At the very moment Jimmy Dimora was pleading not guilty to 26 corruption charges on Wednesday, the six candidates for Cuyahoga County executive were sharing a stage at a forum in Lyndhurst. Moderator Steve Gleydura, Cleveland Magazine’s editor, asked them how they’d drive corruption out of the county government.
Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald stressed his credentials as a former FBI agent investigating crooked Chicago-area politicians. He described feeling “déjà vu” while watching Dimora’s arrest on TV.
“Greed – that is the fundamental motivation behind these crimes,” the Democrat said. “You have people in leadership positions that either went into public service for the wrong reasons, or they forgot why they went into it in the first place. What happens when you set that example at the top is, it gives tacit permission for all kinds of misconduct below those levels.”
The FBI can’t clean up a dirty government by itself, he warned. “They pick out specific instances of federal violations, and that’s it. They don’t look at whether an employee is maybe cutting time on clock, or misusing a county computer, or just isn’t motivated or is going through the motions. Those things have to be done by management.”
FitzGerald said he’d set up a “completely transparent” hiring process the day after the election and fill the new county administration with people chosen for their knowledge, not connection. “If we set high ethical standards and bring the right team in, we can turn this situation around.”
The forum, held at Executive Caterers at Landerhaven, took place at lunchtime Wednesday. Most of the audience knew Dimora had been arrested early that morning, though news outlets were still sifting through the details of the 138-page indictment. Tim McCormack, on the other hand, sounded like he’d already read the indictment and noticed FitzGerald's cameo appearance as Public Official 14, taking a brief 2008 call from Dimora about the lease of Lakewood's Winterhurst ice rink.
“Bad people knew where there’s a weak spot,” McCormack said. “They do not approach and they don’t do business with bad administrations. You set that standard every single day in the way you use your voice, your telephone calls, your practices. It happens every hour of the day. That’s how you root [corruption] out and avoid it in the future.”
McCormack, who once served with Dimora on the county commission, made the startling suggestion that “hundreds of additional people” may have “paid bribes to secure county positions.” It was hard to tell whether to take the comment literally, since McCormack based his comment on “information” from a source he didn’t name. (He recently said the FBI asked him around 2000 about rumors of a jobs-for-bribes scheme in former auditor Frank Russo’s office.)
Republican candidate Matt Dolan also swiped at FitzGerald. Better ethics, he said, starts with not electing a county executive candidate who “stood shoulder to shoulder with the current establishment and did not support Issue 6 county reform.” Dolan described his proposal to establish a bipartisan committee to screen appointees for all county boards and commissions. The committee would set qualifications, sift resumes, and examine whether to abolish any boards or commissions entirely.
“We’re going to do something brand new, unfortunately, in this county: we’re going to require job descriptions for everyone,” Dolan added. “If you are not qualified to do the important work, you will be removed.” He also hinted at Russo’s recent reassignments of workers caught in the Board of Revision scandal. “We are not going to shift people around,” he said. “If you breach the public trust, you’re not qualified, you’re fired! No longer are we going to be moving them to back rooms.” Dolan also said he’d institute an ethics policy by executive order on his first day in office.
Independent Ken Lanci cited his proposals for employee ethics training and an office to regulate and register vendors, lobbyists and consultants doing business with the county. Stressing his experience as a business turnaround expert and his many recent conversations with county department heads, he also said the new executive would have to inspire the county’s ethical employees.
“Everybody thinks they’re corrupt,” he says. “I can tell you, there are a lot of extremely qualified, very good employees, in this county. So don’t be confused by what you saw this morning. There’s 8,000 people there, you probably have 7,500 people that are pretty honest. It’ll be up to the CEO to turn their attitude around, make them proud of the job that they have.”
Don Scipione, also an independent candidate and businessman, said he endorsed the recommendations of the county transition work groups on ethics and campaign finance reform: limits on campaign contributions to county candidates (none exist now), ethics training for county workers, and “online transparency of the relationship between vendors and campaign contributions.” (Scipione served on the campaign finance transition group before resigning to run for county executive.)
Green Party candidate David Ellison, the last to respond, changed the subject to encouraging collaborations among “all the people who have the answers.” He warned that the county faces a $19 million deficit, which could worsen if the state’s $8 billion budget shortfall causes it to cut funds to counties. “We may have to get rid of people we don’t want to get rid of,” he said. “We might be good, thorough house cleaners of the ethical problems and still have to get rid of more people.”