Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why now?

Here's the strangest thing about the Gerald McFaul scandal: the county sheriff faces a special prosecutor's investigation into taped phone calls of his from 1986! Why did his ex-girlfriend wait 23 years to come forward with the tapes? That's not clear yet. But I think the simplest reason this came out in 2009 was because she knew someone wanted to know.

For years, no one watched the county government. Now everyone is watching. What changed?

When I moved to Cleveland in January 2000, the big political story was Mayor Mike White and his battles with Cleveland city council. So I, too, started writing about City Hall. Now and then, as I interviewed sources, some would say, "You know, you should really cover the county!" Cuyahoga County awarded lots of contracts with little scrutiny, they'd say.

I didn't know much about watchdogging government contracts back then, but I sensed my journalistic future didn't lie in looking into who pours asphalt. I remembered what Coleman Young, the salty and quotable former Detroit mayor, once said about counties: "That is a backward form of governmental organization. It goes back to John Wayne, the stagecoach and Judge Bean, and all of that shit." County government was a boring backwater, a sleepy social services provider. I figured City Hall was where the action was. Almost every political reporter in town seemed to agree.

Then, it's summer 2008, and I'm walking out of the Board of Elections office, a thick pile of campaign finance reports teetering under my arm. A guy from the press room sees me and grins slyly. "County officials?" he asks. I nod. (I was working on my Pat O'Malley story.) He laughs. Everyone's after them these days, he says.

Since 2000, Cleveland has run out of money and elected quiet, shy personalities to office. City Hall is no longer where the action is. But the county has made itself a force it had never been before. A few years ago, the commissioners decided they'd stimulate Cleveland's economy with a $700 million building boom: a new convention center and Medical Mart, a juvenile justice center, a huge new county administration building. They bought the Ameritrust Tower, then fought over whether to move into it or tear it down. Attention turned the county's ambitions, its huge workforce, the way it made decisions, its lack of checks and balances.

Then the plans for the Ameritrust Tower went bust, costing taxpayers $6 million -- or $41 million if the county can't sell it. People noticed the county recorder and auditor had way more employees than in Ohio's other big counties. When challenged, county officials reacted poorly. Then the FBI raided the county building.

The Ameritrust deal, patronage exposes and FBI raid were like the realization that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction didn't exist. Much like the Washington press corps after the invasion of Iraq, the local press has revoked the benefit of the doubt and discarded the assumption that county officials are competent and honest. Now they're questioning everything.

Before the FBI stepped in, no one looked at Frank Russo's financial disclosure forms and asked why the guy who sets real estate tax values was moonlighting as a real-estate agent. Before this year, the conventional wisdom said McFaul was a good sheriff. But once someone starts asking questions that weren't asked before, the climate changes. People who know the answers decide it's safe to emerge.

1 comment:

Ian Hoffman said...

The County needs an non-partisan ethics officer or an ombudsman appointed by the AG's office (or someone outside of the County). If County employees were given annual lectures about the inappropriateness of handing your boss a card with thousands of dollars in cash on his birthday, wouldn't there be one person who would speak up -- at least anonymously? Or after they were fired and disgruntled?

On a different note, good job PD for finally exposing these open secrets. On the other hand, where were you for the last 30 years?