Monday, November 29, 2010

Puente, politicians' scourge, leaves Plain Dealer

This Sunday, Mark Puente's byline appeared in the Plain Dealer for the last time. Prosecutor Bill Mason, who found Puente on his front porch more times than he liked this year, is probably shaking off the fear of his own ringing doorbell. Ex-sheriff Gerald McFaul, still under house arrest for crimes Puente uncovered, may feel cursed anew to know his nemesis is free to enjoy southern sunshine.

Puente, the PD's best reporter of the past three years, left earlier this month to write about Florida real estate for the prestigious St. Petersburg Times. It's a shock to readers who appreciated his relentless exposés of Cleveland politicians, but no surprise to those close to him.

"Everybody knew my goal was to live close to the water, where it’s warm," says Puente, who went to college in North Carolina. "The editors, everybody, knew that." Now, he says, "I can walk out of the newsroom at lunchtime and be by the bay in less than five minutes. I can watch sailboats come in, watch pelicans dive for fish. It’s 80 degrees."

Puente's 2½-year winning streak in Cleveland began the day an enraged Jimmy Dimora threw him and fellow reporter Henry Gomez out of a meeting. It ran all the way to this Sunday's latest cash-and-favors exposé of Frank Russo's office, co-reported with Gabriel Baird and Gomez. In between, Puente's relentless investigative reporting brought down the once-impregnable McFaul and had co-workers at the paper talking Pulitzer.

Even the PD's toughest critics respect Puente's work. Consider this line, from Ted Diadiun's Sunday piece on why the paper didn't aggressively investigate county corruption and patronage before 2008: "Some people I talked with think that if a reporter like Puente had been on the beat, the paper would have broken the story earlier," Diadiun wrote.

So Puente's Nov. 4 departure, along with editor Susan Goldberg's the same week, leaves local watchdog-journalism lovers nervous about whether the Plain Dealer will keep it up.

Puente, graciously, says he'll be rooting for his former colleagues to go after the town's slipperier politicians. New editor Debra Adams Simmons calls watchdogging her top priority, he notes. As for the line in Diaduin's story, Puente told Diaduin that reporters can't investigate without sources, and he didn't have them in the sheriff's office until McFaul laid people off.

Cultivating sources was the secret to Puente's work in the Justice Center. The story of his goodbye to the police beat, told in two Facebook posts, could give aspiring young reporters an advanced lesson in how the best beat reporters do their work.

In one last-day post, Puente wrote that he deleted 463 phone numbers from his company cell phone. In another, he wrote: “Headed to the Justice Center to say goodbye to some good people: the hot dog vendors and a few cashiers. These folks know everything; they hear everything. I was proud they trusted me and had me on speed dial.”

"The people with the most meager, lowest paying jobs, they’re willing to talk," Puente says. "They want to talk. They just need to be approached and build that trust up. Talking to the janitors, the clerical people who come up and say hi -- once they found someone willing to listen to them, they came flocking to me."

To read my June 2009 story on how Puente's reporting took McFaul down, click here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

FitzGerald's quick moves as executive-in-waiting

You can tell Ed FitzGerald really likes being county executive-elect. You can tell he can’t wait to shoo the lame ducks out of the pond.

It’s almost as if he feels he has something to prove. After seven weeks of Matt Dolan trying to sink him by tying Jimmy Dimora to his ankle, after the Plain Dealer’s attempts to find his Achilles heel, FitzGerald seems very eager to show he’s no cog in the political machine.

The day after the election, FitzGerald launched, a new website where anyone (not just people who know people) can upload a resume to try for a job with the county. They can also volunteer and even, get this, Report A Concern about county government. (Just imagine the e-mails that button would’ve collected three years ago: I just saw Jimmy Dimora at the Mirage in Vegas, and…) {The county’s tweeting and Facebooking too.*}

Yesterday, FitzGerald asked all the old elected officials not to hire or transfer anyone, or give anyone a raise or job protection, without consulting with him. (You can read his entertaining combination of saber-rattling and diplomacy below.) That pretty much ensures that any lame duck who was thinking of doing a loyal employee some Christmastime favor won’t do it now, or risk it showing up on page A1 with an angry FitzGerald quote appended.

Tomorrow, FitzGerald’s appointing William Henterly, a retired FBI agent who helped bust crooked broker Frank Gruttadauria, to conduct an “integrity audit” of county government. Henterly will start “immediately,” a press release says.

Matt Carroll, FitzGerald’s transition director, says county transition funds will pay for Henterly’s work. Someone already in authority, perhaps county administrator James McCafferty, will have to sign off on that. I wonder if* the commissioners will have to approve it and what they’ll say if they do. Perhaps McCafferty has the power to spare them that awkward moment.

*Update, 11/11: The commissioners will have to pay for it. Peter Lawson Jones says he'll vote for it, grudgingly. Meanwhile, commenter Adam Harvey notes that the county's social networking predates FitzGerald.

FitzGerald's letter to county elected officials:
November 8, 2010

Dear Cuyahoga County Appointing Authority:

I write to you for two reasons: first, to state my intention to meet with you to discuss your areas of responsibility and potential changes related to the new county government; and second, to share with you an important request related to the conduct of business over the next two months.

For a variety of reasons – not the least of which is to signal to Cuyahoga County residents that change is happening in our local government – I request that you agree not to make any personnel changes, including new hires, transfers, salary increases, changes in status (example - from at-will status to civil service protected), or union agreements or take other similar actions before the new government takes office in 2011.

Actions that appear to be the same old “musical chairs” seen so many times at the eleventh hour before new leadership takes over must be avoided. I recognize that certain personnel actions may be necessary in order to conduct the county’s business, but I respectfully request that you consult me in regard to actions that you feel are urgent and require immediate attention.

With a new County Executive and County Council beginning its work now and taking office in January, we owe the citizens of Cuyahoga County nothing less than the utmost respect for their desire to change the way the county does business. I do not want to pre-suppose that any such actions would be taken, but I wanted to make my expectations as clear as possible.

My office will be calling this week to request a meeting with you to talk about this matter and other significant issues that you and your staff are facing. I look forward to that discussion. I appreciate your cooperation in regard to this request.


Ed FitzGerald
Cuyahoga County Executive-elect

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dems, FitzGerald defy scandals, celebrate victory

“I was a little late coming down,” Ed FitzGerald told local Democrats at the downtown Doubletree hotel tonight, “because I couldn’t decide if I should change into my czar uniform.”

FitzGerald was joking about one of his top opponent’s attack ads, one volley in a barrage he’d withstood. Now, his czar moment was behind him. So was his PO14 moment. The Democrat had survived Republican attempts to tar him by association with Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo. He’d beaten Matt Dolan 45 percent to 31 percent to become the leader of Cuyahoga County’s new government.

“A stream of scandals were laid at our doorstep, whether it was fair or not,” FitzGerald said as 11 o’clock news cameras’ spotlights glowed white. “We had to deal with it over and over again. … We still won.”

Like Cleveland mayors on their victory nights, the county executive-elect declared that his campaign had bridged divides between the East and West sides, black and white — and urban and suburban, he added. “These divisions have held this county back. [Our campaign is] proof positive that we can shake off those old habits once and for all.”

FitzGerald acknowledged the need to shake off corruption’s damage. “Faith in county government has never been at such a low point,” he declared. “Speeches cannot fix that.” Instead, he said he’d tackle his agenda: restoring “the idea that public employment is a trust,” creating a jobs program, making higher education more affordable, caring for the poor and encouraging regional cooperation. “I want to make Cuyahoga County a national model for how to get things done,” he said.

As FitzGerald stepped down from the stage, Democratic chair Stuart Garson closed the speeches with a reminder of their party’s bad election night nationwide and a final nod to the scandals Cuyahoga Democrats had shaken off.

“Look what we do with a gale force in our face,” he said. “Imagine what we can do next year with a gentle breeze at our back.”

To read my coverage of FitzGerald in the September issue of Cleveland Magazine, click here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

FitzGerald heads toward victory against Dolan

It looks like Ed FitzGerald will be the first Cuyahoga County executive. He leads Matt Dolan, 43 percent to 33 percent, in the early voting results.

Independents Ken Lanci and Tim McCormack are third and fourth with 10 percent each.

The early voting results likely make up almost half of the votes cast in today’s election. So these results are likely a good indication of how things will look at the end of the night.

The last two months have battered FitzGerald, but not enough (it seems) to deny him victory. The Lakewood mayor went into the general election as the front-runner, thanks to a sharp campaign and the Democrats’ huge natural advantage in Cuyahoga County. His own poll showed him 17 points ahead of Dolan in early September.

Then came his cameo appearance as PO14 in the Jimmy Dimora indictment and Dolan’s fierce attack ads. They cut into his lead, but not by enough.

FitzGerald mounted a strong defense. He said Lakewood's lease of the Winterhurst ice rink to a now-indicted Dimora buddy had been above-board and benefited taxpayers. He couldn't compete with Dolan's $1 million-plus ad barrage, so he countered it with direct mail accusing Dolan of slinging mud.

Two viable independent candidates, Lanci and McCormack, made it hard for Dolan to win votes. Voters sick of Democrats had somewhere else to go. Dolan's 33 percent doesn't even reach Republicans' recent high-water mark in Cuyahoga County -- Debbie Sutherland's 38 percent in 2008 against Peter Lawson Jones.

If these results hold, plenty of Greater Clevelanders will complain about their fellow voters' loyalty to Democrats despite the scandals of the last three years. But FitzGerald tackled the integrity issue right away. Fighting corruption was a passion of his, he told me last December.

His experience as an FBI agent helped insulate him. So did his relative inexperience in politics. Dimora didn't try to befriend FitzGerald until he won the Lakewood mayor's race in 2007. The few ties between the two -- Dimora's phone call asking FitzGerald to return someone else's call, a few campaign contributions -- weren't enough to scare voters off.

Republicans will have a few results to console themselves with. Their candidate Michael Astrab is beating indicted judge Bridget McCafferty. Republicans Dave Greenspan, Michael Gallagher, and Jack Schron all have strong leads in the outer-ring suburbs' county council districts.

A year ago, I wrote that the Issue 6 framers had gerrymandered the council districts to elect four white Democrats, four black Democrats, and three Republicans. Looks like it worked. Democrats are headed for an 8-3 majority on council, but the three Republicans will bring two-party government back to Cuyahoga County for the first time since the mid-1990s.