad luck streak.

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