Thursday, September 27, 2012

Romney opens up, Obama surges in NE Ohio visits

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama held rallies only 25 miles apart in Northeast Ohio yesterday -- even as the gap between them in the polls grew. Romney's Bedford Heights appearance reflected his effort to open up to voters more, while Obama rallied like a front-runner before a psyched-up young crowd at Kent State University.  

At Romney's Bedford Heights rally, the candidate fielded questions from audience members about manufacturing and jobs, health care and skilled workforces. (You can read our coverage here.) He also gave interviews to the Plain Dealer, CBS, ABC, and NBC while in Ohio yesterday. It was part of his effort to spend less time fund-raising and more time appealing directly to voters -- "Romney rescue plan: More Mitt," Politico summarized last week.  He's trying to reverse the damaged caused by his comments on the "47 percent" secret video.

Talking to the PD's Henry Gomez, Romney said he needs to win over voters who supported Obama in 2008. He defended his position on the auto bailout, saying he'd supported a managed bankruptcy and had not opposed government aid to GM and Chrysler. He also staked out a moderate position on regulating coal plants. To NBC, Romney cited the universal health-care law he signed in Massachusetts as an example of his empathy for struggling people. He told CBS that he thought the Obama campaign had engaged in "character assassination" of him, but that he wouldn't attack the president harder in response.

To ABC, Romney mostly defended himself from the fallout of his "47 percent" comments, in which he appeared to say almost half of voters won't vote for him because they're dependent on government. Polls have shown him losing ground against Obama since the video surfaced. One poll released yesterday shows Romney 10 points behind Obama in swing-state Ohio, though Obama is up 5.4 percent in an average of all Ohio polls.

In Kent, Obama exuded a front-runner's confidence as he delivered a speech meant to energize support among young voters, a key part of his 2008 coalition. The campaign chose its venue wisely; Kent State journalism students blasted out multimedia saturation coverage, live-blogging, tweeting, and posting multiple articles.

The president described his work to expand student loans and lower their costs. "No family should have to set aside a college acceptance letter because they don’t have the money," he said. He slammed Romney on the issue of women's reproductive rights. He promised that drilling for shale gas in Ohio would continue, while also declaring his support for renewable energy. And despite Romney's protests that his and Obama's positions on the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies weren't as different as Democrats claim, Obama continued to cite the auto bailout as a defining accomplishment.

Most observers think Romney can't win the presidency without winning Ohio. His visit here yesterday showed he's got a comeback strategy. But his change of direction, contrasted with Obama's confident rally, highlighted the fact that his chances in Ohio have grown slim.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012 commenters halt county jail contract'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 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 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 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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Roberts: Vote no on port levy -- and dissolve the port authority

Right now on WCPN's The Sound of Ideas, four guests are making the case for a tax increase for the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority. I just heard port CEO Will Friedman make a case for funding the port's river-dredging plan and Cleveland city councilman Joe Cimperman argue to shore up the eroding Irishtown Bend.

Cleveland Magazine's longtime columnist, Michael D. Roberts, begs to differ. Roberts makes the case against the port levy in "Port Nowhere," his Talking Points column in our October issue.

"The Port Authority is an agency whose time has passed, especially with the creation of a new county government," Roberts writes. He argues that voters should reject the levy on the Nov. 6 ballot to protest Cleveland City Hall's control of the port authority and the meager results of its work on the lakefront. And that's just the start of his argument. He argues that Cleveland's suburbs are under-represented on the port board, and that Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald should sue to dissolve the port authority.

"To ask for an enormous tax increase without altering the status of the Port Authority makes as much sense for voters as giving to Jimmy Dimora’s defense fund," Roberts argues. "City Hall’s control of the Port Authority has not worked."

The port wants to increase its levy from 0.13 mills to 0.67, or $16.50 more a year on a $100,000 house. The increase would help pay for pedestrian and cycling bridges over the Shoreway at North Coast Harbor and over railroad tracks on Whiskey Island, a place to deposit sediment dredged from the rivers, and an effort to stop erosion at Rivertown Bend, near Ohio City. For more about the port levy, read my blog post from July here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Bridge Too Far: Inside the FBI's bridge bomb sting

On the night of April 30, the FBI arrested five scraggly-looking anarchists in the parking lot of the Garfield Heights Applebee's. They'd been caught on video planting what they thought were plastic explosives in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, at the foot of the Route 82 bridge.

Two weeks ago, three of the young anarchists -- Doug Wright, Brandon Baxter, and Connor Stevens -- pleaded guilty in federal court to weapons of mass destruction charges.

Who were these guys? A Cleveland-grown domestic terrorist group, willing to risk killing people to "send a message" to corporations and the government? Or dimwit outsiders lured by an FBI informant? Or both?

I've been looking into the story since the arrests were announced. My story about the case is out now in the October issue of Cleveland Magazine and on our website.

Since their arrest, the story of the so-called "Cleveland 5" has been national news and fuel for political debate. Because the five men were all members of Occupy Cleveland, a Tea Party group held a rally in downtown Cleveland last month, trying to link the Occupy Wall Street movement to terrorism.

Meanwhile, activists and media outlets on the left have compared the case to J. Edgar Hoover's abuses of power more than four decades ago, when the FBI worked to undermine activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

My story follows the five men through their many past encounters with the law -- four of the five have violent pasts -- and describes how their anger and activism looked to their fellow protesters at last October's Occupy Cleveland encampment.

It also takes a close look at the actions of the FBI's informant in the case. Until the five men met the informant, the sixth man at the bridge that night, they appear to have had little means to carry out any of the attacks they dreamed up. They lacked explosives, cars, and arguably, brains. The informant, who had 13 felony convictions, steered them toward an undercover agent's fake explosives, drove them around, hired some of them, and, according to several sources, gave some of them illegal drugs -- while continuing to commit crimes of his own.

My October story, "A Bridge Too Far," gives the public a rare look at thorny questions about counter-terrorism stings. Has the FBI at times overreacted to minor threats and ensnared hapless losers in their stings by escalating the plots it busts? When should the bureau set a trap for a would-be bomber? Who can be trusted to set the trap? And what should happen when a target says he wants to back out?

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