Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bedford judge isn't a pimp and didn't take a bribe

*Updated 9/4 with further verdicts. 

Remember how Bedford Judge Harry Jacob III was accused of bribery and promoting prostitution – a charge usually used against pimps? Turns out that story, told by prosecutors in December, didn’t hold up in court.

At Jacob’s trial yesterday, Common Pleas Court Judge Brian Corrigan threw out the bribery charge and three charges of promoting prostitution before closing arguments. He ruled the state hadn’t made its case.

The embattled Jacob still faces 11 charges, including felonies involving tampering with records.* But so far, Jacob’s defense lawyers seem to be having some success with their strategy: admit their client had sex with prostitutes but argue he committed no other crimes.

The trial exposed holes in the prosecution’s key charges that I first revealed in my March story “The Bedford Judge and the Brothel Bust.

Most of the case centers on the events of April 20, 2012, when Jacob allowed a young woman to resolve an outstanding traffic case by paying a $250 fine. Prosecutors claimed the woman, who was engaged in prostitution, had sex with Jacob in exchange for special treatment in court.

But Corrigan noted that $250 is actually a pretty typical fine for a traffic ticket. He ruled that the judge and the woman never agreed to sex for favors. “There’s no testimony he received any discount or other favorable consideration,” Corrigan said.

The woman’s story has shifted, so that may be a reason the bribery charge failed. But the three charges of promoting prostitution -- violating Ohio’s anti-pimping law – were always a stretch, as various local defense attorneys warned me for my March story.

“I would be cautious in believing that Judge Jacob engaged in the classic function of a pimp,” attorney Terry Gilbert said then. “Usually, in these cases, there are over-indictments.”

Those charges were a puzzle back then – what did prosecutors mean when they claimed Jacob had “supervised and induced” the activities of two prostitutes? Turns out that accusation was based on a rather novel interpretation of the law: Jacob paid women for threesomes.

As Corrigan put it delicately, the law targets “more of an operational aspect of prostitution, rather than what we see in this particular case.”

Now all the felony charges from the original indictment are gone. But Jacob could still be found guilty of corrupting his office, because prosecutors filed two superceding indictments this spring. Some of the newer felony charges allege he fudged court records. He also faces six misdemeanor charges of soliciting a prostitute. Corrigan will issue verdicts in about two weeks.* (Jacob waived his right to a jury trial.)

Prosecutors seem to have proven this much: Jacob’s lust for prostitutes made him stupid. It led him to break the law and violate judicial ethics. It will surely cost him his job. (He’s suspended from the bench pending the trial’s outcome.) Trial testimony showed Jacob paid for sex, heard the traffic case of a woman he had sex with, and visited the local brothel, Studio 54 Girls, on his lunch break. No judge’s career on the bench will survive that, nor should it.

But Corrigan’s ruling yesterday suggests that prosecutors initially overcharged Jacob. That’s significant because the Bedford indictments were the first big case for Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty’s new public corruption unit. (The other defendant, former Bedford law director Kenneth Schuman, pleaded guilty last month to one of eight counts: having an unlawful interest in a public contract. Prosecutors agreed to drop seven other counts against Schuman, including bribery, theft in office, and obstructing justice.)

A prosecutor who overcharges in public corruption cases may be an improvement over one who sees and hears no evil among his fellow elected officials. But the next time a public official gets indicted, it’ll be worth remembering how this case started and how it’s ending.

Update, 9/4: Corrigan found Jacob guilty of five misdemeanors: two counts of falsifying court records and three counts of soliciting prostitution. (Read the WKYC-TV story here.) Jacob was found not guilty on all of the state's felony charges.

McGinty's office blasted Corrigan's verdicts in an angry statement. Jacob "disgraced his city and demeaned the judiciary of this state," it says.

"We plan to appeal the court's erroneous conclusions," the statement says. But not-guilty verdicts are final.

McGinty spokesman Joe Frolik tells me, "We plan to challenge the reasoning Judge Corrigan cited for some of his verdicts, but we understand that we cannot overturn them. We would hope that the appeals court might instruct future courts on how to apply the law."

Friday, August 8, 2014

FitzGerald at the BMV: WTF?

Ed FitzGerald is not like most people. When he wants something – say, a new job in politics – his will to power is ferocious, even beyond the ambition of the average politician.

And when he doesn’t want to do something, it turns out, his stubbornness surpasses that of most mortals.

“I procrastinated,” FitzGerald says, explaining why he went ten years without a regular driver’s license.

Ever since the county executive’s epic scofflaw news broke, I’ve been trying to think of a rational reason for it. I started imagining a detective-novel character with a fear of facial-recognition technology, whose learner’s permit masks an exotic secret past involving a scandalous college side job and a surveillance video.

But no.

“Eventually I went down to the BMV and waited in line like everybody else does,” the Democratic candidate for Ohio governor told WKYC-TV’s Tom Beres. “That’s not the most pleasant experience in the world all the time, but that’s no excuse.”

FitzGerald’s car trouble is taking over the governor’s race. The Plain Dealer’s investigation of why FitzGerald was parked with a Irish woman before dawn has gotten tawdrier, devolving into a he-said/cop-said about whether they were in the front or back seats. But the Columbus Dispatch’s follow-up, that FitzGerald showed the Westlake police a learner’s permit? That’s the truly unique development here.

Most politicians’ mistakes repeat ancient themes. Bribes, sex, cover-ups, thievery, wife-beating, hookers. Or just everyday cronyism, attack ads, lies, gaffes, broken promises.

But driving 3,650 days without a license? That’s such a weird slip, it’s hard to process. Avoiding an easy responsibility reveals something weird about someone’s character.

“I’m pretty surprised,” Ellen Connally, the Cuyahoga County council president, told the Dispatch. “Every citizen has to comply with the law. I don’t understand what the slip-up was.”

Exactly. FitzGerald seems to think he’s above the law. The average voter might've forgiven the story of him and the Irish lady, especially since nothing was proven. But avoiding a rule everyone else has to follow hurts any candidate, and especially a former FBI agent and prosecutor. FitzGerald rose to the top of local politics by riding the backlash against the Dimora-Russo corruption scandal. He was the anti-Dimora, the stern stickler for law and ethics. How’s that look now?

When FitzGerald’s been successful as county executive, it’s when he was tightly focused on a task. He seemed driven, even obsessed, with advancing a reform agenda and doing the opposite of what the old government had done. He got the inspector general in place fast, cut the county’s payroll and real-estate holdings and sold the albatross Ameritrust complex.

But when FitzGerald didn’t want to bother with something, you could tell. He went near-AWOL on the stadium sin tax this spring, reluctantly endorsing it but skipping a council hearing and the campaign kickoff. After it passed, he came out with a belated “win tax” proposal, a ham-handed attempt to harness both anti-sin-tax sentiment and fans’ resentment of Cleveland sports loserdom. It got him on sports talk radio, but it was dead on arrival at county council.

In the governor’s race, too, his once-sharp sense of political timing seems off. His reformer persona didn’t seem to translate statewide – even before his car trouble. His campaign often comes off as a series of Democratic clich├ęs, an outdated attempt to revive the anti-Senate Bill 5 coalition of 2011. Sure enough, he hasn’t caught on with the swing voter; the latest poll has him down 12 points.

Maybe the license debacle is a metaphor for FitzGerald’s ultra-ambition. He’s impatient, a man in a hurry who doesn’t stay in one job long. But three months to election day, it's looking like the voters, like a stern BMV clerk, are going to send him to the back of the line.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

FitzGerald and the Irish woman: Who cares?

Soon after Cleveland.com published its story about Ed FitzGerald’s encounter with the Westlake police, the social media snark flew back from Washington, D.C.

“‘She’s part of a delegation from Ireland’ could become 2014’s ‘hiking the Appalachian Trail,’” tweeted one DC reporter.

FitzGerald held a press conference, denied doing anything unseemly, and blamed the story on Republican dirty tricks. His friend says the same.

So the Plain Dealer article leaves readers puzzling — do we believe FitzGerald’s story? He’s giving a friend a ride, in the very early morning, she can’t remember where her hotel is, so they pull over to make calls.…

Who cares?

We all know a bit about sex and human weakness. So let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that FitzGerald and the lady doth protest too much.

So what?

FitzGerald didn’t break a law. He wasn’t cited for anything. The cop wrote, “FitzGerald and friend just talking.” How is an inconclusive police report news?

I’m trying to imagine how Ted Diadiun, the Plain Dealer’s apologist reader representative, will defend the story tomorrow.

Perhaps he’ll say newspapers aren’t “gatekeepers” anymore, that the Republican Governors Association and others were asking for the police report, that it was probably going to come out anyway. Again, so what? Opposition researchers often collect every piece of dirt they can. Their political bosses use some of it and choose not to use some of it. Just collecting it isn’t news.

{Update, 8/9: Here's Diadiun's defense of the story: "It is fair to question the judgment of a candidate for the state's highest office who allows himself to be put in such a compromising position." Sounds like he's saying the press should not just expose infidelity, but even the appearance of infidelity.}

Maybe some Democrats will close their checkbooks and ask why FitzGerald ran for governor with this police report out there. Maybe some moralistic swing voters will say a potential governor shouldn’t be in a parking lot with a woman at 4:30 a.m., whatever the reason. “Judgment questions,” the Plain Dealer calls it.

I don’t buy it. The paper’s story strikes me as a rather empty exercise in sexual investigative reporting.

Whether or not FitzGerald’s friend from Ireland is just a friend has nothing to do with capital punishment, taxes, schools, job growth, local government funding, or anything else the governor does. It’s just gossip. Who cares?