The Professor is still in hiding, so I'll say it: Class, Mark Puente's big Sunday report on prosecutor Bill Mason's office is required reading.
After weeks of research, the Plain Dealer has given us an evolved sequel to its 2008 "Politics and Payroll" series on Pat O'Malley and Frank Russo's offices. Patronage is no longer the buzzword: It's power.
No one who follows Cleveland politics will be shocked to hear that Bill Mason is a political prosecutor, or that he gets involved in small-suburb council and school board races, or that he wields clout in the Democrats' mid-term appointments to county offices. (See my Oct. 2008 Pat O'Malley profile, for instance, which describes how Mason and O'Malley rose to power together.)
But Puente maps out Mason's vast influence, documenting what was anecdotal. Four former Mason employees are now on Cleveland city council. Five are judges. Current Mason employees work for 21 Cuyahoga County towns. Ten are on city councils. An assistant prosecutor on Solon's city council voted to appoint his boss's boss to a vacant council seat in December. Tom Day, a Mason ally and business partner -- and the possible future county Democratic chairman -- co-owns Qwestcom Graphics, northern Ohio's biggest distributor of campaign literature, which gets lots of work from Mason, his employees, and towns where his network is strong.
Puente's report isn't just thoroughly researched, it's well-thought-out. I sense meticulous editing as well as strong reporting, for fairness and impregnability against counterattack. The "to-be-sure grafs" -- the passages where the writer offers counterweights to his thesis -- are carefully crafted. Mason gets a chance to cast his office's political connections in a positive light. ("I have a highly educated and hard-working staff... I strongly encourage them to be involved in their communities. When good people are involved in government, good things will happen within government.")
Gone is the front-page mug-shot exposé feel of the O'Malley and Russo reports, maybe because the paper found that the recorder's and auditor's offices more closely resembled pure patronage machines. Lots of people are qualified to record deeds, but prosecutors have to pass law school and the bar. "The records show that about 18 percent of Mason's current work force had political ties before they were hired," Puente writes -- compared to about 33 percent in Russo's office and 35 percent when O'Malley was recorder.
By publishing this, the PD gets a small monkey off its back. Joe Wagner, author of the 2008 patronage exposés, reportedly looked into writing a sequel on Mason, but the project was shelved. That became Exhibit A in anti-Mason forces' arguments that the PD had gone soft on the prosecutor (see this backhanded imitation, for instance). If that was ever true, it isn't now.