Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wash. Post's premature obituary for Kucinich's Dept. of Peace

Now that Dennis Kucinich is leaving Congress, the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold has written a eulogy for his signature idea, a federal Department of Peace.  It is somewhat less condescending than the usual reaction to it, which is open mockery.

"The idea behind it is that the federal government could stop wars, pacify street gangs, and distill violence out of the American soul itself," Fahrenthold writes. "All it would take was a new Cabinet-level department and $10 billion a year in taxpayer money."

The Department of Peace, like Kucinich himself, is easily caricatured. It usually appears in mainsteam media as a one-liner, a joke about a flower-power dream from a peculiar socialist elf.  (Like I said, easy.)

Fahrenthold, at least, knows something about the bill. He knows the idea has been around since the Founding Fathers. He knows it would create a peace academy to train people in nonviolent conflict resolution. "It would also seek to stop bloodshed in U.S. cities, by funding stop-the-violence programs, programs in schools and 'unarmed civilian peacekeeping,'" he writes.

The story makes the practical point that $10 billion for peace is way more money than the current Congress would be willing to spend. That's true, but it is also Kucinich's point.  He sometimes says the Department of Peace should get 1 percent of what the Department of Defense gets. The House just passed a $643 billion defense budget for next year. 

Here are a few of the things the Department of Peace would fund: programs at home to fight domestic violence, child and elder abuse, gang violence, and violence in schools, to rehabilitate ex-convicts and teach students non-violent ways to resolve conflicts.  It would sponsor peace summits and conflict resolution in other countries, train U.S. personnel in post-war reconstruction, counsel victims of wartime rape, and train inspectors to enforce arms embargoes.

Hilarious stuff, huh?

Say what you will about Kucinich's ego and his missionary zeal (I certainly have), or his naïveté about murderous dictators, but you've got to give him this: Kucinich is a serious and unconventional thinker. Just because his thinking is outside the mainstream doesn't mean he's always wrong.

"At Kucinich’s political passing, we pause to remember it," Fahrenthold writes, implying that the idea of the Department of Peace could wither and die when Kucinich leaves Congress.  That's unlikely.  It has 52 co-sponsors.

Making a Department of Peace a Cabinet-level priority is Kucinich's way of getting peace taken seriously in Washington. The government already established a U.S. Institute of Peace in 1984 to do many of the things Kucinich proposes.  Its budget?  Cut from $50 million to $40 million in 2011, or 16,000 times smaller than the defense budget.  As Elvis Costello once sang, what's so funny?

Monday, May 21, 2012

A new county HQ: Will FitzGerald and council do better than the old regime?

Ed FitzGerald is itching to move out of the county administration building, the drab ’50s offices at Lakeside and Ontario. He’s about to start hunting for a new county headquarters site. The county council wants in on the decision.

That means the executive and council will have to succeed where their predecessors -- Jimmy Dimora, Tim Hagan, and Peter Lawson Jones -- failed. They’ll have to choose a new headquarters location wisely, negotiate a good deal, and save money while doing it.

They’ll have to be tough, shrewd negotiators, even when they sit across the table from downtown real estate interests, some of whom like to fund politicians’ campaigns. And without giving away their negotiating positions, they’ll have to be open enough about their decisions to show the taxpayers that the move makes sense.

That’s all going to be a lot harder than investigating their predecessors’ failures, as FitzGerald is doing. It’s easy to find fault with the last administration, harder to do better next time.

FitzGerald and his real estate consultant say the government could save $56 million over 10 years by moving out of the administration building and some of its other offices around town. He wants to choose a new headquarters location this year and move by 2014.

The administration building “isn’t a modern work space,” FitzGerald told me earlier this year. He thinks the site could become a hotel or parking structure for the Medical Mart and convention center.

The county basically faces three choices if it moves: Lease space in an existing building, buy a building and move in, or buy land and build a new headquarters. FitzGerald sounds like he’s leaning toward a lease.

“Under the previous administration, there were elected officials philosophically opposed to leasing,” FitzGerald told me. (He means Hagan, who told me in my 2008 Ameritrust Tower story that he didn’t want the county to be “subservient” to a landlord.)

“I don’t have that point of view,” FitzGerald said. “I’m totally open to leasing.”

The county is looking for 300,000 square feet of office space — which narrows its options.

The leading contender for a new county HQ seems to be the former Huntington Building at East 9th and Euclid.  Built in the 1920s for the Union Commerce Bank, the place almost looks like a government headquarters already, with Roman columns on the façade and a soaring lobby with beautiful murals. Other contenders are the old May Co. building and Eaton Center, once Eaton moves to Beachwood.

But FitzGerald and the county council need to answer a lot of questions before they commit to a new headquarters. After all, the old government failed at precisely the same task, spending $45 million on the Ameritrust Tower, the albatross skyscraper and superhero-battle stage that the new government is getting ready to sell at a loss.

So far, the FitzGerald Administration hasn’t even proven that the county needs to move.  It’s only asserted it.

Allegro Realty Advisors, FitzGerald’s consultant, says the county should sell 22 buildings, including the administration building and the Ameritrust Tower, and upgrade 15 buildings, including the Justice Center. Allegro estimates its strategy would save the county $56 million over 10 years and $84 million over 20 years.

But Allegro’s assumptions about the cost of leases, maintenance and renovations aren’t available to the public. The county has only given out an 18-page PowerPoint presentation and an eight-page list of county properties, with very little financial information.

I asked for the Allegro report’s two appendices and got a phone call from FitzGerald instead. He asserts that the appendices aren’t a public record.

“It’s trade secret information,” he claimed. Releasing the property evaluation would be “giving away our negotiating position with the private sector when negotiating prices,” he argued.

This is a very fishy interpretation of Ohio’s public records law. But it’s true that as taxpayers, we don’t want our government negotiating with all its cards on the table.

“Before we engage in the actual property transaction, we’ll have a very public conversation about why it makes economic sense,” FitzGerald told me.

We’ll need to see a lot more detail. The Ameritrust Tower debacle proved that rosy financial assumptions and a lack of attention to mundane occupancy costs like repairs, maintenance, and utilities can make a bad real-estate deal look good.

Thankfully, the county council has formed a special committee to look at the real estate transactions. Council president C. Ellen Connally says it’ll look at the short-term and long-term benefits of moving.  That’s key, because the question isn’t just whether the county can make some one-time money in a sale.  It’s also, will it be cheaper to operate the government after the move?

FitzGerald says yes, but he isn’t showing us the numbers to prove it.  Allegro’s estimated savings don’t distinguish between one-time cash and long-term savings.

The press and the public will need to make sure the new government doesn’t blunder into some awful sequel to the Ameritrust affair. Three pages in a PowerPoint isn’t enough proof.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

My debut on WCPN Reporters' Roundtable

I'm hosting the WCPN Reporters' Roundtable for the first time tomorrow morning. Starting at 9, I'll be talking about the week's state and local news with Plain Dealer assistant metro editor Chris Quinn, WKSU news director M.L. Schultze, public radio statehouse reporter Karen Kassler, and the show's listeners.

We'll be talking about legislators who want to drug-test welfare recipients, new developments in Ohio's fracking industry, and the opening of the Horseshoe Casino Cleveland. We'll probably also talk about some frequent characters from this blog, including Ed FitzGerald, Jimmy Dimora and Dennis Kucinich.

Tune in to 90.3 FM at 9 a.m. tomorrow or listen live at wcpn.org. You're invited to call in and talk with us at (216) 578-0903 or (866) 578-0903 or e-mail us at news@wcpn.org.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Kucinich won't run in Washington State, prepares for activism after Congress

Dennis Kucinich has made it official -- he's not going to carpet-bag and run for Congress in Washington State.

Dennis's flirtation with Seattle always seemed like a feint, meant to stir up buzz among his West Coast donors and keep up his profile as a beloved figure on the national Left.  It's also a "what-if" he entertained because unconventional ideas intrigue him.

Now he's let us know he's not heading west.  He just sent out a message to supporters, preparing them for his attempt to become a national activist after his term in the House expires:

At this time, I can best serve from outside the Congress. My commitments to peace, to workers' rights and to social and economic justice are constant and are not dependent upon holding an office. They are dependent upon my continuing to stand up, to speak out, to organize... . This I promise I will do with great energy and heart.

... We shall meet again in our celebration of the potential of citizen activists to change the world.

... We will need to continue to work together for change outside Congress, as we have worked for it from within. This is just the beginning!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dimora's party patio: photos from the FBI raid

At last we get to see Jimmy Dimora's bribe-furnished back yard and patio, the unofficial retreat of the old Cuyahoga County Democratic Party in-crowd.

Dimora and his lawyers didn't want you to see these photos, taken by FBI agents on their July 28, 2008 raid. But Judge Sara Lioi ruled that the public has a right to see them.

Most of the stuff in these photos, the judge noted, was "given by contractors identified at trial who were seeking county business." For instance, the brick work for the outdoor kitchen, including the bricks framing this pizza oven, came courtesy of contractor Nicholas Zavarella.

The patio roof and barbecue shelter came from Dimora buddy Steve Pumper, in exchange for several favors, including the county's sped-up $5 million purchase of a crumbling parking garage.

"Because a jury has found that these improvements and other things of value were obtained at the expense of the public—who had an expectation that their public officials would make decisions regarding the awarding of public contracts free from considerations of personal gain—the public has a vested interest in discovering the truth of these improvements and other things of value," the judge wrote.

Too bad the pool was covered when the feds stopped by.

A pretty nice back yard, huh?  Yet I'm disappointed by one thing.  The federal charges said Dimora got a tiki hut from a guy named Charles Randazzo.

At trial, Randazzo clarified it was actually a tiki bar. This appears to be it.

What a let-down!  I expected way more Polynesian kitsch: carved wooden fright heads, spears, a fake palm tree, a thatched roof ...

Aha!  That's more like it.

But this shot isn't from Dimora's house.  "Photograph of artificial palm tree in Frank Russo's backyard," says the caption in the evidence list.

At last we know: Frank Russo is the true luau king of Cuyahoga County.

Dimora in Vegas: the FBI photos

How ironic that on the first full day of casino gambling in Cleveland, the feds release their surveillance photos of Jimmy Dimora and his posse on their ill-fated trip to Vegas.

You just know that if the Big D weren't in federal prison right now, he'd have been the first VIP through the Horseshoe's door last night.  Instead he has his memories of his romp at the Mirage's Bare Pool in March 2008.

This is a redacted photo of the reserved area for Dimora's group at the Bare Pool.  I'm guessing the black box covers up a naked sunbather. Note Dimora in the blue tank top on the upper left.  All is well in the Big D's world. 

Dimora, Michael Gabor, Steve Pumper and a guy who didn't get charged with a crime, Joey Vinciguerra, leaving the Bare Pool.  That's Gabor in gray, Pumper on the left.


Looks like the FBI got a key to Dimora & co.'s suite while they were out. 


Dimora arrives at the Prime Steakhouse at the Bellagio.  This is a still shot from a surveillance video.


Those casino-table cameras catch everything, from card counters to Ferris Kleem writing down the phone number of the prostitute he's sending Dimora's way.  Suzanne, I hope you've changed your number.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bridge bomb plot case, Romney, Huron Hospital on WCPN Roundtable

I was on WCPN's Reporters' Roundtable this morning, talking about the bridge bomb plot case, Mitt Romney's drive to win Ohio, and the fallout for trauma patients from Huron Hospital's closing. 

We talked about the suspects' involvement with Occupy Cleveland and the activist group's disassociation from them now that they're accused of planning a violent attack. Callers asked tough questions about the FBI informant's relationship with the alleged bomb plotters and his presence at an October Occupy Cleveland rally.

Statehouse reporter Karen Kassler had just finished an interview with Mitt Romney, so I asked her about the challenges his presidential campaign faces and his focus on the economy as his top campaign issue.  She also predicted that Frank Jackson's schools legislation will likely pass the legislature, though questions remain about it among lawmakers on the left and right.

Plenty of callers were still concerned about the loss of Huron Hospital in East Cleveland, since its trauma center was a major destination for east-side ambulance calls.  (Cleveland has just released statistics showing it takes longer to get east-side emergency patients to MetroHealth or Hillcrest hospitals.) 

You can listen to the podcast here.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Occupy Cleveland protesters recall men accused in bridge bomb plot

At the Occupy Cleveland tent on Public Square today, members of the movement were talking about the guys they knew as Tony, Connor, Brandon, Doug and Skelly – the five men arrested today and charged with plotting to blow up a bridge over the Cuyahoga River.

All five, they said, had frequented Occupy Cleveland’s tent, its protests, and its gathering place on the city’s West Side.

“I know all those gentlemen – I don’t want to call them gentlemen anymore,” said movement member Robin Adelmann. Some of them spent time with him, manning the tent. “I never really expected that from any of them.”

Protesters were reading the FBI affidavit about the five men and confronting the fact that five guys who’d joined their peaceful, loosely organized movement had been arrested by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and charged with conspiring to use explosives to detonate a bridge south of Cleveland.

“Occupy Cleveland is all about non-violence and spreading a message of love,” Adelmann said. “If we had any inkling of an idea, any time ago, we would have kicked these guys out, bar none.”

Anthony Hayne, known to the protesters as Tony, had started to upset some Occupy members, protesters said. Adelmann and another protester said they suspected him of stealing from the donation box in the movement’s tent on Public Square.

Michael Maples, an Occupy protester from Cleveland, says he hit it off with suspects Hayne and Brandon Baxter at first, until stories started to spread about Hayne getting arrested and Baxter getting involved in confrontations with police. Maples says he eventually came to see Hayne as shady, only out for himself. “I could’ve pegged him to do anything at all.” As for Baxter, he says he felt that “at some point, he was going to go a little nuts.”

Protesters recalled some of the suspects in a somewhat more positive light. Adelmann was trying to reconcile his good memories of Joshua Stafford, known among the protesters as Skelly, with news of his arrest.

“He was a really nice guy,” Adelmann said. “He used to come to me for relationship advice. If anybody ever tried mess with me, or anybody else, he’d jump in front, and try to help.”

The FBI began to follow the suspects in October, according the affidavit, when it dispatched a confidential informant to an Oct. 21 protest in Cleveland. The description matches the city’s Oct. 21 removal of the Occupy campsite from Public Square. (Since then, the protesters have maintained their tent across the street. They have a permit for it, but can’t stay overnight.)

The affidavit describes a small group of suspicious men joining the gathering. Some wore walkie-talkies around their necks and carried anarchist flags. Many were covering their faces with masks, scarves or towels. “The whole group appeared to be together and was constantly moving through the crowd expressing displeasure at the crowd’s unwillingness to act violently,” the affidavit reads.

When organizers “emphasiz[ed] that they wanted everyone to conduct peaceful civil disobedience,” one of the men “turned away and said ‘f—k that’ before the group of men walked away.”

At least one of the Oct. 21 anarchists, Doug Wright, is among the alleged bomb plotters.

Matthew Revelt, a Cleveland protester who said he was in Public Square on Oct. 21, said the affidavit’s description was accurate, except that the anarchists didn’t advocate violence. “They wanted to get people to get rowdy. They wanted to get people to get loud. They didn’t ask people to act destructive. We might’ve all turned on them [if they had]. They wanted people to get arrested that evening. They wanted to encourage that.”

Cleveland city councilman Brian Cummins, who has supported Occupy Cleveland, said he knew four of the five suspects from his time spent with the protesters. He bought supplies for the occupiers with Wright this fall, and had met Hayne, Baxter, and Stafford.

“They wore their anarchist beliefs on their shirt much more than anyone else did,” Cummins said. Baxter and Stafford didn’t talk to him, probably because he was an elected official, Cummings said.

“None were very much involved with the strategy of the movement,” Cummins said. “They were more fringe members of the group. People were perturbed with them occasionally.”

Like the guys in the tent today, Cummins had begun hearing that Hayne was a “troublemaker, a pain in the ass.” The councilman noted that the Occupy Movement’s open, often leaderless nature makes it hard to kick people out.

In the Occupy Cleveland tent and on a nearby fence, multiple banners sport slogans: a “Veterans For Peace” flag with a giant dove on it, an American flag with corporate logos for stars and the message “I’m down with takin down corporate America” in the flag’s stripes, and a red and gray banner that reads, “No War Except Class War.”

The protestors all emphasized Occupy Cleveland’s nonviolent approach to protest. Revelt said he’d joined to combat the foreclosure crisis and CEOs’ high salaries. Randy Ball said he wanted to oppose bailouts and outsourcing and protect Social Security and student loans. He recalled his talks with suspect Baxter.

“They were both peaceful conversations,” he said. “They were about outreach, mainly, street canvassing. Letting people know not by force, but having a one on one conversation that we’re all under the same umbrella. We want to be free. We’re done being oppressed.”

How Hagan & Co. cut Staubach loose from Ameritrust deal

Yesterday, I blogged about how Cuyahoga County’s former government committed to a big consulting contract with The Staubach Co. worth more than $4 million as part of its ill-fated search for a new county headquarters. Today, the story continues with the contract’s undignified end: the county rejecting parts of Staubach’s advice and cutting it loose for $3 million.

One more person on the county’s side, besides Neil Dick and Jay Ross, objected to the Staubach contract’s cost: Tim Hagan, who replaced Tim McCormack on the county commission in January 2005.

“I would not have consummated that contract,” Hagan told me in a 2008 interview about the Ameritrust affair. “I thought [the price] was too much. I didn’t like the terms of it.” He began looking for a way to sever the contract.

In January 2005, Staubach recommended that the county lease the Ameritrust complex from the Jacobs Group. That March, after negotiations, Staubach told the commissioners that Jacobs had improved its offer: it had agreed to include a large parking garage and build a second tower alongside the Ameritrust Tower.  (See the design sketch above.)

Staubach has been criticized for recommending the Ameritrust site. It’s not a sought-after location for offices because the tower is so thin. Rob Roe, former managing partner of Staubach, says the second tower was meant to address that.

“We understood that the floor plan of the tower was too small to accommodate their use,” Roe says. “The tower was always built to have a mate.”

The above design sketch shows the new tower that never came to be: about half the height of the Ameritrust Tower and touching it on one end, suggesting that the two towers’ floors could’ve been linked together.

Hagan, like Staubach, liked the Ameritrust complex’s location and its historic bank rotunda. But he thought the Ameritrust Tower was a blight on downtown’s skyline. He also felt a government shouldn’t lease its main offices.

“You can’t be entangled with a private enterprise if the future of a building might be in question,” Hagan told me in 2008. “The public [should] not have to ask anybody for permission to do whatever they wanted within their public building.”

Also, Hagan told me, he didn’t trust Staubach’s advice.

“I didn’t take their advice because that advice might have been in their own best interest, to be quite candid about it!” Hagan said. He didn’t elaborate. “I wanted to sever the relationship with Staubach and we did.”

(Roe doesn’t know what to make of Hagan’s comment. He says Staubach, now merged with Jones Lang Lasalle, has negotiated other deals with the Jacobs Group, but has never been hired by it. His company represents real estate users, not developers.)

Hagan and Dimora decided to buy the complex from Jacobs and tear down the Ameritrust Tower -- ignoring Staubach’s advice that “totally new construction” would not be “fiscally responsible.” (For more on this, see my 2008 story, “Tower Play.”)

The county cut Staubach out of the loop and negotiated directly with The Jacobs Group.

“We didn’t really need [Staubach] to do that negotiation,” says Dave Lambert of the prosecutor’s office. “Therefore, the commissioners asked me to get us out of the contract.

“They brought their lawyer in. The decision was made to cut our losses, cut Staubach out of the process and move on.”

In September 2005, the county bought the Ameritrust complex as is for $21.7 million. The purchase agreement specifically required the county, not Jacobs, to pay Staubach’s broker’s fee.

“The county wanted to negotiate our final fee down from what was in the contract,” Roe says. “They felt it was easier to control the payment of that fee.”

Staubach’s contract had promised a fee of $6.85 per square foot for its role in choosing the 641,000-square-foot Ameritrust complex. That would’ve added up to $4.4 million.

Instead, Lambert and Staubach attorney Anthony O. Calabrese III negotiated a $2.6 million final payment to Staubach. Add in its initial fee, and Staubach got an even $3 million.

Calabrese’s role brings up one last unanswered question about the Ameritrust affair. Calabrese faces trial in September on charges stemming from the county corruption probe. Federal prosecutors claim that by 2004 and 2005, Calabrese was engaged in a racketeering conspiracy with former county employee and Dimora crony J. Kevin Kelley to “give things of value to public officials and their designees” in return for favors to Calabrese, his law firm and their clients. (The specific charges dating back that far involve the nonprofit Alternatives Agency.)

Calabrese appears only once in public records about the Staubach contract, in a mid-negotiation email in 2004 about how to define “rentable area,” the measure by which Staubach insisted on being paid. Lambert says Calabrese never mentioned any relationships with county employees during settlement negotiations, and never did anything that gives him pause in retrospect.

The county’s inspector general and law department surely want to know if Calabrese’s role in the Staubach contract was clean. But they may not be able to answer the question without subpoena power. That may be one reason why the inspector general is, I’ve been told, cooperating with the FBI.

Update, 6/7: Calabrese asked Kelley to lobby Dimora to buy the Ameritrust Tower, according to a new indictment of Calabrese. The FBI and IRS examined five-figure payments that Kelley and a company linked to Calabrese received in fall 2005, after the building was purchased and Staubach got paid, the indictment says. Hagan makes a flattering cameo appearance in the filing as the public official who questioned the Staubach contract. See my new post here