Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jimmy Dimora, the luau king

UPDATED with new Dimora charges below.

For decades, ever since the Kon-Tiki in the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel closed, Cleveland has suffered from a sad shortage of tiki culture, a dearth of Polynesian retro-kitsch. The Modern World couldn't make a go of it. The Bamboo House in Bay Village closed. So who'd have thought the South-Pacific-on-the-Cuyahoga revival would depend on Jimmy Dimora?

Yep, Dimora's backyard pool-party deck, allegedly built up with bribes, sounds sweeter with every new federal charge. Now the feds say Dimora got $1,076 for a fake palm tree and used it on a tiki hut instead.

I can't possibly improve on thatgirl's riffs on the news over at Cleveland Love. So I'll take this moment to total up the free-or-discounted swag allegedly built into Dimora's private paradise:

• Patio roof, barbecue shelter, bathhouse, value $60,000, from contractor Steve Pumper

• Brick walls for outdoor kitchen, masonry columns, pool retaining wall, value $25,000-$28,000, from construction contractor Nicholas Zavarella

• Granite in outdoor kitchen, from John Valentin of Salva Stone Design, portion of $3,000

• Refrigerator in pool area, value $1,150, from Ferris Kleem

• Tiki hut, value $1,076, from money manager Charles Randazzo

The luau king must've been a great party host. But when the Big D inevitably sells his little piece of tropicana in Independence to pay for his defense, who's the tiki-partying high-roller who'll snatch it up?

Update, 2:30 p.m.: What a coincidence -- the feds unsealed a superceding indictment of Dimora today with new charges and new news about Jimmy's backyard patio. Today we learn that the FBI thinks Dimora got the pool itself as a bribe!

A new defendant, Anthony Melagrano of Vandra Brothers construction company, is accused of:

• providing and installing concrete for Dimora's pool

• installing a basketball court and a concrete pad for an outdoor bathroom

• installing footers for the outdoor kitchen area.

In exchange, Dimora is accused of voting for Vandra Brothers to get county contracts. Dimora allegedly asked Melagrano for an invoice for the footers in May 2008 after Steve Pumper tipped him off to the FBI investigation.

Dimora faces a new RICO charge -- racketeering conspiracy. Prosecutors say he, former Frank Russo employee Michael Gabor, and others formed a criminal racket that committed bribery, extortion, mail fraud, and obstruction of justice. The new indictment includes a racketeering forfeiture claim. The feds now want Dimora to forfeit the entire cost of the free or discounted improvements to his house. I guess the pool party's over.

Oh, and to add insult to injury, the feds also want Dimora's autographed Beanie Wells jersey.

(Photo of the Kon-Tiki from

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Quick Fixer: my profile of Peter Raskind, interim schools CEO

Peter Raskind will only be CEO of the Cleveland schools until summer, but he wants to solve two years of budget troubles in the next three months.

Last night, Raskind proposed closing seven schools and laying off 650 teachers, part of his plan to manage the shrinking district. Facing a $47 million deficit, he wants to cut $74 million. He knows that a worse deficit is projected for 2012, and he wants to deal with it before he leaves.

Raskind, the last CEO of National City, says he learned lessons during the Cleveland bank’s decline that motivate him to bold action now. “It’s better to get out ahead of issues and confront them than hope they go away,” he told me recently. “Being proactive beats being defensive, even when it's painful.”

My profile of Raskind, “Quick Fixer,” appears in the April issue of Cleveland Magazine and is online now. The April issue is available in bookstores this week and will be on other newsstands by early April.

Most Clevelanders know Raskind as the CEO who took charge of National City just as its aggressive push to grow from hometown commercial bank to a leading national mortgage lender began to bear rotting fruit. Now Raskind has a chance to be known in Cleveland for something other than bank failure. He's taken on an unlikely second career as an interim CEO for troubled government agencies.

Last year, he stabilized the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority and killed its grandiose $600 million relocation plan with a single, swift stroke. Now, after former schools CEO Eugene Sanders’ abrupt departure for Maui, Mayor Frank Jackson has asked Raskind to step in, tackle the deficit and advance the unfinished "transformation plan" to reform the schools.

The peculiar job of an interim CEO gives Raskind unusual freedom to act, without a career-minded leader’s caution. Sanders, faced with a similar deficit last year, closed 13 schools and balanced the budget, but didn’t push hard enough to prevent this year’s sequel.

Still, Raskind’s decisions are sure to provoke controversy. School closings change a neighborhood, and Raskind and the school board will likely hear from upset parents at community forums (pdf) next Tuesday and Wednesday. (Is Raskind “on the right track, or is there another way?” asks Dan Moulthrop on the Civic Commons web site.)

Raskind is also thinking about selling the district’s headquarters, the 1931 board of education building on East Sixth Street. Roldo Bartimole — blogging again after a long break — is upset, pointing out that selling the building would mess with Daniel Burnham’s 1903 Group Plan for the Malls and that public outcry nixed a plan to sell the building in the 1980s. It’s one example of the critical moment the school district faces and Raskind’s brief but key role in its future.

You can read my Raskind profile by clicking here. If you’d like to link to it, you can use this shortcut:

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cimperman to introduce domestic-partner benefits ordinance

Cleveland may soon extend health-care benefits to city employees’ unmarried domestic partners. Councilman Joe Cimperman says he’s going to introduce an ordinance to do so this month, possibly Monday.

“We’re a human-rights city,” Cimperman says. “This continues that legacy.”

It'd be another step in City Hall’s drive to promote Cleveland as gay-friendly. City council approved a registry for domestic partners in 2008, banned discrimination against the transgendered in 2009, and worked successfully to attract the 2014 Gay Games. The gay magazine The Advocate named Cleveland the 12th Gayest City in America this February. “This is just one more aspect of Cleveland showing its best,” Cimperman says.

The legislation isn’t just for gays, he notes. City employees who choose not to marry for practical reasons, such as child custody arrangements, could also share their health insurance with their partners.

That’s one of the downtown councilman’s selling points as he works to avoid a repeat of the divisive fight over the partner registry. It passed 13-7 after attracting the opposition of some prominent black ministers.

This time, at the urging of council president Martin Sweeney, the benefits ordinance is being drafted in consultation with a committee that includes two local ministers, including C. Jay Matthews of Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, who opposed the registry.

“Part of the reason the council president asked for ministers to be involved is, last time they weren’t, and they felt really left out,” Cimperman says. Matthews “hasn’t seen the final draft,” he adds, “but he’s been at meetings. His response was, it’s the right thing to do.”

The ordinance would make Cleveland the third Ohio city to offer domestic-partner benefits, along with Cleveland Heights and Columbus.

“Some people might vote against it on financial reasons,” Cimperman says. But he argues that cities from Cleveland Heights to Chicago have found partner benefits aren’t a drain on finances. “It’s a plus in recruiting people to work there.”

Cimperman also wants to make the city’s anti-discrimination laws enforceable by civil lawsuits. The 1989 ordinances made discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations a criminal offense — an attempt to be tough on bigots that can actually make the law harder to enforce, Cimperman says. “Are you going to call 9-1-1 because someone at a restaurant said the N-word and they’re not going to serve you?”

Allowing anti-discrimination lawsuits in Cleveland will especially benefit gays, since state and federal civil rights laws do not protect them.

Making Cleveland gay-friendly is a natural evolution of the city’s legacy of strong support for civil rights, Cimperman argues. “We’re lucky to have people who were champions in many different areas of human rights: civil rights for African-Americans, women’s rights, labor rights. I really think it’s one more aspect of our DNA."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tom Ganley, former congressional candidate, indicted on sex charges

Updated 7/15 with dismissal of charges; see below.

Turns out the voters who re-elected Betty Sutton to Congress in November saved us from a national scandal. Sutton's opponent, car dealer Tom Ganley, has been indicted on seven criminal charges stemming from an alleged sexual imposition.

The charges are based on allegations that surfaced in the fall, when the woman Ganley is accused of assaulting filed a lawsuit against him. She claimed she went to Ganley's dealership in Cleveland, hoping to volunteer for his campaign and renegotiate her car loan, and that Ganley propositioned her and groped her.

The charges are newsy, but they'd be ten times bigger if Ganley were in Washington right now. Nothing lights up the political blogosphere than congressional sex scandals -- especially if Republicans get caught with their pants down, since they're more vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. If Ganley were a congressman, the Internet buzz about his alleged advances would make the "Craigslist congressman" look discreet.

As it stands, if the criminal charges are proven in court, it'd mean Ganley had a foolhardy sense of invincibility: who thinks they can get away with treating a woman like that? And while running for Congress?

From prosecutor Bill Mason's press release this afternoon:

CLEVELAND- Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason announced that Thomas Ganley was indicted by a Grand Jury on 7 counts: three counts of gross sexual imposition (F4), one count of kidnapping (F1), one count of abduction (F3), one count of soliciting (M3), and one count of menacing by stalking (M1).

On August 1, 2009, a then 37-year-old female took her vehicle to be serviced at Ganley Chevrolet located on Lorain Ave., Cleveland. Ganley, 68, of Brecksville, invited the victim to his office, where he solicited her for sex and had sexual contact. He subsequently made several menacing calls to her.

Back in the fall, Ganley's lawyer claimed the lawsuit was an extortion campaign meant to cause political harm. OK, yes, political candidates are especially vulnerable to extortion -- though it's worth noting the alleged victim is reportedly pro-life and a volunteer for Republican campaigns.

Now, Mason, a Democrat, is prosecuting the former Republican candidate. But the Ganley camp is simply saying money motivated the accuser. Ganley's camp is very unlikely to try to play a reverse-Dimora card: One of his lawyers is Steve Dever, who used to be Mason's top trial attorney.

Update, 7/15: Bill Mason's office dismissed the charges against Ganley today. "After further investigating the case of State v Ganley and consulting with the victim, this office made a determination to dismiss the case," assistant prosecutor Blaise Thomas said in a statement. "This decision represents the desire of the victim not to go forward to trial."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Russo stickers will go, starting tomorrow, ending era of gas-pump shame

You won't have Frank Russo to deface anymore. Starting tomorrow, with a ceremonial restickering at the Get Go in Parma, the county's weights and measures department will efface the egomaniacal seals adorned with the former county auditor's lying, million-dollar-bribe-taking smile.

For 13 years, Russo affixed his self-image to every gas pump, cash register and scale in Cuyahoga County in a bid for perpetual name recognition and re-election. It was a sign of how our fair county was different, how once-obscure elected offices became fiefdoms protected by personality cults, patronage, and one-party rule.

(Perhaps you've noticed, traveling around the state, that one can pump gas in Ohio's other counties without learning what their auditor looks like. My favorite seal, in Wood County, south of Toledo, shows off the lovely 1890s courthouse in Bowling Green, not Wood's esteemed and humble auditor, Michael Sibbersen.)

Now Ed FitzGerald, savvily searching for symbols to show the new charter government has brought real reform, has targeted the biggest symbol of all. His press secretary just sent out a proud press release about tomorrow's 2 pm debut of the new sticker. No image has been released yet, but I'm betting on something self-effacing: the county government's logo of intertwined C's, perhaps, or the peculiarly 9 1/2-sided county map.

Update, 3/16: No face or logo on the seals at all, but it does say FITZGERALD in pretty large type.

It's the end of an era -- and the end of one of Jimmy Dimora's bad jokes, one I cringingly recorded in "Life of the Party," my 2009 Dimora profile. "Every time I see Frank," Dimora would tell crowds, "I get gas."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Rob Frost stokes draft-Mandel movement for Senate

Josh Mandel, the young state treasurer from Lyndhurst, is living a charmed political life. The 33-year-old Iraq war vet just got his new job, and already, conservatives are cajoling him to run fo the U.S. Senate against Sherrod Brown next year.

Last week the Washington Post profiled Mandel in its series "The Rising" about young elected officials with promising careers. Next, conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt hyped Mandel in his Washington Examiner column as Brown's "worst nightmare."

Rob Frost, Cuyahoga County's Republican chairman, likes the buzz. "Hugh has joined the chorus of Ohio conservatives, Republican leaders and business leaders who are trying to draft Josh into the Senate race against Sherrod Brown," Frost writes in an e-mail this morning. Frost wants to draft Mandel too: "Josh has made it clear that he's focused on running the Treasurer's office, but the consensus that is developing in Ohio and across the country is that Josh is our best bet to beat Sherrod."

Ohio Republicans have Sherrod-hunting on their minds this week. The senator is learning, the hard way, the first rule of cyber-era political debate: The first person to invoke Hitler loses the argument.

Meanwhile, Mandel's working to repair his biggest campaign foul, his fall TV ad against Kevin Boyce, widely criticized as Muslim-baiting. From the Post profile:
"I made a mistake, and I learned from it and put it behind me," says Mandel now. "I regret running the ad, and I've broken bread with my opponent and we've both put it behind us."

I get why Republicans dream of a Mandel candidacy, why his quote to the Post — "I'm not ruling it out" -- sounded to them like a horse race's opening bell. War veterans are attractive candidates, and experience in the Iraqi desert adds gravitas to Mandel's baby face. More mathematically, Republicans would be shrewd to run a Jewish candidate from Northeast Ohio -- it'd scramble the electoral map, peel away votes the Democrats usually count on.

Still, the buzz isn't entirely convincing. Hewitt's dismissal of Brown as an "off-the-rack lefty, tired, worn out" underestimates the Democrat's political talents, especially his ferocious campaign skills. I thought Brent Larkin sized up the race right last month: "A Mandel candidacy remains unlikely," he wrote, "as would an eventual victory." So far I haven't seen anything to lead me to disagree.

Lynne Thompson profiled Josh Mandel for Cleveland Magazine in 2008. You can read her piece here. I profiled Sherrod Brown in 2007, after his election to the Senate, and Rob Frost a few months later, when his entertaining missives, "News from the Pork Barrel Buffet," began to poke the seemingly impregnable Jimmy Dimora.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

SB5 passes by one vote

The huge fight over slashing the power of government employee unions looks like it's headed to a statewide referendum. Senate Bill 5 squeaked through the Ohio Senate today. Not only was the vote 17-16, but it only got to the Senate floor after Republican leader Tom Neihaus yanked two opponents of the bill off key committees to head off tie votes.

This Columbus Dispatch story explains it all clearly (though its count is off: six Republicans, not five, joined all 10 Senate Democrats to oppose the bill). For instance, the story succinctly explains one key amendment added yesterday, laying bare the power shift:
The bill would outlaw strikes for any public employee and for law enforcement and firefighters would eliminate binding arbitration, in which an impartial third party is brought in to resolve an impasse.

Instead, the bill sets up a new settlement process for all public workers that would bring in a fact-finder, who would present a public report. If rejected, the school board, city council or other legislative body would then either accept its own last best offer, or that of the union. [emphasis mine]

The Plain Dealer's coverage give us more of the politics of the bill. The breaking-news story shows that four of the six Republicans voting no are from Northeast Ohio, and the piece on today's front page forecasts the bill's ultimate path after it goes to the state House, where it's expected to pass: a statewide ballot this November.