Cleveland.com's comment sections are usually a malicious playland of thinly veiled racism, hall-of-mirrors impersonations, innuendo and sputtering rage, dominated by anonymous trolls expressing the community's dark, unchained id.
But this week, citizen watchdogs waded into the online mud and accomplished something. Able Googlers jumped onto a cleveland.com page, spontaneously crowd-sourced, and flagged a contractor's questionable record. They got a Plain Dealer reporter to ask some tough questions and got the Cuyahoga County government to hold up a contract award.
It started this Sunday, when the paper published an article about the growing cost of replacing the county jail's 37-year-old kitchen. A builders association president's complaints blamed the price increase, from $5 million to $6 million, on the county's decision to require union labor.
But readers noticed something else. The firm poised to win the contract, Brigadier Construction Services, was partially owned by Frederick D. Perkins. His family has a long history of getting government contracts in Cleveland and elsewhere -- and their companies' structures and business relationships have often come under scrutiny.
The commenters linked to a 2008 Plain Dealer investigation of several companies owned by members of the Perkins and Cifani families, which asked whether the companies were structured in a way that allowed them to take advantage of government set-aside programs for minority-owned contractors.
They also pointed to a Dayton Daily News article that showed Brigadier had been banned from a federal contracting program for companies owned by disabled veterans. The feds found that Shawnté Thompson, a disabled vet and part-owner, did not really control the company. Instead, it seemed largely controlled by McTech, a local company owned by Mark Perkins, Frederick D. Perkins' brother.
A reader e-mailed me, too, remembering the Perkins family from my July 2005 story "Inside the Nate Gray Case." Frederick D. appears to be the son of Fred and Gail Perkins of Choice Construction, a now-defunct local contractor whose offices were raided by the FBI in 2000. Choice Construction figured prominently in my story, which examined the ties between Gray and several local minority-owned companies that rose to prominence due to generous contract awards from Cleveland City Hall during the Mike White administration.
At one point, the feds charged Choice with acting as a front company for white-owned companies, though the charge was dropped. Fred Perkins pled guilty to campaign-finance law violations, Gail Perkins to filing a false tax return. The FBI scrutinized Choice, McTech, and Perk Co. (a third company once owned by a Perkins) as part of the Gray investigation, though no charges of wrongdoing resulted.
The posts on cleveland.com led Plain Dealer reporter Laura Johnston to the Dayton article, which led her to court documents about Brigadier's federal ban. Yesterday Johnston asked county executive Ed FitzGerald about the questions surrounding Brigadier, and he responded by pulling the contract from last night's council agenda. FitzGerald said he would invite Brigadier's owners to meet with him and defend themselves.
In a well-deserved Twitter hat-tip, Johnston thanked cleveland.com commenters for pointing her to the Dayton article. Tipsters are as old as reporting, and reporters are nothing without sources. But online, we can connect and research faster than ever.
In Cleveland right now, we need that immediacy. Watching the questions about Brigadier spread reminded me of our columnist Michael D. Roberts' argument that the Nate Gray and Jimmy Dimora corruption scandals indicted the public and the press for a lack of vigilance. This week, we saw how it ought to work.
Update, 10/13: Brigadier got the contract. I don't expect we've heard the last of this, though. It raises the question of whether the county's proposed ban on contractors who've violated various rules should include companies who've gotten in trouble with other governments.