Showing posts with label Bill Mason. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bill Mason. Show all posts

Monday, December 10, 2012

Last Man Standing: My interview with Bill Mason

Just before Bill Mason left the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office this fall, he and I sat down for a final interview.  It got tense.

Others had already asked Mason why he didn't catch Jimmy Dimora or Frank Russo in the act of pocketing bribes and exploiting their office.  So I drilled deeper.  I asked about the times Mason's name came up at the Dimora trial, the wrongdoing ex-sheriff Gerald McFaul carried out in the Justice Center (where Mason also had his office), and Mason's longstanding alliance and friendship with Pat O'Malley, the former county recorder who served federal prison time on an obscenity conviction.

Mason, I discovered, remains loyal to O'Malley even today. "I'm a pretty trustworthy and loyal guy," he said. "Period." Mason said he didn't know that sheriff's deputies were illegally selling tickets to McFaul's clambake fundraisers in the Justice Center. And he denied any involvement with Frank Russo's successful efforts to push J. Kevin Kelley out of the 2003 Parma mayor's race.

The interview ranged across Mason's 14 years in office and touched on his dual reputation as a tough law-and-order prosecutor and shrewd political insider.  We talked about Mason's aggressive pursuit of the death penalty, his work fighting mortgage fraud and child porn, and his memories of the 2000 Sam Sheppard case.  As the spotlight turns to his successor, Tim McGinty, my last talk with Mason provides a look at the state of the prosecutor's office during a time of transition.

You can read my interview with Mason, "Last Man Standing," here and in the December issue of Cleveland Magazine.

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

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

McGinty heads toward victory in prosecutor’s race

Tim McGinty, a maverick former judge, looks like he’s heading toward victory in the race to become Cuyahoga County prosecutor. With early voting results and half the precincts in, he has a commanding lead: 38 percent, with the other candidates ranging from 20 percent to 9 percent.

McGinty parlayed his 29 years’ experience in the county courts as an assistant prosecutor and judge into strong performances in campaign debates and forums and a big lead in campaign donations. His ads and flyers were everywhere as the election neared.

He’s funny and a bit eccentric, with a big independent streak. I know because I once spent a few days with him. He was a judge in a malpractice trial; I was a juror.

The first clue was all the flags tacked up on the courtroom’s painfully monotonous, corrugated brown walls (I wish I could remember which ones… Don’t Tread on Me? Don’t Give Up the Ship?). During the many breaks in the action, McGinty would turn to the jury box and tell us the story behind the flag, trying to keep us entertained and awake.

He knew I was a journalist – that had come out in jury selection – so now and then, as we filed out to the jury room for lunch or whatever, he’d stop me and try to interest me in some story ideas. One was about a long-ago stop-and-frisk in downtown Cleveland that had gone to the U.S. Supreme Court and set a new precedent for how cops detain suspects. The other was his proposals for reforming the local justice system.

For more than a decade, McGinty has been pushing to make Cuyahoga County’s justice system more efficient, pissing off fellow judges and lawyers and railing against bureaucracy. Some of his ideas, such as ending the “straight release” of suspects after booking, have been adopted. Others, such as early and alternative disposition of low-level felonies, are being tried in pilot programs. Some, like 24-hour booking, have been ignored. But if he’s the next prosecutor (he’ll face a long-shot Independent opponent in November), McGinty will surely try to implement them all.

Like most of his opponents, McGinty aimed to convince voters he’d break with the past. Current prosecutor Bill Mason has faced strong criticism for his political alliances and for failing to deter and root out corruption in county government. McGinty didn’t take the lead on the issue – former Cleveland law director Subodh Chandra did – but McGinty did promise to set up an anti-corruption unit, refuse campaign contributions from his employees, and ask employees running for partisan office to take a leave of absence.

As McGinty became the man to beat, Chandra aggressively challenged him on several fronts, especially for prosecuting an innocent man, Michael Green, for rape in 1988. Green was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2001, and McGinty says his case is a cautionary influence on his decisions about eyewitness testimony and scientific testing.

The prosecutor’s race was the first without an incumbent in 56 years, which gave people an unusual opportunity to extract promises from the candidates. And since the real contest was in the Democratic primary, liberal constituencies concerned with civil liberties and racial bias in the justice system tried to extract promises that the candidate would prosecute moderately and not overdo it.

At the City Club debate, McGinty didn’t go as far as some of his opponents. He did say he’d seek the death penalty more judiciously, and not use it as a threat in plea negotiations. He claimed his planned reforms will eliminate the overcharging suspects, a cocky claim his opponents quickly challenged. Asked to name a case he had declined or dismissed as a prosecutor, McGinty didn’t quite do that. Instead, he cited his decision not to seek the death penalty against Eugene “Hacksaw” Canady, who had murdered and dismembered his girlfriend. It was really a non-dismissal. Hacksaw’s still in prison.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Roberts: Corruption should be main issue in prosecutor's race

Next week, for the first time in 56 years, Cuyahoga County voters will choose a new prosecutor.

Since John T. Corrigan won the job in 1956, there's always been an incumbent prosecutor on the ballot. Now, as the county corruption scandal nears its climax in federal court, longtime columnist Michael D. Roberts imagines Corrigan's statue near the Justice Center coming alive with wrath.

"Corrigan would have been enraged at what has passed for government here since his retirement in 1991," Roberts writes in the March issue of Cleveland Magazine. "Chances are, with Corrigan in office, corruption never would have become the epidemic it did."

Roberts argues that corruption should be the major issue in the prosecutors' race. He thinks voters in the March 6 Democratic primary should seize the opportunity to demand a prosecutor who will fight political corruption as aggressively as Corrigan did.

Looking at the Dimora-Russo scandal and the Nate Gray case before it, Roberts argues that Corrigan's successors, Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Bill Mason, neglected their duty to deter wrongdoing by public officials. He sizes up the four most experienced candidates to replace Mason -- James McDonnell, Tim McGinty, Subodh Chandra and Bob Triozzi -- and finds some more eager than others to make political corruption a main target.

Roberts' column, "Office Politics," is essential reading before going to the polls. It's in the March issue of Cleveland Magazine, out now.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mason mum on race to succeed him, but he's watching

I ran into Bill Mason last month at an event and asked him if he was endorsing in the race to succeed him as Cuyahoga County prosecutor. No, he said, and gave the standard diplomatic line of an incumbent laying low, some variation on, "There's a lot of good candidates out there."

Then Mason told me about a vote the Democratic Party ward leaders had taken the day before on whether the party should endorse a candidate. Like an NFL fan obsessing over his betting pool, he recited the numbers from memory:

28 votes to recommend

James McDonnell, 26
Kevin Kelley, 16
Tim McGinty, 7
Subodh Chandra, 4
Bob Triozzi, 1

Mason may not be running or endorsing, but the veteran political pro still loves the game.

I was surprised at the results. McDonnell, a defense attorney and brother of county judge Nancy McDonnell, is the least known of the five candidates. (Kelley is a Cleveland councilman, McGinty a county judge, Chandra and Triozzi former Cleveland law directors.)

Mason said McDonnell had been working hard for the endorsement, spending months making the rounds of ward meetings to introduce himself.

I knew this was true. I met McDonnell this summer at Zagara's grocery store in Cleveland Heights, where he was wearing a James J. McDonnell For Cuyahoga County Prosecutor T-shirt. He told me he was visiting Democratic neighborhood picnics and the like.

Back then I might've agreed with Mark Naymik's description of McDonnell in an October report on the race: "He's amiable but over-confident and is relying on a decent ballot name to propel him." Guess he wasn't over-confident after all. All that hard work is paying off.

Just how much it pays off, we'll see today. The county Democrats are gathering at the Music Hall to vote on whether to endorse in the March primary. A winner could get a big advantage. Ed FitzGerald's party endorsement in last year's executive race helped propel him through the primary.

But it won't be easy for McDonnell or anyone else to get that endorsement. As Mason, the experienced party politicker, pointed out, a candidate needs 60 percent of the vote to get it. So the five-way race could remain wide open until the voters get a chance to decide.

Update, 12/8: No one got the endorsement. Anastasia Pantsios describes the meeting and vote on Ohio Daily Blog: McDonnell had support in the western suburbs, Chandra in the eastern suburbs, Kelley in the city of Cleveland.

Update, 12/15: Mark Naymik reports that every Parma Democrat voted for McDonnell. Hmm...

Friday, September 23, 2011

Primary moves back to March 6; Kucinich-Kaptur, prosecutor races to heat up

UPDATED with Kevin Kelley campaign announcement.

Buried in the news that Ohio Republicans rushed their ruthlessly gerrymandered congressional map through the state House and Senate this week was another change: Ohio's 2012 primary will be on March 6 after all, not May.

So if Mitt Romney and Rick Perry battle to a near-tie this winter, Ohio Republicans may actually get a say in who their presidential candidate will be, as Democrats here did in the tight 2008 race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

It also means campaigning will start soon in two big local races. Dennis Kucinich will be fighting to stay in Congress, forced to compete against fellow progressive Marcy Kaptur from Toledo.

And the race to succeed Bill Mason as county prosecutor will get hot fast.

Cleveland city councilman Kevin Kelley announced today that he's running for the job. (No, he's not Parma's J. Kevin Kelley, of corruption scandal fame.) "Kelley’s plans for the office include expanding the community-based prosecution model, improving efficiencies to save taxpayer dollars, and focusing on quality of life crimes that destroy neighborhoods," his press release says.

I've already blogged that Subodh Chandra, Bob Triozzi, and James McDonnell are running. Recently, Mike McIntyre, in Tipoff, basically confirmed a rumor I've heard: that judge Timothy McGinty is thinking about running too.

Meanwhile, Brent Larkin swiped at Mason in his Sunday column, as if to urge voters to elect a less political prosecutor this time.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Race to replace Mason taking shape; Triozzi resigns to run for prosecutor

People call Labor Day the start of the fall campaign season, but that's much too simple. Here in Cleveland, the 11th Congressional District parade marked the point when two campaign seasons sped up.

The Democrats' campaign to repeal Senate Bill 5 in November got the attention -- it was Labor Day, after all. But it also marked the start of the 2012 race to replace Bill Mason as Cuyahoga County prosecutor.

Subodh Chandra, who was Cleveland law director in the Campbell Administration, and James McDonnell, former North Royalton city prosecutor and brother of county judge Nancy McDonnell, both marched in the parade as candidates for the prosecutor's job.

They launched their campaign websites earlier this summer, but you're forgiven if you didn't know that. Only serious party loyalists have been paying attention so far, with the all-important Democratic primary still eight months away, in May (or March, if the Democrats' petition drive to stop Ohio's new election law succeeds).

Not to be outrun, Cleveland law director Bob Triozzi resigned today and declared he's a candidate too. Triozzi ran for mayor in 2005 and got about 10 percent of the vote, impressing Frank Jackson enough to win City Hall's top-lawyer job as a consolation prize.

Chandra ran for attorney general in 2006 and lost in the primary to Marc Dann, a decision state Democratic primary voters surely regretted after Dann's ridiculous scandals knocked him from office.

It's the first wide-open prosecutor's race in Cuyahoga County in 55 years, the first since Frank Cullitan, Eliot Ness' partner in crusading anti-corruption battles, retired in 1956 and John T. Corrigan won the race to take his place. We've only had three prosecutors since then, and Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Bill Mason both got the job through mid-term appointments by Democratic party insiders.

I wouldn't be surprised if even more candidates jump into this race. Given the office's history, it's an opportunity that opens up once in a lawyer's lifetime.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Mason, FitzGerald ask DeWine to resolve law department dispute

Bill Mason says he and Ed FitzGerald have asked Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to resolve their dispute about whether the new law department or the prosecutor will represent the county in court.

“Ed FitzGerald and I have talked,” Mason told me today. “We’ve agreed on some of the stuff that we could probably agree on. But we have completely differing views on some of the big picture stuff. So we both agreed that the best thing to do is, let’s send it to the AG, and whatever he comes back and says, we’re going to bind our offices to that.”

For three months, FitzGerald and Mason have been arguing about who has what legal powers in the new county government. The debate is especially interesting because many people saw the two men as political allies. FitzGerald used to work for Mason, and Mason helped him get the Democratic Party’s endorsement in the primary last summer. FitzGerald has also insisted that a proposed county law against nepotism in hiring apply to Mason, who has hired several relatives over the years.

Their legal dispute is about whether the law department should replace the prosecutor’s civil division. In Ohio, county prosecutors don’t just prosecute – they also have civil divisions that handle the county’s legal work. But Cuyahoga County’s new charter says the law director “shall be the legal advisor to and representative of the County Executive and County Council.” FitzGerald thinks that does away with the prosecutor’s civil division. Mason disagrees.

“I was one of the people who wrote the charter, so I know at least what I was I intending,” Mason says. “I wanted to make sure the elected executive had somebody to talk to about things, a lawyer to bounce [things off] and give them research. So we gave them a lawyer to represent the executive and the council.”

Early drafts of the charter explicitly moved the prosecutor’s civil division into the law department, but that language was dropped when Mason disagreed, lawyer Gene Kramer, the charter’s main author, told the Plain Dealer.

The charter says the prosecutor’s duties, “including provision for the employment of outside counsel, shall continue to be determined in the manner provided by law.” Mason says this state law still gives him the job of representing all county officials in court. He says he’s OK with the law director drafting legislation, giving legal opinions to county departments and negotiating and writing contracts. (His civil division has handled the latter two tasks in the past.)

FitzGerald wants his new law director, Majeed Makhlouf, to take over all non-criminal legal matters. “We have the prosecutor being involved in things that have nothing to do with criminal law,” he told the Plain Dealer this week. “We don’t think that makes sense.”

Even DeWine’s decision may not end the dispute for long. Starting in September 2012, a charter review committee will look at how the new government is working and suggest amendments. If DeWine sides with Mason or splits the difference, FitzGerald and others may push for a charter amendment to explicitly hand over all legal affairs to the law director. But that amendment wouldn’t go to voters in until 2013, after Mason leaves office. And the next prosecutor could still challenge it in court.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tom Ganley, former congressional candidate, indicted on sex charges

Updated 7/15 with dismissal of charges; see below.

Turns out the voters who re-elected Betty Sutton to Congress in November saved us from a national scandal. Sutton's opponent, car dealer Tom Ganley, has been indicted on seven criminal charges stemming from an alleged sexual imposition.

The charges are based on allegations that surfaced in the fall, when the woman Ganley is accused of assaulting filed a lawsuit against him. She claimed she went to Ganley's dealership in Cleveland, hoping to volunteer for his campaign and renegotiate her car loan, and that Ganley propositioned her and groped her.

The charges are newsy, but they'd be ten times bigger if Ganley were in Washington right now. Nothing lights up the political blogosphere than congressional sex scandals -- especially if Republicans get caught with their pants down, since they're more vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. If Ganley were a congressman, the Internet buzz about his alleged advances would make the "Craigslist congressman" look discreet.

As it stands, if the criminal charges are proven in court, it'd mean Ganley had a foolhardy sense of invincibility: who thinks they can get away with treating a woman like that? And while running for Congress?

From prosecutor Bill Mason's press release this afternoon:

CLEVELAND- Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason announced that Thomas Ganley was indicted by a Grand Jury on 7 counts: three counts of gross sexual imposition (F4), one count of kidnapping (F1), one count of abduction (F3), one count of soliciting (M3), and one count of menacing by stalking (M1).

On August 1, 2009, a then 37-year-old female took her vehicle to be serviced at Ganley Chevrolet located on Lorain Ave., Cleveland. Ganley, 68, of Brecksville, invited the victim to his office, where he solicited her for sex and had sexual contact. He subsequently made several menacing calls to her.

Back in the fall, Ganley's lawyer claimed the lawsuit was an extortion campaign meant to cause political harm. OK, yes, political candidates are especially vulnerable to extortion -- though it's worth noting the alleged victim is reportedly pro-life and a volunteer for Republican campaigns.

Now, Mason, a Democrat, is prosecuting the former Republican candidate. But the Ganley camp is simply saying money motivated the accuser. Ganley's camp is very unlikely to try to play a reverse-Dimora card: One of his lawyers is Steve Dever, who used to be Mason's top trial attorney.

Update, 7/15: Bill Mason's office dismissed the charges against Ganley today. "After further investigating the case of State v Ganley and consulting with the victim, this office made a determination to dismiss the case," assistant prosecutor Blaise Thomas said in a statement. "This decision represents the desire of the victim not to go forward to trial."

Friday, February 11, 2011

FitzGerald replaces engineer, coroner, children's services director

Here comes the ax. After a quiet first month as county executive, Ed FitzGerald announces that four county officials are heading out the door.

FitzGerald won't keep engineer Robert Klaiber, who failed to notice how his top deputies corrupted his office. He's saying goodbye to coroner Frank Miller, who hired corruption-implicated Strongsville councilman Pat Coyne, then blamed Bill Mason. He's showing the door to Deb Forkas, head of children and family services, who's been held accountable for the deaths of six kids in families her agency monitored. He's also replacing Susan Axelrod, head of senior and adult services.

It's FitzGerald's second dramatic break with the past this week. Wednesday, he announced that four county employees elected to suburban city councils as Democrats will have to resign from either their council seats or their county jobs.

Interestingly, three of them are Parma councilmen: Brian Day, Tom Regas, and Roy Jech. You may remember Regas as Bill Mason's drunk-driving buddy and Day from the board of revisions controversy; also, Day's brother Tom is very close to Mason. Jech is best-known lately for sticking his finger in Dale Miller's face on the Plain Dealer's front page.

The fourth, Danny Colonna, is from next door, in Brook Park. The move is part of the new government's attempt to implement civil service rules and abolish the patronage machines in the auditor's office, recorder's office, and so forth.

The next question is whether Bill Mason's employees who serve on partisan city councils will also have to resign one job or the other. Last March, the Plain Dealer reported that 11 suburban councilpeople worked in the prosecutor's office. If their towns have nonpartisan elections, they're OK. But the ones that have partisan elections may also have to choose.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

With DePiero leaving, who'll be Parma's next mayor?

Now that Bill Mason and Dean DePiero have decided not to run again, who'll be the next king of Parma politics? We'll find out soon. Three experienced Democrats are running to succeed DePiero as mayor of Cleveland's largest suburb: Chuck Germana, Tim DeGeeter, and Mickey Mottl. They'll face off in a May 3 primary.

It'll be an interesting election. DeGeeter, a state representative, is a Mason-DePiero ally. Mottl, former state rep and son of a former congressman, was once a rival of DePiero's. Germana, the former Parma city council president, is somewhere in between.

Germana is probably the best-known outside Parma, thanks to his seat on the new county council and his failed bid for its leadership. He's a solid, reliable guy, the type of mayor Parma was used to having before 2003, when it elected DePiero, then a 35-year-old rising star. If Germana wins the primary and the November election, he'd leave the county council after only a year. When he talked to the Sun News last week, he sounded like he hadn't expected DePiero to bail.

Lots of people didn't. But there are two good reasons DePiero is getting out of politics instead of heading to Congress or Columbus, as Bill Mason once told me he might.

One was foreshadowed in early 2004, when I visited DePiero in Parma City Hall for my profile of him, "The Flamingo Kid." On the way into his office, he introduced me to his administrative assistant and former campaign manager: Vince Russo. Nice guy, very young. I think I asked him if he was any relation to the other political Russos, and learned he was Frank Russo's son. I shook his hand and figured that with that then-golden name, he'd be elected judge within 10 years.

Instead, Vince's brief stint at Parma City Hall linked DePiero to the county corruption scandal five years later. It turns out Frank Russo bribed J. Kevin Kelley to stay out of the 2003 mayor's race. "In exchange for PO2 convincing Kelley to withdraw from the mayoral race, Kelley's opponent gave a thing of value to a relative of PO2," the Kelley charges read. Everyone knew the feds were hinting about DePiero, but he denied any wrongdoing.

The second reason DePiero's leaving is his family. I know, they all say that. But take a look at the Plain Dealer story about his announcement. Below the requisite scandal summary, we learn that DePiero lost his dad and a niece and nephew last year, and that his mother, Roberta (whom I interviewed about Parma in 2009), recently suffered a stroke. Reason enough not to make a bad year worse by spending it traipsing around town, running for re-election, having to answer Frank Russo questions everywhere you go.

So, with DePiero leaving the corner of Ridge and Ridgewood at year's end, and Mason retiring after 2012, who'll command the Parma wing of the Democratic Party -- the remains of Mason's machine, the southwest-county faction that stretches at least from Parma and Old Brooklyn to Berea Municipal Court? My quick guess is DeGeeter -- Mason's support will still help a lot in Parma itself -- but I wouldn't count Germana out either.

To read "The Flamingo Kid," my 2004 profile of DePiero, click here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jackson vs. FitzGerald: Who has more power?

Right now, who is the most powerful politician in Greater Cleveland?

Many people say Ed FitzGerald’s new job is the most influential political position in town. Voters’ hopes for change are focused on the new Cuyahoga County executive: Their demands for a more efficient government and an end to corruption and self-dealing, their belief that local government can step up and reverse Northeast Ohio’s economic decline.

“The charter has created a position where Cuyahoga County can speak with one voice,” FitzGerald told me in an interview for the Power 100 issue of Inside Business, out now. “To the extent that I can grow into that role, also to the extent that I can build coalitions, it gives me entrée into all kinds of situations I may not have direct control over.”

FitzGerald debuts in our Power 100 list at No. 9, behind business leaders such as Sandy Cutler of Eaton (#1) and Chris Connor of Sherwin-Williams (#3). The county exec also ranks below one other politician: Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, who drops from #2 in last year’s rankings to #7 this time.

Jackson had a pretty tough 2010, considering his troubles with the LED lighting contract and the water department and his futile endorsement of Terri Hamilton Brown for county executive. But politicos will remind you that a city still has a lot more legislative powers than a county. And people who think about power say it doesn't just come with a new job -- it's acquired over time by leading, cooperating, and persuading. For now, Jackson’s still got more clout than Ed FitzGerald, an unknown quantity. But a year from now? Maybe not.

My “Political Shakeup” piece in the Power 100 package tracks the rising and falling influence of Jackson and other Northeast Ohio politicians. Steve LaTourette moves up from #20 to #16 in our rankings, thanks to the November elections and his friendship with House speaker John Boehner. Sherrod Brown, now Ohio’s senior senator, moves up a bit, from #17 to #15, though we’ll see how he adjusts his senatorial style to divided government.

Don Plusquellic holds fairly steady as he ponders whether to run for one more term as Akron’s mayor. The biggest fall? Bill Mason, who had the worst 2010 of any local public official not under indictment, drops out of our top 100.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

FitzGerald on Mason: ‘I don’t look for permission from him’

When I interviewed Cuyahoga County executive Ed FitzGerald for the current issues of Cleveland Magazine and Inside Business, we talked about his relationship with county prosecutor Bill Mason.

FitzGerald once worked for Mason as an assistant prosecutor, and I’d heard it suggested that Mason’s political faction helped FitzGerald clinch the Democratic party endorsement for executive last summer. After a tough, controversial 2010, Mason has said he won’t run for re-election in 2012. Shrewdly, FitzGerald distanced himself a bit from Mason during our conversation — but not by too much. The edited version of the interview in January’s Cleveland Magazine includes some of our talk about Mason, but I’m posting the full exchange on the topic here.

Cleveland Magazine: Did you have a dispute with Bill Mason over Issue 6?

Ed FitzGerald: We weren’t on the same side of it. I talked to him about it. He told me that I should be for it. I told him I didn’t think it was well-drafted. I expressed to him all the problems I had with it.

Bill and I have a cordial and professional relationship. We’re not personal friends or anything like that. When I ran for mayor, Bill did not endorse me and did not support me. I was elected to the city council on my own without Bill’s help. When I first talked to Bill about running for county executive, he advised me not to do it and was not supportive.

I started as a prosecutor under Stephanie Tubbs Jones and I eventually was a prosecutor under Bill. But he doesn’t look for my permission to what he does politically, and I don’t look for permission from him for what I do politically.

CM: Why did he tell you not to run for county executive?

EF: Basically, because I hadn’t supported Issue 6. Early on, I think he thought the proponents of Issue 6 would end up picking the next county executive, and they were never going to pick me. I also think he just thought I was going to have difficulty politically, because I hadn’t run countywide before.

CM: This summer, when you received the Democratic Party endorsement, was he helpful with that?

EF: That’s about exactly when he was of some — some — help. But we had a campaign team, and he was never part of that. We set up our own organization. It didn’t rely on any elected official, Bill Mason or anybody else.

CM: People said that his office should have known about what Frank Russo and Dimora were up to and put a stop to it. Does the role of the county prosecutor need to change in the new government?

EF: In my opinion, the job of uncovering any potential corruption, and rooting it out, and making sure processes are in place so it doesn’t happen is going to fall to the inspector general, not the prosecutor.

To read more of my interview with FitzGerald in the January issue of Cleveland Magazine, click here. To read FitzGerald talking about economic development and political influence in the January-February issue of Inside Business, click here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

FitzGerald says he’s aided corruption investigation: “I talked to the FBI about a lot of things”

In his inaugural address yesterday, Ed FitzGerald took a moment to kick corrupt former county bosses to the curb. “At a time when we needed great leadership the most, we were betrayed by some of our public officials,” the new county executive said. “Public servants who steal from the people are beneath contempt, and the only use that they’re going to serve is as a cautionary tale.”

FitzGerald’s done more than proclaim good riddance. In my interview with him in the January issue of Cleveland Magazine, the former Lakewood mayor and ex-FBI agent says he’s aided the federal agents who’ve investigated county corruption. “I talked to the FBI about a lot of things the last couple of years,” he says. To read the interview in the current Cleveland Magazine, click here.

The new county executive also talks about how he first learned of his cameo appearance as PO14 in the Jimmy Dimora indictment this fall.

We also discussed his relationship with county prosecutor Bill Mason, a former boss. I’ll post the full transcript of our conversation about Mason here tomorrow.

Portions of my interviews with FitzGerald also appear in the Power 100 package in the latest issue of Inside Business, Cleveland Magazine’s sister publication. There, FitzGerald talks about his Fourth Frontier jobs program, his goals for the Medical Mart project, and his thoughts about the power and influence that comes with his new job. To read the Inside Business story, click here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Puente, politicians' scourge, leaves Plain Dealer

This Sunday, Mark Puente's byline appeared in the Plain Dealer for the last time. Prosecutor Bill Mason, who found Puente on his front porch more times than he liked this year, is probably shaking off the fear of his own ringing doorbell. Ex-sheriff Gerald McFaul, still under house arrest for crimes Puente uncovered, may feel cursed anew to know his nemesis is free to enjoy southern sunshine.

Puente, the PD's best reporter of the past three years, left earlier this month to write about Florida real estate for the prestigious St. Petersburg Times. It's a shock to readers who appreciated his relentless exposés of Cleveland politicians, but no surprise to those close to him.

"Everybody knew my goal was to live close to the water, where it’s warm," says Puente, who went to college in North Carolina. "The editors, everybody, knew that." Now, he says, "I can walk out of the newsroom at lunchtime and be by the bay in less than five minutes. I can watch sailboats come in, watch pelicans dive for fish. It’s 80 degrees."

Puente's 2½-year winning streak in Cleveland began the day an enraged Jimmy Dimora threw him and fellow reporter Henry Gomez out of a meeting. It ran all the way to this Sunday's latest cash-and-favors exposé of Frank Russo's office, co-reported with Gabriel Baird and Gomez. In between, Puente's relentless investigative reporting brought down the once-impregnable McFaul and had co-workers at the paper talking Pulitzer.

Even the PD's toughest critics respect Puente's work. Consider this line, from Ted Diadiun's Sunday piece on why the paper didn't aggressively investigate county corruption and patronage before 2008: "Some people I talked with think that if a reporter like Puente had been on the beat, the paper would have broken the story earlier," Diadiun wrote.

So Puente's Nov. 4 departure, along with editor Susan Goldberg's the same week, leaves local watchdog-journalism lovers nervous about whether the Plain Dealer will keep it up.

Puente, graciously, says he'll be rooting for his former colleagues to go after the town's slipperier politicians. New editor Debra Adams Simmons calls watchdogging her top priority, he notes. As for the line in Diaduin's story, Puente told Diaduin that reporters can't investigate without sources, and he didn't have them in the sheriff's office until McFaul laid people off.

Cultivating sources was the secret to Puente's work in the Justice Center. The story of his goodbye to the police beat, told in two Facebook posts, could give aspiring young reporters an advanced lesson in how the best beat reporters do their work.

In one last-day post, Puente wrote that he deleted 463 phone numbers from his company cell phone. In another, he wrote: “Headed to the Justice Center to say goodbye to some good people: the hot dog vendors and a few cashiers. These folks know everything; they hear everything. I was proud they trusted me and had me on speed dial.”

"The people with the most meager, lowest paying jobs, they’re willing to talk," Puente says. "They want to talk. They just need to be approached and build that trust up. Talking to the janitors, the clerical people who come up and say hi -- once they found someone willing to listen to them, they came flocking to me."

To read my June 2009 story on how Puente's reporting took McFaul down, click here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Mason won't run again in 2012

Bill Mason's had enough. Cuyahoga County's prosecutor, targeted by Plain Dealer investigators, shadowed by the question of why he didn't catch the government's corruption, says he won't run for re-election in two years.

Mason revealed his plans yesterday at a taping of WKYC-TV 3's political talk show, "Between the Lines." The full show airs Sunday, but political reporter Tom Beres reported highlights on TV 3's newscast last night.

Mason also told Beres he doesn't believe he's a target of the federal corruption investigation -- and (in a sign that he means it) he hasn't hired a lawyer to address the possibility.

Update, 10/23: The FBI is investigating whether Mason or an aide pressured coroner Frank Miller to hire his ally Pat Coyne, according to the PD. Mason says he welcomes the investigation and did nothing wrong.

The full interview won't come out until Sunday, so we don't know why Mason's moving on after 2012. But this has been the worst year of Mason's 12 years as prosecutor. Think about all the hits he's taken: his treasurer's DUI, the PD report on his staff's political connections, the law professor's op-ed asking why Mason didn't bust Frank Russo and Jimmy Dimora, and now a relentless series of PD investigative pieces about his hiring and contracting.

Mason's decision means even more power shifts are coming in Cleveland politics. One of the Democratic Party's strongest factions is going to weaken, then break up or evolve.

That makes the county executive race even more important. If Ed FitzGerald wins, his political network will become the new force dominating the west and south ends of the county, with Frank Jackson and Marcia Fudge as the counterweight. FitzGerald used to work for Mason, so it'd be interesting to see how much of the Mason network would align with him. If a non-Democrat beats FitzGerald, it's hard to even imagine where political clout in the Democratic Party shifts next.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Med Mart moving ahead -- finally!

All you kids who've been squirming in your seats, wondering when the show on downtown's Malls will start, can calm down now.

After a year of painfully slow negotiations, the land's all nailed down for the Medical Mart and convention center project. The stubborn Sportsman's Restaurant owner is getting paid $3.1 million -- almost 10 times what her little vintage corned-beef joint is worth. The stubborn mayor finally got what he wants: a deal that helps fix up Public Auditorium and preserves the lake views from Lakeside Avenue.

Architects are designing. The construction manager's hired. We're going to see the plans roll out, starting today, when the city planning commission takes a look at some early concepts. MMPI still says it'll break ground in October. That means I'll lose my favorite cheap downtown parking spot, but what else?

Steven Litt's analysis in today's Plain Dealer explains how MMPI addressed the mayor's concerns and preserved those lake views. Remember how I mentioned last week that Mall C won't be raised more than a foot? That's because the convention center exhibit halls won't go under it after all. They'll be under Mall B and -- this is the clever new part -- under the Medical Mart building on St. Clair. They'll build meeting rooms and a ballroom with a great view of the lake under Mall C.

I still think Mall B will look weird once this is all over, with the top of the convention center popping out of the ground, messing with Daniel Burnham's 1903 vision of a grand civic space. (Litt's only new hint about Mall B: "stairwell pavilions" will go right from street level to the convention center floor.) But then, Mall B is already full of concrete and empty of people. Maybe, despite the higher elevation, ParkWorks and the landscape architect can do something better there.

Most important, MMPI can break ground before long and get back to competing with the medical marts proposed in Nashville and New York. Today on the radio, I heard prosecutor Bill Mason praise the county commissioners for nailing it all down. Mason knows how tough it was, since his office does their legal work. Few people in town are in the mood to give the commissioners credit for anything, but at least give them props for nailing down a complex, five-way land and development deal.

Getting the land will cost more than anyone expected, and the big headline today will spark more criticism from those who don't want the project built at all. But now Cleveland can move on to the next debate: what the Medical Mart, new convention center, and new malls should look like, how they'll work, how they'll fit in with what's around them.

To read my June 2009 Inside Business feature about the risks and potential rewards of the Medical Mart as a business venture, click here. (Public Auditorium isn't part of the project anymore, and the groundbreaking date has changed slightly, but the rest of the details in my story hold up a year later.)

Monday, March 29, 2010

PD maps Mason's power

The Professor is still in hiding, so I'll say it: Class, Mark Puente's big Sunday report on prosecutor Bill Mason's office is required reading.

After weeks of research, the Plain Dealer has given us an evolved sequel to its 2008 "Politics and Payroll" series on Pat O'Malley and Frank Russo's offices. Patronage is no longer the buzzword: It's power.

No one who follows Cleveland politics will be shocked to hear that Bill Mason is a political prosecutor, or that he gets involved in small-suburb council and school board races, or that he wields clout in the Democrats' mid-term appointments to county offices. (See my Oct. 2008 Pat O'Malley profile, for instance, which describes how Mason and O'Malley rose to power together.)

But Puente maps out Mason's vast influence, documenting what was anecdotal. Four former Mason employees are now on Cleveland city council. Five are judges. Current Mason employees work for 21 Cuyahoga County towns. Ten are on city councils. An assistant prosecutor on Solon's city council voted to appoint his boss's boss to a vacant council seat in December. Tom Day, a Mason ally and business partner -- and the possible future county Democratic chairman -- co-owns Qwestcom Graphics, northern Ohio's biggest distributor of campaign literature, which gets lots of work from Mason, his employees, and towns where his network is strong.

Puente's report isn't just thoroughly researched, it's well-thought-out. I sense meticulous editing as well as strong reporting, for fairness and impregnability against counterattack. The "to-be-sure grafs" -- the passages where the writer offers counterweights to his thesis -- are carefully crafted. Mason gets a chance to cast his office's political connections in a positive light. ("I have a highly educated and hard-working staff... I strongly encourage them to be involved in their communities. When good people are involved in government, good things will happen within government.")

Gone is the front-page mug-shot exposé feel of the O'Malley and Russo reports, maybe because the paper found that the recorder's and auditor's offices more closely resembled pure patronage machines. Lots of people are qualified to record deeds, but prosecutors have to pass law school and the bar. "The records show that about 18 percent of Mason's current work force had political ties before they were hired," Puente writes -- compared to about 33 percent in Russo's office and 35 percent when O'Malley was recorder.

By publishing this, the PD gets a small monkey off its back. Joe Wagner, author of the 2008 patronage exposés, reportedly looked into writing a sequel on Mason, but the project was shelved. That became Exhibit A in anti-Mason forces' arguments that the PD had gone soft on the prosecutor (see this backhanded imitation, for instance). If that was ever true, it isn't now.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Me on WCPN tomorrow: Mason, Power 100, and more

I'll be on 90.3 WCPN's Reporter's Roundtable tomorrow morning with host Dan Moulthrop, Plain Dealer reporter Mark Puente, and Joe Ingles of the Ohio Public Radio statehouse news bureau.

We'll be talking about Bill Mason, the Inside Business Power 100, Gov. Ted Strickland and challenger John Kasich choosing their running mates, and other stuff. The show starts about 9:06 a.m. and goes to 10.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pressure builds on Mason: How will he respond?

A month ago, it seemed like a great time to be Bill Mason. After Issue 6 passed, Cuyahoga County’s prosecutor looked both principled and shrewd: He was the only county official who supported the issue, and the only one who keeps his job under the new charter. By signing up for reform, he softened his machine-politics reputation, distanced himself from the Dimora-Russo scandal, and again proved his skill at reading voters’ moods and picking winners. He was the last man standing, the survivor.

Today, though, Mason’s problems are gathering and cresting like an angry wave. The news that Mason was in the car when his campaign treasurer got pulled over and charged with drunk driving is only his latest, most obvious challenge. Long-brewing troubles and a new round of bad press have sparked lots of buzz in town about how he’ll respond and what the future holds for him.

Mason’s woes began with the July 2008 FBI raids on the county building. Ever since, a tough question has hung over him: Where was the prosecutor when county government got so corrupt on his watch? That question still lingers as the feds dig deeper and get more allies of Dimora and Russo to plead guilty.

The prosecutor also faces a little-noticed Ohio Ethics Commission investigation into his financial ties to Bedford Municipal Court clerk Tom Day, a political ally and a likely successor to Dimora as county Democratic chairman. Mason and Day are partners in a political consulting firm, Victory Communications. Ethics investigators are looking into whether Mason’s office continued to give no-bid printing contracts to another company, Qwestcom Graphics, after Day became an investor in Qwestcom. It’s illegal for a public official to give public contracts to a business partner. Mason self-reported this question to the Ethics Commission this summer, after WKYC-TV3 reporter Tom Meyer brought it up; the commission responded by opening an investigation.

“I do not think there has been any ethics violation here,” Mason told Meyer in July. The prosecutor’s office did stop giving work to Qwestcom around the time Day invested in the company. But, perhaps more interestingly, Mason’s political campaign kept hiring Qwestcom long after the prosecutor’s office stopped. During Mason’s 2008 re-election effort, his campaign paid Qwestcom $141,000. That’s not an ethics-law problem, but it’s an interesting glimpse at how his political machine operates.

At the height of the Issue 6 debate this fall, Mason’s enemies in the Democratic Party, trying to tag him as a fake reformer, attacked him for taking $100,000 in contributions from his own employees. Though legal, such donations are a prime target of campaign-finance reformers, since they raise the question of whether political patronage plays a role in government hiring. Cornered, Mason pledged to return the contributions. He started doing so just before Christmas, WKYC-TV3 reported.

The patronage questions escalated in December, when the alt-monthly tabloid The Independent published the names, photos, and salaries of several politically connected Mason employees. It was billed as “the article the Plain Dealer was too afraid to publish” and styled after the patronage exposes the PD ran in 2008 of the recorder and auditor’s offices under Pat O’Malley and Russo. The Plain Dealer did drop a similar story on Mason’s office, former PD reporter Joe Wagner told Roldo Bartimole in December – but the Independent piece seemed more a backhanded homage to the newspaper’s work than a leaked draft.

Mason’s critics feel the Plain Dealer has been underplaying Mason controversies since its 2008 dust-ups with him over racial disparities in justice and open discovery. But the paper sure hasn’t given the prosecutor any breaks in the past month or so.

The bad-news floodgates opened with this Dec. 24 article about Judge Nancy Margaret Russo’s angry protest when Mason nudged her about changing a court date for a high school acquaintance of his. Then came a story about how Mason’s campaign finance reports got pulled off the board of elections Web site for a month. They’re back up now, with the addresses of all those assistant-prosecutor donors edited out. Mason’s office had a legitimate point -- law enforcement officials’ addresses are exempt from Ohio’s public-records law, for security reasons – but the PD, ever the open-records advocate, wrote the article with skeptically raised eyebrows. (In a similar move that’s been misconstrued in the blogosphere, Mason filed an affidavit with the auditor’s office to have his name taken out of the county’s online property records database under the exemption in the records law.)

Then, Mark Puente (the reporter who brought down Sheriff Gerald McFaul) broke the news that Mason was the passenger in Parma city councilman Tom Regas’ car when Seven Hills police pulled Regas over Dec. 30. Regas now faces a DUI charge, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving is lashing Mason for getting in the car with his allegedly intoxicated campaign treasurer.

{Update, 1/17: The PD takes on Mason again with a huge Sunday-front headline, "Mason gives $1.1 million in work to ex-employee." Peter Szigeti officially left his job with Mason, got a no-bid contract to stay and run Mason's office computer system, and also did a bit of campaign work for him. The contract started small but grew to $1.1 million. Mason's spokesman defends Szigeti's contract as a quality and cost-saving (!) measure, and an Ethics Commission lawyer offers some mild comments about "revolving-door" contracts like this one. But $1.1 million is a lot to award without competitive bidding.

Likely sources for the story include the judges feuding with Mason over a different computer upgrade for the courts; Szigeti has a tie to the company Mason favors for that job. The story's interesting as another example, like Qwestcom, of how lucrative it can be to join the Mason machine. (It's a sharp story, but one nitpick: the article says Mason "authored" Issue 6. It was actually written by several political and business figures.)}

Add it up -- an ethics investigation, patronage and campaign finance controversies, nudging a judge, passenger during a police stop, all while a massive FBI investigation digs in down the street – and some political-watchers wonder if the pressure is getting to Mason. Will he resign? rumors shot back and forth across town this week -- though I couldn’t tell if they’d originated inside Mason’s camp or were just speculative gossip in an echo chamber.

Here’s the unfashionable counterargument: Mason is a tough politician. He has survived deep scrutiny of his alliances and connections before (see his campaign contributions to Pat O’Malley). He’s just come off a big strategic win. Voters like him: He got 74 percent of the vote in 2008. He has three years left in his term and an awful lot of allies in town. Surely, many of them are telling him to stay cool and ride out his bad luck streak.