Monday, September 17, 2012

Mason resigns 3 months early, heading to law firm

Bill Mason just gave us his two weeks notice. The Cuyahoga County prosecutor is leaving Sept. 30, three months before his term expires, to take a job in the public finance unit of the law firm Bricker and Eckler.

It’s the end of an era. The last of the Democrats who took over Cuyahoga County government in the late 1990s is on his way out.

Mason not only outlasted his peers, he helped plan their end. He savvily endorsed county reform in 2009 and helping to write the new charter that ushered every other county Democrat out of office.

Yet the old guard’s downfall ultimately hurt Mason too. The federal obscenity conviction of former county recorder Pat O’Malley, Mason’s longtime friend and ally, raised questions about his political judgment. And when federal prosecutors indicted Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo, critics asked why Mason hadn’t busted them first.

Mason loves politics, but he surely wants to be remembered for more than his political connections. His office boasted a 92 percent conviction rate as of 2008, compared with about 68 percent nationally. His almost 14 years as prosecutor include dramatic cases ranging from the Sam Sheppard civil trial to the conviction of serial killer Anthony Sowell. He chased child pornographers and mortgage-fraudsters with gusto. His cold case unit has revived several cases a decade old or more — including its investigation of serial murderer Joseph Harwell, which I wrote about in the magazine’s July issue.

Defense attorneys and some judges, meanwhile, asked whether the tough prosecutor was too tough, charging too aggressively. His staff’s many political ties, including seats on city councils across the county, also attracted criticism. It made his office an awkward fit with the county’s new ethos, where political connections among public employees are distrusted and limited by new ethics rules.

Mason announced in 2010 that he wouldn’t run again. Will-he-resign rumors -- probably spread by his foes, not his confidants – were circulating wildly that year, and Scene inaccurately predicted he’d go within months. So even without surfing the blogs, I can imagine the buzz of speculation now about Mason’s move.

But Nicole DiSanto, Mason’s interim spokesperson, makes his early departure sound as simple as the reasons your officemate might leave for a new job. “The opportunity presented itself now,” she says. “He wants to make sure the next person can come in and start taking a leadership role.”

That suggests former judge Tim McGinty may succeed Mason in October. {Update, 9/18: He will.} McGinty, the Democratic nominee for prosecutor, is a heavy favorite to beat independent candidate Ed Wade Jr. on Nov. 6. The rules for mid-term replacements are complicated. County executive Ed FitzGerald can name an interim replacement; then, within 45 days, the county Democrats’ executive committee has to pick someone to finish the term. Rather than switch among four prosecutors in five months, FitzGerald and the Democrats may just give McGinty the job early.

Previous coverage of Mason on my blog and in the magazine:

-"Office Politics," March 2012, Michael D. Roberts' column arguing that Mason's successor needs to do a better job fighting corruption

-"Mason won't run again in 2012," October 22, 2010, summarizing Mason's miserable year

-"Mason talks reform," Feb. 26, 2009, one of his first interviews about his involvement in the county charter movement

-"Annette Butler debates Bill Mason," Oct. 20, 2008, my coverage of the City Club debate from Mason's last race

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