Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dimora, defiant in court, gets 28 years in prison

Four years and three days after the FBI raided his office and home, Jimmy Dimora sat at a table in a courthouse in Akron, with one last chance to defend himself.  And he did.

“I certainly was not part of ripping off the taxpayers of Cuyahoga County,” Dimora told the judge, his voice quiet at first. “I never took bribes or kickbacks.” He denied he was ever involved in “steering contracts, bid rigging, or the selling of jobs.”

Even after this winter’s trial, and minutes before his sentencing on 32 corruption charges, Dimora was every bit as defiant, as stubborn, as sure of his own judgment as he was three years ago, when his angry press conferences denying any wrongdoing shocked Cleveland.

“I have no regret or any type of reservation [about] anything I did,” Dimora said, his voice rising like it used to at commissioners’ meetings. “I always did it with the best intentions of Cuyahoga County in mind.”

For four years, Clevelanders have asked, why doesn’t Jimmy Dimora cooperate with the government? Why won’t he plead guilty?

“The county has lost no taxpayer money from any vote I cast, not one cent,” he said today.

Believe it or not, Dimora’s answer to the five-year corruption scandal remains the same: He still doesn’t believe he did anything wrong.

It was like stepping through a time warp, to the strange old days of two or three years ago. Dimora defended himself as he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was still in office, before the government he led was wiped out and replaced with a new one.

“If someone already doing business with the county would buy me a meal or take me to a sporting event – which is not illegal in Ohio – I disclosed it. I filed my ethics forms.”

Earlier in the day, Judge Sara Lioi had turned angry when Dimora attorney Bill Whitaker had tried to bring up those ethics forms. “Why is he accepting all these gifts?” the judge asked. “Concrete work? Valuable items? Does he think everyone wants to give him gifts? Does he think he’s entitled to them? If they are his friends, why is he voting on things that could impact them? Why isn’t he recusing himself?”

Dimora’s answer to that was to assert his integrity. The $250,000 in cash and prizes the prosecutors say he got from his contractor friends? They had no impact on his decisions, he said. 

“It didn’t bother me if someone was a friend, if I knew them, if they gave me campaign donations, or gave me a thing of value, or donated to the Democratic Party,” Dimora said. “If they were not the low bidder… they did not get my vote.”

Dimora denied taking cash from anyone in exchange for county business (he was found guilty of taking $30,000 from Steve Pumper and $6,000 from Ferris Kleem). He said he never told the county staff to circumvent regular procedures.

“It was an honor for me to serve,” he said. “I did it honestly and always put the taxpayers first and foremost in any votes I cast.” The federal government, he said, “had made a mountain out of a molehill.”

Dimora stayed angry right to the end of his 17-minute statement, when he broke down talking about his love for his wife, who had sat through two months of testimony that included details of Dimora’s serial infidelities with prostitutes and an “old friend” or two.

The judge showed no reaction to Dimora’s statement. If his lack of contrition made any difference in her decision, she didn’t say so.

“The reach of [Dimora’s] corruption was far and wide,” she said. “It caused the citizens of Cuyahoga County to lose respect for their government.”

Lioi acknowledged that Dimora was a good mayor of Bedford Heights in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “But somewhere along the way, his focus changed from the people who elected him to serving himself and his friends. Somewhere along the way, he changed.”

Under Dimora and Frank Russo’s leadership, people who wanted a county job or contract “had to pay a fee, a price,” the judge said. “They exacted their fee in different ways.” Russo wanted cash, she said. “Mr. Dimora was content to receive meals, gambling trips, home improvements, the services of prostitutes, and relatively smaller amounts of cash.

“Mr. Russo was more obvious about what he was doing,” Lioi said. Dimora’s conduct was more “insidious and perhaps even dishonest for those who paid for his help. … Sometimes he could help, sometimes he could not. Sometimes [the help was] no more than a phone call that could’ve been made by the briber just as effectively.”

In other words, the smallness of the favors he granted didn’t matter.  The bribes, the exploitation of his office, did.

“The breadth and depth of corruption of county government… was staggering,” Lioi said, “and the destruction left in its wake is incalculable.”

With that, Lioi sentenced Dimora to 20 years in prison for the bribery, extortion and fraud counts; 3 for false tax returns; and 5 for obstructing justice – 28 years in all. Dimora, 57 and in poor health, is stuck in federal prison until 2040, when he would be 85.

Dimora turned away from the judge, looked toward his family in the gallery, and shook his head.

It was a stunning sentence, one of the largest known punishments in a federal public corruption case. And the defense has a point – it is a very long sentence for someone who may have stolen nothing from the public treasury.

This week’s painstaking loss calculations in court identified only two schemes that definitely cost the taxpayers: Dimora’s maneuverings to restore $300,000 in grants for a halfway house and hire two plumbers. The two sides also argued about a decrepit parking garage the county bought for $5 million in a 2-1 vote at Dimora’s urging, but the $30,000 bribe may have merely hastened a decision the county staff was eager to make.

Compare that to Russo, who steered a bloated contract that funded $8 million in bribes, including $1.2 million in kickbacks for himself. He got 21 years and will probably get that reduced.

But there is one more difference between Dimora and Russo.

At the end of the hearing, when the judge ordered Dimora remanded to the custody of the marshals, Dimora dismissed her words with a wave of his hand. He stood and grumbled to his lawyers. His voice was quiet, across the room, but I think I heard him right.

“Bullshit,” he said. “This justice system is fucked, totally.”

He waved to his family. “See you guys. Don’t know when.”

Then he stepped, his walker clicking on the floor, past the prosecutor’s table. He turned to the two FBI agents.

“You’re good storytellers,” he said bitterly. “I hope you guys are happy. Good job. Good job.”

That’s the difference between Dimora and Russo.  Jimmy Dimora still doesn’t think he did anything wrong.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Dimora’s Last Tango in Akron: The Math of Corruption

The door opened, and Jimmy Dimora entered the courtroom, slowly, still hurt from a fall in prison, leaning on a walker that clicked with each step. Without his once-familiar beard, his face looked beaky.

He didn’t look much like the man who’d spent a dozen years as Greater Cleveland’s most powerful politician, controlling the local Democratic Party and voting on Cuyahoga County’s billion-dollar budget. Until he sat down at the defense table and took his glasses from his shirt pocket. Then, for a moment, Dimora looked like he had just 1½ years ago, sitting at the county commissioners’ table, ready for the proceedings.

The judge read the 32 corruption crimes he committed, including 22 counts of bribery and extortion. Then came a legal matter that disappointed everyone hoping for swift justice or swift mercy.

Dimora’s attorneys kicked off a marathon attempt to buy the ailing 57-year-old defendant more of a chance to get out of prison alive someday. The math of corruption took over most of the day: how much Dimora was really bribed, whether the bribe or the thing acquired by bribing him should be held against him in the judge’s “loss calculation.”

Along the way, we got our final reminders of several of Dimora’s most ridiculous sprees of greed, gluttony, and lust.

At one point, defense attorney Andrea Whitaker found herself arguing that Dimora didn’t deserve blame for all the cash paid to prostitutes during a casino trip to Windsor. “The woman -- I don’t remember her real name, her stage name was Egypt -- performed dances for various people on the trip,” she pointed out.

At another point, assistant prosecutor Antoinette Bacon insisted she had counted the hooker money right. “This is only the amount the prostitutes received to service commissioner Dimora,” she asserted.

Later, the talk turned to food. “The value of the bribe should be the full value of the Delmonico’s dinner,” Bacon argued.

The Beanie Wells jersey Dimora bid $3,600 on at a Cornerstone of Hope auction also made an encore appearance. Whitaker argued it was only worth $200, since it’s only attracted $50 on eBay. (Update, 7/31: Maybe I misunderstood. There are many, many Beanie Wells jerseys on eBay, and none are fetching $3,600.)

The prosecutors had run up the score, putting their “loss calculation” at a massive $3 million. Dimora’s attorneys fought back using the few arguments left in his tattered defense: that he’d only put a good word in for his friends, not steered any contracts; that he hadn’t done anything that cost the county money.

With some schemes, Judge Sara Lioi agreed. In the sex-for-favors conviction involving Bedford courts employee Gina Coppers, prosecutors wanted to include Coppers’ salary as a “loss.” The defense countered that Coppers has actually been a good employee. Lioi sided with Dimora on that, holding him liable only for the $121 cost of the room at the Holiday Inn in Independence where he rendezvoused with Coppers.

All the while, Dimora’s family took up two rows in the courtroom gallery, wife and kids in front. Behind them sat the extended family: a row of seven Italian-looking guys and one woman, a sort of peanut gallery that scoffed when Bacon made an especially strident argument or Lioi added another dollar figure to Dimora’s tab. At one point, the judge held Dimora liable for $6,000 that businessman Ferris Kleem gave Frank Russo as part of the three men’s conspiracy. “What’s Jimmy got to do with that?” a relative exclaimed.

Dimora’s argument that his corruption hadn’t tapped the county treasury held up well, with two exceptions. Lioi ruled that county judges had decided to deny the Alternatives Agency halfway house any more funding, until Dimora called the chief judge and talked him into giving it another $300,000. And Jay Ross, former central services director, hadn’t wanted or needed to hire two union plumbers during a budget crisis, but Dimora had ordered him to, the judge recalled.

“Mr. Dimora gave new life to, resurrected, recreated Alternatives Agency [funding] and the plumbing positions on his own,” the judge said.

By the end, the defense had knocked the prosecutors’ $3 million “loss calculation” down to $451,000. That may inch him down a bit in the sentencing guidelines – or it may not, says Mike Tobin, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor.

A gloomy buzz passed across the gallery when Lioi said the sentencing hearing would go into tomorrow. But first, the defense called five character witnesses, to revive an even more tattered part of Dimora’s defense – Jimmy the nice guy.

The witnesses all described the Dimora that Cleveland’s political culture was still willing to recall three years ago when I reported my profile of Dimora, “Life of the Party.”

Old family friend Andrew Getner testified that Dimora “never missed a funeral” and remembered his relatives’ names after not seeing them for 20 years. Dimora’s daughter and next-door neighbor portrayed him as a loving family man.

William J. Day, a lawyer from Brecksville, testified that Dimora had gotten his developmentally disabled son jobs with the county recorder and auditor’s offices (Frank Russo’s office, I presume). Was his son still working there? Day was asked. “No, the new regime has slaughtered thousands of employees,” Day replied.

Bedford Heights city council president Phillip Saunders started strong, describing how Dimora smoothed over tense race relations when African-Americans moved to town in the ‘80s. But soon he was reduced to raving about Dimora’s friendliness with seniors at the Jimmy Dimora Community Center and his schmoozing ways on the rubber-chicken circuit. “Jimmy Dimora could eat!” Saunders exclaimed. “He was eating pancakes, two or three dinners a day, because he had to go to these programs.”

Monday, July 23, 2012

Feds say Dimora took 100 bribes, ask for 22+ year sentence

One week to go before Jimmy Dimora is sentenced to federal prison for his crimes, and the feds have filed their long-awaited sentencing memo.  What more could they possibly tell us about the Big D and his comical depravity?

Except for a footnote about case-fixing, not much.  Instead, the prosecutors unleash their rage at Dimora on the public's behalf.  They say he took more than 100 bribes from 11 people, worth more than $250,000.  They credit him with destroying the government he led by inspiring voters to throw it out in disgust.  They say he undermined our confidence in government, disrespected his family, mocked charity, and committed two of the seven deadly sins.  They really pile it on.

Their goal? "This landmark corruption case compels a landmark corruption sentence," they say.  They want Dimora, age 57, to go to prison for more than 22 years.

Some of the best quotes:

Dimora corrupted nearly every aspect of his job and of County Government. He accepted bribes in return for County jobs, loans, grants, contracts, fixing court cases and gaining an advantage with County agencies.

The effects of Dimora’s conduct bloating the public payrolls, giving preferential treatment to certain contractors and loan applicants, and tipping the scales of justice to benefit some litigants over others, have been, and will be, felt for years.

Dimora built a backyard resort on the backs of the County taxpayers. He funded his 7 gambling trips, poker parties, secret trysts, and expensive meals, from the County till. This behavior is particularly outrageous because it occurred during a time that demanded fiscal constraint, when the County was cutting services and asking financially strapped taxpayers to pass additional tax levies.

Nothing in Dimora’s upbringing excuses, justifies or otherwise mitigates against strong punishment. The Presentence Investigation Report detailed that Dimora enjoyed an enviable childhood. One can only conclude that he was simply motivated to commit these crimes by greed and the lust for power.

Credit for the prose appears to belong to Antoinette Bacon, the assistant U.S. attorney who handled much of the government's case at trial.

Bacon is also good at making lists and charts.  Here is her highly entertaining list of the 18 bribes Ferris Kleem gave Dimora:
  • Plasma TV $ 2,500.00
  • Television discount $ 200.00
  • Ring $ 200.00
  • Refrigerator $ 1,149.90
  • Cash to Dimora for refrigerator $ 1,150.00
  • Cash for Dimora Rolex $ 2,000.00
  • Suite at Mirage Hotel for Dimora $ 1,154.86
  • Cash for Las Vegas for Dimora $ 6,000.00
  • Cash to Frank Russo for Las Vegas $ 6,000.00
  • Food, beverages and cabana rentals in Las Vegas $ 2,260.87
  • Casino gaming chips for Dimora $ 3,425.00
  • Casino gaming chips for Kelley $ 1,000.00
  • Dinner at Prime $ 2,219.90
  • Suzzanne Michaels $ 1,000.00
  • Trout Club Dinner $ 1,496.54
  • Wine for Trout Club dinners $ 1,000.00
  • Mallorca Dinner $ 4,000.00
  • Teamz Lunch $ 227.72
  • Total Bribes $ 36,984.79
The feds also note that Dimora kept up his limo-riding, stripper-loving, backyard-styling ways all throughout 2005, when Nate Gray, Cuyahoga County's previous king of political corruption, was facing trial. 
  • $13,098.68 in home improvements from DAS
  • $1,362 in limousine services from Payne and his law firm
  • $300 in female entertainment from Payne
  • $600 in home improvements from Reliance Mechanical
  • $705 in home improvements from Local 55 and Rybak and
  • $1,079.14 tiki bar from FNA and Randazzo.
Gray's 15 years in the clink weren't enough to deter Dimora, they note. So they figure 22 or more should scare the next political crook.

Dimora gets a chance to respond, and his lawyers do have a few points they can make. Dimora didn't have his hand in the till like the feds say, they'll argue.  No one showed him stealing county money for himself, not directly; he just nudged contracts and loans in his friends' directions.  At one point, the feds cite a cement contract that went to Kleem's Phoenix Cement, but everyone agrees Phoenix was the low bidder.  Dimora's lawyers will likely argue, again, that everything he voted on was vetted by county staff and the other commissioners.

It actually is hard to find any clear mistake the county made because Dimora got bribed to make it happen -- though the $5 million purchase of the decrepit parking garage on Prospect comes close. 

Still, this is not a case where the defendant will get much sympathy, from the judge or anyone.  The prosecutors know it.  Here's how they respond to his plea to get let out of the joint to see a doctor:

Defendant has provided no evidence that his medical conditions cannot be diagnosed and treated by the Bureau of Prisons. Moreover, many of his health problems appear to be weight-related and should ease as Dimora loses weight on a prison diet.

FitzGerald era vs. Dimora era: 9 ways the new county HQ hunt is different

Ed FitzGerald's administration is ready to deal. Cuyahoga County put 13 properties up for sale today and asked landlords to offer proposals for a new county headquarters.

FitzGerald wants to get out of the current administration building and unload the Ameritrust complex, the white elephant we ended up with when Jimmy Dimora and Co. bumbled their way through their own headquarters hunt almost nine years ago.

To the layman (me), the new RFPs read like they were written by pros -- smart guys experienced in commercial downtown real estate. (That'd be CBRE, the county's consultants.) They left me feeling nostalgic for the era when our county ran a little more fast and loose.

So I dug up the RFP from the wildly improvised 2003-2005 headquarters search, and I'm posting it for download here, in case you'd like to compare the old and new ways of doing business in Cuyahoga County. Here are some of the big differences I noticed.

1. Old way: Be transparent at the start and secretive at the end. New way: Vice-versa. The 2003 search started out promising, with all the developers' proposals released to the public right away. The mistakes came at the end, in summer 2005, when Tim Hagan and Jimmy Dimora rejected a lease deal and directly negotiated an as-is purchase of the Ameritrust complex from Dick Jacobs, asbestos and all.

Today, when a once-burned public is paying more attention, we won't have much info to go on at first. "Your proposal will be kept confidential during the negotiating process," the RFP promises, but "ultimately this information will become public when a transaction is submitted by the Cuyahoga County Executive Branch to Cuyahoga County Council for its approval."

This is an improvement over what we heard last week, that the public wouldn't get to see the proposals until a contract was signed.  But it means we'll only have a short window of opportunity to see the details of the administration's plans and debate the other options before the county commits.

2. Old search: For 600,000 to 700,000 square feet.  New search: for about 225,000.  FitzGerald wants a much smaller county headquarters than Dimora and company did.  One reason is that Dimora liked building big, while FitzGerald is cultivating a reputation for shrinking government. He's laid off plenty of people.

But that's not the main reason for the smaller HQ.  The county is seeking to relocate fewer offices this time.  Many agencies, such as the Board of Elections, will stay put.  The idea is to get out of the current county building fast, in hopes a developer will buy the site and add a hotel to the convention center.

3. Lease old, not build new.  The old government looked at leases in existing downtown buildings, then switched gears at Tim Hagan's urging and bought the Ameritrust complex. Hagan wanted the government to own and control its own home.  He and Dimora wanted to tear the Ameritrust Tower down and build something new themselves.

FitzGerald's RFP allows for the options of buying a building or having a developer build a new office for the county.  But leasing an existing building is clearly the favored option.  Building owners are repeatedly required to explain what they'd do as landlords.  Under "New Building Option," the county insists that developers would need to line up lenders in advance and have the building built by March 2014.  Not easy.

4. Old way: Just keep it under $7 million a year.  New way: Break down the costs and cut us some breaks.  The 2003 request asked developers to "detail all and total costs," which "should be similar to current County occupancy costs" of $7 million a year. But the commissioners -- especially Dimora, who wasn't very good at math -- took their eye off the details when they bought the Ameritrust Tower as is, not realizing the move would no longer pay for itself.

FitzGerald's RFP gets into detail: it leaves a space on the form for a rent discount, asks about utility costs, insists the landlord offer janitors and maintenance, and even asks the landlord to pick up the county's costs of moving, "including packing cartons."

5. Broker's fee set in advance.  The county is still smarting from the $3 million paid to its real estate broker, the former Staubach Co., after the Ameritrust purchase.  This time the developer is asked to "outline the standard procuring broker fee offered by Landlord."

6. Package deals encouraged.  FitzGerald clearly doesn't want developers to pick over the 13 county buildings up for sale, bid on some and leave us stuck with the rest.  He'd rather the county's future landlord also take our surplus buildings off our hands.

"Any aggressive offers by Landlord to acquire property shall be a consideration of the [headquarters] transaction, and taken into account during the evaluation," it says. (The 2003 RFP included a line about proposed reuse or purchase of county buildings too, but it wasn't as forceful.)

7. Changing downtown.  Dimora, Hagan, and Peter Lawson Jones justified buying the Ameritrust complex by saying a county headquarters there would revitalize the East 9th and Euclid area.  This time the county will consider the effects on downtown of selling its properties.  Potential buyers have to tell the county what they'll do with the property, how much they plan to invest in it, and whether any renovations will be eco-friendly. (How they'll be held to that once they buy it isn't clear.)

8. Be good!  "Please confirm Landlord and its management company have completed Cuyahoga County ethics training and registered as such with the Cuyahoga County Agency of Inspector General," the new RFP reads.

9. Old way: Insist the deal pay for itself, then forget to do the math.  New way: Just make the best deal.  The 2003 RFP included the goal, "Complete this project with the use of existing resources only, with no additional financial burden on the taxpayers of Cuyahoga County."  Instead, the commissioners pulled the plug after sinking $45 million into the Ameritrust complex, when they realized their plan would permanently add to the cost of government.

The new RFP doesn't make any promises about the budget.  FitzGerald has said that consolidating into new offices will save the county money in the short and long terms.  But it'll be up to him, and us, to do the math before the deals are inked.

(photo from clevelandskyscrapers.com)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Can FitzGerald keep county HQ proposals secret? Should he?

I saw the first signs a few months ago, but I never thought it'd be this bad.  Ed FitzGerald is asserting the right to lease a new Cuyahoga County headquarters, sell 13 public buildings, and maybe string together a mega-deal to do it all with one developer, without letting the public see the proposals until the contracts are signed.*

In other words, the county executive is launching a new headquarters search that's less transparent than the infamous Ameritrust deal.  And a four-year-old state law may allow him to do it.

I could barely believe this front-page Plain Dealer story today, "Details on county proposals won't be released to public."  But an email to me from county law director Majeed Makhlouf confirms it's true. Makhlouf quoted from a 2008 law that allows counties to use competitive sealed proposals instead of competitive sealed bidding to award contracts. The law says (bolds mine):
In order to ensure fair and impartial evaluation, proposals and any documents or other records related to a subsequent negotiation for a final contract that would otherwise be available for public inspection and copying under section 149.43 of the Revised Code shall not be available until after the award of the contract.
That law ought to anger anyone who cares about open government.

I knew secrecy was building around the county's big move earlier this year, when I asked for the appendix to a report about the county's real estate holdings and got a call from FitzGerald, who politely explained why he wasn't giving it to me.

His argument, that the report's details were a "trade secret," was fishy. He also said the appendix would give away property appraisals and hurt the county's bargaining position, a practical argument that made more sense. (See my earlier post here.)

But now, he and Makhlouf are asserting the right to tell us nothing about the bargaining positions of developers competing for a public contract -- "so officials could negotiate the best deal for selling property," as the PD paraphrases. In other words, to preserve the county's ability to play developers against each other by keeping them in the dark and bluffing!

I thought the whole point of creating a new government was to create more accountability and openness.

Think about the last search for a new county headquarters.  It was botched so badly, it cost the public tens of millions of dollars and helped bring down the old form of government.

My story about the Ameritrust affair ("Tower Play," June 2008) showed that the county commissioners bought the Ameritrust complex thinking their plan would save money, but it would actually have permanently added to the cost of government. That became clear if you dug deeply enough into the county's assumptions about the costs of leasing vs. building, the costs of financing, and the costs of maintaining, renovating, and operating offices. But if you just trusted the commissioners' assertions, you had no way of knowing they were wrong.

This time, we'll know even less about the county's plans to move. Because the administration chose to request "proposals" instead of "bids," it looks like almost all the important information will be kept secret, in closed executive sessions of the county council and in documents locked up until the contract ink is dry.*

"So I guess we're just supposed to trust the process?" Laura Johnston, the PD's county government reporter, tweeted in frustration yesterday. 

Today I talked to David Marburger, a top media lawyer in town and co-author of Access With Attitude: An Advocate's Guide to Freedom of Information in Ohio. He said the sealed proposals law may not be as black-and-white as Makhlouf says. He read the law and pointed to another section of it:
A county contracting authority shall not use competitive sealed proposals for contracts for construction, design, demolition, alteration, repair, or reconstruction of a building... 
What if the county chooses a developer's proposal to construct a brand-new headquarters building? Could it still keep the proposals secret? Or, say the county chooses to lease an existing downtown office building (as most people think it will). What if the lease calls for the landlord to alter, repair, or reconstruct the building before the county moves in? Can the proposals still be withheld?

Either way, Marburger calls the law bad policy.

"Officials are allowed to commit to a contract before the public can see what the options were and influence the outcome," he says. "That can't be in the public's interest. ... By then, it's too late to even raise questions."

*Update, 7/23: FitzGerald says the proposals will be released to the public one step before the contracts are signed, when the negotiated deals go to the county council for approval.  The county request for proposals says so too.

This is an improvement, though it leaves the public with a short window of opportunity to see and debate the options before the contracts are signed.  See item #1 in my new blog post.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Roldo: Will Plain Dealer endorse Romney?

Veteran alternative journalist Roldo Bartimole is out with a prediction: He thinks the Plain Dealer will endorse Mitt Romney for president -- and maybe set off another controversy like the paper’s embarrassing 2004 non-endorsement.

He doesn’t explain his prediction, but his spider sense is tingling. I think he may be on to something.

The PD boldly will endorse Sen. Sherrod Brown for the U. S. Senate. A Democrat over Republican. Josh Mandel, Brown’s opponent, has been shooting himself in the foot. The Pee Dee has been taking note of these self-inflicted wounds. ...

Having shown itself as willing to nominate a Democrat, I figure the editorial board (which is a misnomer for “the boss” Terry Egger) will nominate Mitt the Romney for President. Making Republicans (and Kevin O’Brien) happy. …

I read the Plain Dealer’s editorials, just like Roldo does, and I think he’s catching on to a trend. But first, a little background, from Roldo’s column:

You may remember the debacle in 2004 after the board chose John Kerry as its Presidential endorsee. Oh, wait. Publisher Alex Machaskee then ordered it changed to the other guy – George Bush. After some internal wrangling, the PD choose the silliest way out. The paper punted. It didn’t endorse anyone. It made a fool of the paper nationally.

After Terrance Egger succeeded Machaskee in 2006, he was often asked about the 2004 non-endorsement. Though Egger is a Republican who nudged a liberal editorial board toward the center as St. Louis Post-Dispatch publisher, he reassured Clevelanders he wouldn’t pull a Machaskee.

“We will endorse,” Egger told a City Club audience in August 2006. “Whose decision that will be will be the editorial board’s. And I mean that.”

He was implying that, as publisher, he wouldn’t use his authority to overrule the rest of the board. (See my Jan. 2007 story "The New Dealer" for more on this.)

Sure enough, when the paper endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, the editorial carried an unusual tagline that named all the members of the usually anonymous editorial board who voted on the endorsement.

The PD’s endorsements have swung back to the right since then. The paper recommended John Kasich for governor in 2010 and endorsed last year’s Issue 2, also known as Senate Bill 5, which would’ve severely restricted the power of public-employee unions. Both editorials sounded strained, written by committee, like unsuccessful efforts to reconcile deep internal divisions.

The Kasich endorsement called on the governor to cut out his “Red Bull style” and his habits as a “Fox News provocateur.” And the pro-SB5 editorial was probably the paper’s worst-argued in years. Naively, it called for Kasich to go back to the bargaining table if voters approved SB5 to negotiate away its most divisive provisions. But the law would’ve given Kasich total victory over the unions, leaving them with no leverage and the governor with no reason to bargain. It was as if the Plain Dealer had no idea how power works.

Roldo implies Egger controls the endorsements. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s safe to say that Egger is one of the board’s more conservative members. He’s likely to have played a major role in the Kasich and SB5 decisions.

Follow the trend from the last two years, and it’s easy to imagine the PD dismissing Obama as a disappointment and endorsing Romney, while trying to appease the dissenters with a rose-colored call for him to embrace his Massachusetts-moderate past once elected.

Editorial page endorsements aren’t as influential as they were in newspapers’ golden age, especially in presidential elections. A thousand voices are deluging Ohioans with screams and roars and tweets about Romney and Obama. Voters can make up their minds about a president without the Big Voice of the Big City Paper weighing in.

Still, Clevelanders’ reaction to the 2004 cop-out suggests they'll still care what the Plain Dealer says. Major endorsements let readers know where an editorial page stands, what its values are. And as Roldo says, the paper’s in an interesting position: it has a centrist editorial page in a Democratic metro area, so a Romney endorsement could anger a lot of readers.

So, yes, Clevelanders will pay attention to the paper’s presidential decision. Even if it says more about the editorial page than it does about Obama or Romney.

Update, 7/23: A Plain Dealer editorial yesterday called on Romney to release more tax returns.  "He is basing his candidacy largely on his success in the private sector and first-hand knowledge of job creation," it says. "Voters expect and deserve a look behind the curtain."  Hmm, is that a hint of skepticism?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Port wants new levy, Mall-to-lakefront bridge

Cleveland's port authority is making a bold new pitch to voters.  It'll ask for a property tax increase on the November ballot that would greatly expand its budget and reassert itself dramatically in the debate about the lakefront's future.  It's proposing to build a pedestrian bridge over the Shoreway to connect the lakefront to the downtown Mall.

Bridging the downtown bluff to get pedestrians, bicyclists and conventioneers from downtown to the Rock Hall and back, has been an eternal, elusive goal of Cleveland lakefront dreamers.  Mayor Frank Jackson wants to do it, but has had trouble finding the money.  Now it looks like he and county executive Ed FitzGerald have hit upon a way to fund it.

{I'm guessing this is why Jackson and FitzGerald have called a press conference for tomorrow promising "a major development in the progress of the Cleveland Medical Mart and Convention Center project."} [Update, 7/13: Oops, bad guess! They're announcing that the convention center will open early.]

A winter-proof pedestrian bridge that takes conventioneers to the Rock Hall and the Science Center joined the wish list once the Mall was chosen as the convention center and Medical Mart site. But there was no money for it.

Today's letter (pdf) from port CEO Will Friedman and chair Bob Smith lays it out.  They're asking for a 0.67-mill property tax levy, up from the port's current 0.13 mills.  That'd be a 480 percent increase, though 0.67 mills would still be small compared to the taxes Cuyahoga County homeowners pay for the Metroparks (1.81 mills) and tri-C (3.08 mills).  Owners of a $100,000 home would pay $20 a year for the port authority, up from $3.50.

Here's how the port wants to spend the tax increase:

• Stabilizing the Cuyahoga River's eroding riverbank on Franklin Hill near Ohio City: $43 million

• All-weather pedestrian bridge from Mall to lakefront: $25 million

• A new way to dispose of the sediment from dredging the shipping channel: $12.5 million

• Improving truck and pedestrian access to Whiskey Island, including a Lake Link Trail bridge over the railroad tracks: $6 million

• Improving the port cargo terminals: $3 million

I think I see what the port, Jackson, and FitzGerald are trying to do here.  Two big-ticket items are important but unexciting projects.  Take the eroding riverbank.  Drive down by Hoopple's and the Columbus Road Bridge and you'll see -- an entire road, Riverbed Street, that used to link Duck Island and the Flats West Bank is closed because it's collapsing.  Raising taxes to dispose of sediment, part of the port's core job, is even less sexy.

So the port and its backers add the lakefront bridge, which would make Cleveland a more attractive convention destination and could help attract a developer and residents to the proposed new neighborhood behind Browns Stadium.  They also add the Whiskey Island roads and bridge, which would benefit industry and please the cyclists and public-space advocates who want to connect the Towpath to the lake.

That's pretty smart political packaging and coalition-building.  Still, the plan will be closely scrutinized by the skeptics who questioned the motives behind the previous port regime's efforts to develop the waterfront. 

FitzGerald and Jackson found themselves in a bit of a quiet standoff late last year over downtown and lakefront issues. Looks like they've hashed through their differences and formed an alliance. It'll be very interesting to see what the mayor and exec decide together when they tackle what to do at the Mall and Public Square and with the casino tax money.  The politics of downtown development are shifting.

The port plan also could have a small effect on the levy campaign for the Cleveland schools.  Someone is bound to complain that Jackson is supporting two property tax increases on the November ballot.  But that complaint won't be too loud, simply because the schools levy is going to dwarf the port levy -- it could be a 9 to 11 mill increase, compared to a half-mill increase for the port.  The enormous school levy will stand or fall on its own.

Clevelanders now have a local issue to debate in November, something bigger than letting the mayor pick the fire chief or letting the county executive control the board of revision.  An exciting and controversial port levy?  Looks like it.

Music clubs tax cut passes 19-0; 'big breakthrough,' says Beachland owner

The tweet hit my iPhone just before last night's Cloud Nothings and Herzog Rock Hall show: After a year of protest and lobbying by music fans, Cleveland City Council has slashed the admissions tax for small concert clubs.

Cleveland's 8 percent tax on ticket sales will be eliminated for music clubs that hold 150 people or less. It'll be cut in half for clubs that hold 151 to 750.

"It's a big breakthrough," said Beachland Ballroom owner Cindy Barber, who was at the Rock Hall's summer show in the plaza last night, looking happy and relieved. The tax cut will be a huge help for the Beachland, she said: its tavern holds 148 people, its ballroom 500.

The 19-0 vote breaks an impasse between the clubs and Mayor Frank Jackson, who started collecting the once-forgotten tax in 2009 and didn't want to give it up.

But city councilpeople are music fans too, it turns out.

"Everybody on council was talking about sneaking into the Agora underage," Barber said. "It was priceless."

Key to the compromise was city council president Martin Sweeney. Barber says Sweeney announced the two-tiered tax cut idea in Plain Dealer editorial writer Chris Evans' Tuesday column, after Evans put him on the spot with a phone call. The pen still has some power in Cleveland, it seems.

The Beachland and Peabody's still need to work out an agreement with City Hall over back taxes they didn't collect. The Beachland's tax bill stands at $400,000, about half of it penalties and interest.  Sweeney wants to work out a compromise on that too, Barber says.

Politically, the tax cut is significant because it's one of the few times City Council has defied Jackson during his 6 1/2 years as mayor.  The 19-0 vote is veto-proof.

Sweeney, normally a supporter of Jackson's agenda, gave the mayor some of what he wanted (the tax isn't gone). But he made Cleveland's clubs more competitive with those in Lakewood and Columbus (no tax) and Cleveland Heights (3 percent).

The tax cut will also boost the hipster cred of Joe Cimperman, Matt Zone, Jay Westbrook, and Mike Polensek, the four councilmen who sponsored admissions-tax legislation last year to support the clubs in their wards. "Thank you @clecitycouncil Marty Sweeney for this legislation passing common sense music venue taxes!" Cimperman tweeted triumphantly yesterday.

Update, 7/18: Roldo Bartimole, who has an elephant's memory about the city's tax earmarks, points out that the admissions tax went to 8 percent from 6 percent in the 1990s to help pay for Cleveland Browns Stadium.  He defends the new tax cut, arguing that small music clubs shouldn't subsidize stadium bonds.  (To read him, click here and scroll down to "Can We Remember What We Did Now That It Hurts.")