Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Interim budget signed; deal nears, but slots are sticking point

Gov. Ted Strickland just announced that he's signed an interim budget to keep the state going for a week while he and statehouse Republicans keep negotiating a budget deal.

This Columbus Dispatch article says Strickland and the Republicans are still at odds over slot machines in racetracks, but otherwise, the outlines of a two-year budget deal are taking shape.

How's this for a painful tradeoff?
Statehouse leaders are expected to further cut higher education to help reduce proposed cuts to libraries, mental-health services and home and community-based services for Medicaid recipients.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Dimora: Investigate the investigators

"Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire," Jimmy Dimora said this afternoon.

With that, he accused the "Rove-Gonzales" Department of Justice and the Republican Party of conspiring against him. Dimora announced he will ask U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Congress to investigate the federal investigation of him.

In a fiery press conference late today, Dimora charged that the Justice Department started its investigation of him as an attempt to discredit Democrats and lower the turnout in the presidential election. Many people, he said, "had an interest in making sure I am out of the way."

Dimora suggested that employees of the local U.S. Attorney contributed to the Cuyahoga County Republican Party in 2008.

The embattled county commissioner -- whose office was raided by the FBI last July, but who has not been charged with a crime -- compared the investigation of him to the U.S. Attorneys scandal, in which former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and senior presidential adviser Karl Rove were accused of masterminding the 2006 firings of several federal prosecutors for not pursuing voter-fraud investigations or investigations against Democrats.

At one point, Dimora suggested the FBI investigation of him was part of a pattern of probes of Democrats across the Great Lakes states. I asked him to name other examples. "There are 2,500 public corruption investigations in the country," Dimora replied. "Pick a state. Pick a Democrat."

Dimora said he believed the investigation of him began in September or October 2007. By early 2008, he said, he became aware that the feds were asking friends of his to wear wires and inform on him.

That would place the start of the investigation just after or right around Rove and Gonzales's departures from the Bush Administration. Their resignations took effect on August 31 and September 17, 2007, respectively.

Dimora attacked former county Republican chair Jim Trakas for saying yesterday, on Channel 3's Between the Lines political talk show, that Dimora should take advice from Michael Corleone of The Godfather films. "Italian-Americans should be outraged," Dimora said.

(Update, 6/30: "I had no idea that what I said on TV3 would be construed like that, because I use that phrase all the time," Trakas writes in an e-mail to me this morning. "I am really upset at myself for my poor choice of words." Trakas says he's written Dimora a letter of apology.)

Dimora also repeated his suggestion from last Thursday's commission meeting and April 2008 that Brent Larkin and Susan Goldberg of the Plain Dealer and former state Republican chairman Bob Bennett hatched a plan to attack Dimora over lunch in February 2008. He referred back to the April 2008 meeting where three Plain Dealer reporters -- Mark Puente, Joe Guillen, and Henry Gomez -- confronted him about the hiring of the late Rosemary Vinci, an auditor's office employee. Dimora claimed the paper's reporting of that incident "started the motivation for county reform."

Puente and Guillen attended the press conference, and Puente raised his hand in greeting as Dimora mentioned his name. Both reporters questioned Dimora aggressively after his statement. Guillen tried unsuccessfully to get Dimora to express an opinion about the investigation of auditor Frank Russo.

"I'm not looking at Frank Russo's issues," Dimora said. Acknowledging reports that the two officials are friends, Dimora said that he and Russo campaign together because the auditor is the other county official up for reelection at the same time as him.

Bill Patmon challenging Frank Jackson in mayor's race

In January, I wrote that no one of any stature was planning to run against Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson this year. Turns out, one person is: Bill Patmon, who was a city councilman from Glenville from 1989 to 2001.

Patmon ran for mayor in 2005 and got only about 2 percent of the vote. But that's not a good measure of his political abilities, or the prominence he held for a time in Cleveland politics.

Check out "Lone Wolf," a profile I wrote about Patmon in 2001, if you want to know more about him. The story describes how he broke away from then-mayor Mike White (a former ally), helped engineer a "coup" that brought an anti-White faction of council to power, aggressively challenged the White Administration as council's finance committee chair -- and paid for it in the 2001 elections.

Patmon lost his council seat that fall. Did out-of-control ambition bring Patmon down, or principled opposition to an out-of-control mayor? Patmon himself admitted his fights with White and attempts to become council president helped bring him down -- he said so when I interviewed him for our coverage of the 2005 mayor's race. (For that interview, click here and scroll down to the 4th item.)

I think we're witnessing the rebirth of a dormant political bloc that will challenge Frank Jackson and council president Martin Sweeney. While Patmon runs for mayor, his friend Jeff Johnson is also mounting a political comeback, trying to get elected to the Glenville city council seat both men once held. Johnson is not a Jackson ally -- he served in Jane Campbell's administration. I wouldn't be surprised if Patmon and Johnson work together on each other's campaigns. Update, 7/1: Not so, says Johnson. He e-mailed me to say he's staying neutral in the mayor's race. See this new post.

Of the other candidates for mayor, the only one I know anything about is Laverne Jones Gore, a perennial candidate for various offices who I interviewed in 2001 for a story about how lonely it is to be a Republican in Cleveland. Henry Gomez previews the mayor's race on his City Hall blog today.

More than libraries are at stake

I was wondering when the Plain Dealer would run a story that clearly dramatizes what's at stake in the state budget crisis: not just Ohio's libraries, but a huge part of our safety net for poor kids, the elderly, and the mentally ill. The story came yesterday: Brent Larkin's column, "Strickland doing an appalling job."

Don't call Larkin retired. His freelance column this week calls out the governor (pictured) -- and House Speaker Armond Budish -- with a clarity that's been missing from a lot of the state budget crisis coverage:
If Strickland were a Republican, this state's many advocates for children would be burning him in effigy on the Statehouse lawn. ...

... In tough times, governors have to cut spending. But good governors don't:

Abolish funding for a program that provides preschool to 14,400 low-income children.

Eliminate state aid to food pantries, especially in a recession.

Whack deep into programs for the mentally challenged and the elderly.

Permit the plundering of funding for their most important accomplishment -- in this case, higher education, the cornerstone of Ohio's economic future.


The budget crisis is going into overtime, with Strickland and Republicans at an impasse over slot machines and other issues. If they can't agree on a budget by tomorrow night, they'll have to pass a temporary budget and keep negotiating. Here are the Columbus Dispatch's reports from yesterday and today.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Dimora: "I will prove my innocence"

"I am innocent," Jimmy Dimora said this morning at the county commissioner's meeting. "If I have to have a day in court, I will prove my innocence."

Provoked by county Republican chairman Rob Frost, the embattled Dimora launched into a long speech at the end of the meeting today, attacking Frost and responding to the federal corruption investigation.

"I haven't done anything wrong," Dimora told Frost. "I'm innocent. I'm not resigning."

After the meeting, reporters asked Dimora about J. Kevin Kelley, the former county employee and former Parma school board president now facing federal bribery charges. "I know Kevin, just like anybody does," he said. A reporter asked if Dimora had ever taken bribes from Kelley. "No, absolutely not," Dimora replied.

Dimora confirmed he'd traveled to Las Vegas with Kelley. But he said he had not gone there with Ferris Kleem, an executive for Blaze Building and Phoenix Concrete. "He was not with us," he said. "It was a whole separate trip."

The charging document against Kelley claims a Blaze and Phoenix executive gave casino chips to a Public Official #1 -- apparently Dimora -- while they were in Las Vegas in April 2008. Phoenix had received a contract from the county commissioners two weeks earlier and received another weeks later. Dimora said he couldn't respond to a question about the allegations involving gaming chips.

Asked if he was Public Official #1, Dimora said, “I have no idea.” But later, he seemed to acknowledge that he recognized himself in the prosecutor's filing. “I hope there’s no – any kind of charges that are filed [against me]," he said. "I saw people, saying statements and making some allegations, that are in trouble. And I guess sometimes people do that to lessen their penalties or their consequences. But I was the smallest amount of portion in that issue, I think.”

During the meeting, Frost had asked the commissioners if they could guarantee that no lobbyist for any of five contracts they were considering was under federal investigation.

Dimora accused Frost of not understanding how the commissioners work. He said he had never pressed the other two commissioners to vote a certain way on any contract, and noted that most commission votes are unanimous. He also defended himself against press accusations of patronage and cronyism by saying none of his relatives had ever worked for the county while he was commissioner.

Speaking from handwritten notes, Dimora launched into a long counterattack on Frost, the county and state Republican parties, the Plain Dealer, and Parma Heights mayor and county reform advocate Martin Zanotti. Dimora argued that the Republican-prompted audit of the work of county auditor Frank Russo, Dimora's close friend and ally, was redundant because state auditor Mary Taylor already audits the county's books. He also called Frost's threat to petition for removal proceedings against Dimora an effort to set up a "kangaroo court."

Dimora questioned whether Frost, a member of the county board of elections, had any relationships with elections contractors. He claimed Zanotti, like himself, had traveled with Kelley. (Update, 7/2: See more details, and Zanotti's response, here.)

Dimora also suggested that former Ohio Republican Party chair Bob Bennett had teamed up with Plain Dealer editor Susan Goldberg and former editorial page editor Brent Larkin in March of April of 2008 to attack him. (This, like a similar accusation he levied last April, seems inspired by Dimora seeing Bennett having lunch with Goldberg and Larkin back then.) He even brought up the decision that Bennett and other former board of elections members made in 2005 to buy thousands of ill-fated Diebold voting machines.

"I think the federal government is doing a detailed and thorough investigation of me," Dimora said to Frost. "I know my family and myself have been living through hell for the past year. And I don't wish that on my worst enemy. And I guess that would be you."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tomorrow's WCPN Roundtable

I'll be on the Reporter's Roundtable on WCPN, 90.3 FM, from 9:05 to 10 a.m. tomorrow morning. Mike McIntyre, the Tipoff columnist for the Plain Dealer, is filling in for host Dan Moulthrop. Reporters from the PD, Akron Beacon Journal, and Dayton Daily News will be the other guests.

We're going to talk about Jimmy Dimora, Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, the collapse of the Ameritrust Tower sale, and the state budget crisis. Lots of news.

Update, 6/25: It was fun. Here's a link if you'd like to listen to the podcast.

Frost to start removal petition against Dimora

You can't recall county officials, but it turns out you can sign a petition to get a court to remove them for misconduct in office. So local Republicans have discovered, and today Cuyahoga County Republican chair Rob Frost threatened to use the removal law against Jimmy Dimora. He says he'll start circulating petitions to dislodge Dimora if he doesn't resign by July 1.

This is the second obscure Ohio law that Frost and Co. have aimed at a local Democrat in the past week. They've also forced an audit of county auditor Frank Russo's books. Frost has targeted Dimora and Russo because they are targets of the FBI's county corruption probe.

If Republicans can gather 68,000 signatures, they can force a court to consider whether Dimora has misused his office. Dimora could choose whether to have a judge or jury hear the case.

Here is the law, which says a public official is guilty of misconduct in office if he or she:

willfully and flagrantly exercises authority or power not authorized by law, refuses or willfully neglects to enforce the law or to perform any official duty imposed upon him by law, or is guilty of gross neglect of duty, gross immorality, drunkenness, misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfeasance...

(I especially like the "drunkenness" part.) *

The Republican Party would have to write a complaint leveling charges against Dimora. If they can get enough signatures on the petitions, then a judge or jury would decide if any of the charges are true. The removal proceeding would follow evidence rules from civil cases, and unlike in a criminal trial, which requires a unanimous jury verdict, a 9-3 vote would be enough to remove Dimora. He could appeal to the court of appeals.

It's interesting to know we have a recall-like way to get someone out of office. But what would Frost's complaint say? My guess is it'd be a rewrite of the federal allegations against "Public Official #1" in the prosecutor's filing against J. Kevin Kelley and others.

Frost is betting that an anti-Dimora petition drive and the threat of a removal proceeding could push Dimora to resign earlier than the feds' investigation might. That theoretical scenario reminds me of the end of Detroit's huge scandal last year. Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick held onto office for months in the face of obstruction of justice and perjury charges. (Kilpatrick fired cops who were investigating him, then lied under oath about that and about an affair with his chief of staff.) But the day after Michigan's governor began a removal hearing to examine his conduct, Kilpatrick pled guilty in the criminal case and resigned.

(*I should probably add that I have no reason to think the "drunkenness" part applies here. They wrote laws kind of funny in 1953.)

Citizens, lobbyists deluge legislature with pleas as budget-slashing hour nears

I don't know about you, but I'm getting deluged with e-mails asking me to call my state legislators to protect library funding, arts funding, and social service funding. That's because the Ohio General Assembly has to write a new two-year budget by Tuesday.

Tax revenue is way down thanks to the recession. Democrats and Republicans are playing a game of chicken, refusing to be the first to suggest new taxes because they're afraid that'd spell doom in the 2010 elections. So everything must go. Given the legislature's habit of procrastination and brinksmanship, major decisions affecting millions of people will probably be made around 11 p.m. on Tuesday night.

Maybe it's the home-field advantage, but the Columbus Dispatch is writing especially good stories about the high-stakes budget rush. Reporter Alan Johnson uses The Turtle Lady to tell the story of citizen efforts to stop the cuts. Jim Siegel's vivid story shows us how the debate looks from the point of view of a key lobbyist and legislators being lobbied.

Update, 2:10 pm: Librarians and their supporters rallied against the library cuts in downtown Cleveland this morning. Check out Kristin Majcher's report on Cleveland Magazine's main blog.

Akron mayor annihilates enemies -- thanks to Chrissie Hynde?

Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic completely routed and demolished his longtime enemies yesterday, racking up about 75 percent of the vote against a scrappy effort to recall him.

"We will never, ever make a certain percentage of this community happy," Plusquellic said in his victory speech. "If we dwell on them, if we let them set our agenda, God help us."

Supporters of the charismatic, antagonistic mayor crowed. "We're not only rockin', we're rollin'," developer Tony Troppe told the Akron Beacon Journal. "It's the Don show."

Why did Plusquellic win? His forces ruthlessly attacked recall organizer Warner Mendenhall, who has a longtime feud with the mayor. They sent mailings about Mendenhall's tax problems and labeled the recall organizers a "band of radicals."

Scott Piepho, on his blog Pho's Akron Pages, calls the anti-Plusquellic effort incoherent. "The nature of the recall campaign allows each discontented resident to project his particular gripe onto the Mayor," he wrote. "Trying to take on the recall argument is no easy task." Piepho kept calling the recall campaign "Team Mulligan" for its bad aim.

I wonder if it's even simpler than that.

Plusquellic had Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders on his side. Check out the video above, in which Hynde alludes to "My City Was Gone," her classic song about Akron, as a way of saying (I think) that Plusquellic has helped bring it back.

Mendenhall, meanwhile, had "Miss Tia, Kent State University history major, resident of North Hill" -- who, according to the Beacon, once had her phone number listed under the name of Squeaky Fromme, the Charles Manson follower who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford.

No contest!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dimora takes leave of absence as county Dem chair; Resign, says Redfern

Jimmy Dimora is taking a leave of absence as county Democratic chairman, WKYC TV 3 reported this morning.

"I want to focus on my duties as Cuyahoga County Commissioner and to also clear my good name," Dimora writes in a letter that went out to local Democrats today.

Interesting: Dimora's responding to the federal corruption investigation by saying he's innocent and that he plans to remain a county commissioner and keep voting.

That's not enough for Chris Redfern (2nd photo), head of the state Democratic party, who wants Dimora to resign as chair. He sent him a letter this afternoon telling him to go. It reads, in its entirety: "It has become apparent to me that your effectiveness to lead the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party has been irreparably harmed. Therefore, I am formally calling on you to resign as Chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, effective immediately."

Vice-chair Pat Britt, the Cleveland city council clerk and former councilwoman, will run the party in Dimora's absence.

Akron votes today on mayoral recall, ancient feud

Akron voters will decide today whether to recall longtime mayor Don Plusquellic -- the Sexiest Politician in Greater Cleveland, as his fans call him, or "King Don," as the haters say.

The recall leaders accuse Plusquellic of all sorts of tyrannical behavior, but don't have one specific explosive charge of abuse of office. They just don't like the guy. The pro-Plusquellic faction says he's Akron's indispensable man.

I have no opinion about this fight, except that I think it's cool that a recall committee includes a college student known only as "Miss Tia" and is using a "fake Bass Pro deal" as ammo.

Brent Larkin, who retired as editorial page editor of the Plain Dealer a few weeks ago, got back in the game with a reported commentary in the Sunday paper. He knocked on doors in a swing neighborhood of the city and proclaimed Plusquellic Ohio's best big-city mayor (with a sideswipe at Frank Jackson about Eaton leaving Cleveland).

Plusquellic's archenemy, Warner Mendenhall, is masterminding the recall campaign. The two men have been at war for about 15 years now. This is the climactic battle.

Reading about it takes me back to 2000, my first year in town, when I interviewed both men for a story about an Akron ballot proposal. Mendenhall and his allies claimed the mayor ruled Akron through fear.

"We beat them before, and we'll beat them again," Plusquellic replied. "I'm not going to stand for the crazies taking over the city, if I can help it."

Yeah, I'd say they don't like each other.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Where is the Professor?

The Professor, my favorite local political blogger, has gone missing. His blog, Political Science 216, has been removed from Blogger.

The anonymous, hilarious commentator has gone on sabbatical before, taking a break for a few months after the 2008 elections. In his last post, earlier this month, he said he'd be traveling Europe with his wife for two months but would return in August. Now I'm not so sure. An e-mail to the anonymous hotmail account once listed on his site just bounced back.

One possible reason The Professor has disappeared without a trace: Dave Bentkowski, the mayor of Seven Hills, sued him for libel last year. The Plain Dealer reported last Sunday (2nd item) that Bentkowski couldn't figure out who The Professor is, even after subpoenaing Google. But a judge has given the mayor permission to refile his suit if he ever succeeds in discovering his secret identity. "I have a plan for him," Bentkowski's lawyer, Brent English, hinted ominously.

Last fall (for non-litigious reasons), I also tried figuring out who The Professor is. I didn't get very far. Here's my profile of the cyber-masked man.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Connie Schultz: Dimora should resign

"Jimmy Dimora has lost his moral authority," Connie Schultz writes in her column today, calling for his resignation. "Nobody with integrity trusts him anymore."

Schultz offers the best argument yet for the idea that citizens shouldn't have to wait until Dimora is charged and convicted to demand a new leader.

"It doesn't matter that Dimora has so far escaped indictment," she writes. "Federal agents raided his house. Recent documents make it clear that he is suspected of personally benefiting from public coffers, and sometimes at the expense of our poorest citizens."

The column also breaks some news: U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge agrees that Dimora should resign. "It's time for Jimmy to go, and I think he knows that," Fudge tells Schultz.

This column, like all Schultz's political writing, carries this tagline: "Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz is married to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown." Schultz has said publicly that she doesn't like the tagline, but I wonder if her marriage to a senator is one reason she can write this with authority:

"For weeks, Democratic activists and elected officials in this county have had plenty to say about Jimmy Dimora behind his back, but at the sight of a reporter, their own backs buckle. Instead of saying publicly what they whisper privately -- that the scandal swirling around Dimora has made him bad for the party and worse for the county -- they sound like the enabling siblings of a brother they fear as much as they love."

One more thing: the Plain Dealer's opinion pages are rolling out a little online activism. The online version of Schultz's column comes with this box, which you can embed in your own web pages:

Friday, June 19, 2009

Audit the auditor: Republicans file petition to examine Russo's books

Well, this is inventive! The local Republican party, using an obscure law, filed a petition today to force an audit of county auditor Frank Russo's office.

“With Commissioner Dimora and Auditor Russo as caretakers of the county finances for the last decade," citizens "deserve a thorough review of the county finances," says Cuyahoga County Republican chairman Rob Frost in the press release. The Republicans point to the references to an anonymous "Public Official 2," who is obviously Russo, in the federal corruption charges (pdf) filed against three former county employees last week.

The Republicans have found a 1953 state law that says -- get this -- any 20 citizens can file a petition saying they want the county auditor or county treasurer's books and papers examined. Then the local common pleas court judges shall -- that is, they must -- appoint a three-person committee to examine the books and make a public report. The examiners have subpoena power (enforced by "any constable or sheriff") and can compel witnesses to appear.

The Republicans, who had no trouble getting the 20 signatures, risk having to pay for the exam. One of the petitioners has to put up a bond and has to pay for the audit if the three examiners finish their job and decide there was no good reason to do it. The examiners get paid the princely sum of $3 a day.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dimora vs. Frost: now on video!

Curious about the confrontation between commissioner Jimmy Dimora and county Republican chair Rob Frost today?

Well, first, of course, I'd like to refer you to my blog post from the commissioners' meeting, posted this morning.

Also, cleveland.com has posted their exchange on video. They spliced in Dimora's kiss-off to the reporters who gathered to ask him questions after the meeting: "Clean up!" he growled.

Meanwhile, here's the Republican Party's press release. "Today, Dimora's colleagues..., Peter Lawson Jones and Tim Hagan, took great pains to point out the deep cuts projected in Health & Human Services spending in the upcoming state budget," it quotes Frost as saying. "How outraged will taxpayers be when it turns out that Commissioner Dimora was using the recent Health & Human Services levy as his personal piggy bank for gambling trips to Vegas...?"

Reformers' petition drive starts this weekend

The reformers who want a new government for Cuyahoga County will start circulating petitions this weekend.

"We're getting some preliminary traction in getting the funds to launch a petition drive," says Nancy Lesic, a communications consultant helping the reform effort. Paid signature-gatherers will be working this weekend, she says, as well as volunteers, including members of the League of Women Voters. Some merchants at the North Union Farmer's Market in Shaker Square will have the petitions in their stands on Saturday mornings.

Lesic says the reformers are still trying to raise more funds to finance their petition campaign. They have until July 13 to collect 45,458 signatures. If they do, they'll get the proposed county charter they've drafted on the November ballot. Click here to read it.

Jones: County will investigate all contracts cited in federal charges

Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones says the county is reexamining all contracts mentioned in the corruption charges filed Friday.

After the commission meeting this morning, I asked Jones to reiterate why the change order for Phoenix Cement was removed from the agenda.

"Phoneix Cement, though not expressly named, one can clearly conclude they were noted and referred to in the indictment through information," Jones said. "I thought we needed more time to undertake a thorough investigation of the circumstances to make sure nothing illegal or improper occurred." He added, "I have a feeling, when all is said and done, we’ll be able to move forward in that matter." (See this post for the reasons the Phoenix contract and change order appear legitimate on the face of it.)

I asked if the county would reexamine the awarding of the original Phoenix contract as well as the change order. He said yes.

I asked whether that would include an inquiry into whether Jimmy Dimora went to Las Vegas with a Phoenix executive and whether he accepted gifts from him there. Jones looked a little surprised but said, "We’re going to have to explore all the circumstances, to the extent that we can internally, to ascertain that that bid was not at all problematic." He said the results would be made public.

However, it will be hard for the commissioners to reject the change order. "My understanding is, the work has already been done, and they're merely waiting to be paid," Jones said.

What will happen when other contracts questioned in the prosecutor's charges come up?

"We are undertaking a review of all the contracts and companies that were referenced directly or could be clearly identified in the indictment by information filed last week," Jones said. County administrator Jim McCafferty and deputy administrators Lee Trotter and Rick Werner are conducting the inquiry.

I asked whether Jones and Hagan would specifically ask Dimora to recuse himself from voting on those issues. Jones said he and Hagan have a continuing objection to Dimora voting at all.

He told another reporter he was "disappointed" that Dimora did not take their advice to recuse himself from all votes.

Republican chair challenges Dimora at meeting

County Republican chairman Rob Frost appeared at the county commission meeting today and publicly challenged Jimmy Dimora.

When the commissioners prepared to approve several amendments to contracts, including one to the juvenile justice center, Frost asked to speak. He cited the federal prosecutors' allegation that "public tax dollars [are] being diverted to personal gain" and asked the other commissioners, Peter Lawson Jones and Tim Hagan, if they would ask for Dimora's resignation.

Hagan replied at length that Dimora, like anyone, is innocent unless proven guilty. He did acknowledge that "this board has expressed its concern about the integrity of the system with respect to voting" -- an apparent reference to his and Jones' suggestion that Dimora recuse himself from all votes on county business. But Hagan added, "My colleague has every right to his day in court."

Then Frost tried to address Dimora. Dimora turned to Hagan, who was presiding over the meeting, to cut him off. "Are we going to get into personal attacks and issues on individual commission members?" Dimora asked Hagan. Hagan told Frost to address the agenda item, the amendments.

Frost cited the Plain Dealer story about Hagan and Jones asking Dimora to recuse himself. He mentioned Jones' characterization of Dimora's response, which was that not voting would be an admission of guilt.

"That is not my quote," Dimora answered. "My quote is, I’m doing my job that I was elected to do. If I don’t do my job, then you’ll be up here saying, 'He should be removed for not doing his job.'"

"Do you feel you are able to vote on the juvenile justice center?" Frost asked.

"Yes, I do," Dimora said.

A minute later, he did: approving a list of 29 agreements, contracts, and amendments, including one expanding the steel contract at the juvenile justice center.

Removed from that list was an expansion of the concrete contract on the project. Unexplained at the meeting was the reason it was removed. According to Jones' comments in the PD yesterday, it's because the contract is mentioned in Friday's federal charges.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Republican chair: Dimora, Klaiber should resign

Rob Frost, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republicans, is calling for commissioner Jimmy Dimora and engineer Robert Klaiber to resign. Here is the party's press release.

Frost asks citizens to call commissioners Tim Hagan and Peter Lawson Jones, U.S. Reps. Dennis Kucinich and Marcia Fudge, Gov. Ted Strickland, and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, and demand that they call for Dimora and Klaiber's resignations.

The call for Klaiber to resign is interesting. The engineer has not been implicated in the corruption scandal. However, his former chief of staff, Kevin Payne, and former employee J. Kevin Kelley, were among those charged with bribery Friday. Klaiber held a wrenching press conference Monday. "I had trust and confidence in these people and that trust was, ultimately, betrayed," he said then. Klaiber announced he would not seek re-election in 2012.

Frost says Klaiber's press conference showed that "he has, at a minimum, failed as an administrator and manager and is not fit to continue as our County Engineer." He calls on citizens to attend tomorrow's 10 a.m. county commission meeting and call for Dimora's resignation.

Reform effort is running out of time

The county corruption charges offer a huge opportunity for reformers. You'd think they'd rush to get their petitions out on the street this week and gather signatures to support the new form of county government they've drafted. (Read the proposed county charter as a pdf here.)

But this is the latest update I got from Nancy Lesic, a local communications consultant working with the reform group:

The group is continuing outreach efforts and trying to gauge whether the funding support necessary to launch an all-out campaign exists. Volunteers have begun getting signatures, but no effort of any scale as yet.

If the reformers want to get their proposed charter on the November ballot, they only have 26 days left -- until July 13 -- to get 45,458 signatures.

I finally got an answer to my question about the two rounds of signature-gathering. There's a second deadline for gathering signatures, Sept. 4 -- but it only applies if the petitioners turn in at least 45,458 signatures, but some of them are declared invalid. Then the petitioners get to try to replace them with new ones. The board of elections had to consult the county prosecutor for a legal opinion to nail this down. Here is what the prosecutor told them:

All petitions, county reform, Cleveland, etc., at the time of filing must purport to contain enough valid signatures to satisfy the initial filing requirement, in order to get additional time to meet the signature requirement.

In practical terms, I think that means that the reformers are out of time to launch a volunteer petition drive. They need money to hire paid signature-gatherers. Then, if they get it on the ballot, they'll need money to promote it and overcome the certain opposition to it.

If the reformers can't find the financial backers to mount a petition drive, they may miss their best chance to create a new government. With corruption charges like these in the news, I have to imagine that a lot of voters will be happy to say yes to a new county charter.

Especially one that includes this novel provision: elected officials could lose their jobs if they fail to report a bribe attempt.

A County elected official shall forfeit that office if the officer ... (2) Knowingly violates any express prohibition of this Charter, including Section 12.04 hereof ...

Any elected or appointed County officer who receives or who has specific and personal knowledge of any offer by any person of anything of value to be given to a County officer or employee for the purpose of influencing such officer or employee in the performance of such officer’s or employee’s official duties shall promptly report the matter to a law enforcement officer or agency believed by the reporting officer or employee to have jurisdiction or responsibility concerning the matter. Such officer or employee shall fully cooperate in any investigation of and any resulting prosecution or action relating to the matter.

A relatively small coalition drafted the charter. They've been criticized for that. It may also be an impediment to raising the money they need. Bill Callahan at Callahan's Cleveland Diary has the best list I've seen of who took part in the charter meetings. I count five Democratic politicians, one Republican politician, three influential Republican donors, and two political consultants. Callahan also has some skeptical thoughts about the painstakingly crafted boundaries for the 11 proposed county council districts.

Update, 6:30 p.m.: Cleveland.com posted a Mark Naymik column this afternoon on the reformers' quest for cash. Naymik also reports that there's going to be an anti-reform rally at Rev. Marvin McMickle's Antioch Baptist Church on June 22.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Commissioners voted to expand contract the day before federal prosecutors questioned it

No wonder Tim Hagan and Peter Lawson Jones don't want Jimmy Dimora to vote on county business anymore. A contract they all voted to expand on Thursday was cited in the prosecutor's charges against J. Kevin Kelley and others on Friday.

On Thursday, the three commissioners voted to approve large change orders expanding three contracts at the juvenile justice center project. Phoenix Cement, which is handling the concrete job, got its $4,576,000 contract increased by $459,000, to $5 million. News reports had already suggested that Phoenix Cement was under scrutiny by federal investigators as part of the county corruption probe.

{Update, 6/18: The commissioners authorized staff to prepare the Phoenix change order on the 11th, meaning it was a preliminary approval, not a final approval. I've changed the headline of this post to reflect that. Peter Lawson Jones now says the final vote on the change order, scheduled for today, will be postponed because the Phoenix contract was named in the corruption charges.}

Then, on Friday the 12th, the prosecutors' filing said this:

On or about March 20, 2008, the County Commissioners awarded Business 4 a $4,576,000 contract for the cement portion of the JJC project, PO1 having taken an official act to assist Business 4 in securing this contract.

An officer of Phoenix Cement allegedly paid for part of PO1's trip to Las Vegas. The dates of the Vegas trip in the court filing match a Vegas trip Dimora took (click here; scroll down to 3rd item).

Now, I should note that the feds' questioning of the concrete contract is not the strongest part of their charges. Phoenix seems to have won the concrete contract legitimately -- it was the low bidder. The prosecutor's filing never explains the "official act" that PO1 -- who is pretty clearly Dimora -- allegedly took to help Phoenix. (Earlier in the filing, it's alleged that PO1 asked county employees to assist Business Executive 1's companies, but the bid that was in trouble then was for another contract, from Phoenix's sister company, Blaze Building. Blaze didn't get that contract.)

Still, the Friday filing casts the debate at Thursday's meeting in a different light. The commissioners were poised to vote to approve the change orders without explanation when Perry Roberts -- a member of the Black Contractors Group, a frequent critic of county contracting decisions -- questioned the changes. Some contractors, he claimed, repeatedly bid low to get a job and file change orders later.

Hagan grew furious at Roberts. He dared him to go to the county prosecutor's office if he thought the change orders weren't legitimate. When Roberts suggested that not enough minorities are working on the juvenile justice center project, Hagan got hot again. He offered to resign if Roberts could prove county staff was turning in false numbers about the project's workforce. (Crain's wrote about Hagan's argument with Roberts here, while the Plain Dealer wrote about the change orders here.)

Jones and Dimora, trying to defuse the argument, politely justified the change orders to Roberts.
"We added an additional building, additional square footage,” Dimora said. "We enlarged the project, so that's what's creating some of the change orders on this project." (The additional building is the juvenile court tower, which will go next to the juvenile detention center.)

I'm not saying Phoenix got the contract or the change order in a shady manner. There are legitimate explanations for both decisions.

But imagine how angry Hagan and Jones must have felt when they read the federal charges and saw the contract they had just voted to expand in there. Or when they read, on the same page, an allegation that an executive with that contractor gave Dimora free casino chips in Vegas two weeks after the contract was approved.

In the 11 months since the FBI raids on the county building, Hagan has expressed plenty of public outrage when he thought critics or the press were "questioning the integrity" of county officials or staff. He angrily scolded the press for its coverage of the raids, citing the justice system's presumption of innocence. He expressed very little anger (in public, at least) over the possibility that the feds might've been on to something, that the county government might have actually been corrupted.

I'm curious to see how he reacts to the prosecutors' charges at the commissioner's meeting this Thursday.

Update, 6/17: Hagan sure sounds different in the print edition of the Plain Dealer's Dimora story this morning. He even uses the word "outrage."

"I made a strong case that it would be in the best interest of the county government to have him recuse himself until the resolution of this investigation," Hagan told the PD's Joe Guillen. "I think what Peter and I are expressing is the outrage that everybody feels about what has been so far put on the public record. If it's true, it's a damning indictment of people who have lost their moral compass."

Jones says Dimora should recuse himself to address public skepticism about "whether or not Jimmy, for example, has any improper interest in any of the issues or contracts that are under consideration."

For instance, the Phoenix contract?

Update, 6/18: Yes, Jones has the Phoenix contract in mind.

Jones, Hagan ask Dimora to stop voting; Dimora refuses

Check out this story on cleveland.com: Peter Lawson Jones and Tim Hagan have asked Jimmy Dimora to recuse himself from voting on all county business while he is a target of the federal investigation.

Dimora refused, saying it would look like an admission of guilt.

"It's his neck on the chopping block," Jones says of Dimora.

Update, 6/17: Here is the print edition version of the story, with quotes from Hagan and more from Jones.

Friday, June 12, 2009

What do corruption charges add up to?

What do today's charges against J. Kevin Kelley mean for those higher up?

If "Public Official 1" and "Public Official 2" in the prosecutor's filing are Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo, then the feds are likely eyeing at least three possible charges against the county commissioner and four against the county auditor.

The prosecutor's filing suggests that Public Officials 1 and 2 went to Las Vegas in April 2008 and had parts of their trip paid for by officials with the halfway house Alternatives Agency and the contractors Blaze Building and Phoenix Cement -- businesses with county contracts that had recently been approved by the county commissioners or were pending before them. The feds allege that Officials 1 and 2 used their influence to benefit the companies, or tried to.

Official 1 allegedly got to use a condo in the Stonebridge development and use a limo 22 times in connection with the Stonebridge owner's purported efforts to hold onto the county engineer's office as a tenant.

Official 2 allegedly gave J. Kevin Kelley a raise and reduced hours to reward him for not running for mayor of Parma. Also, it's alleged that Official 2 got cash in exchange for helping a company acquire a subcontract on the county's geospatial information systems project.

I've added comment from Alternatives Agency and a lawyer for K&D to previous posts here and here. I've put calls in to lawyers for Dimora, Russo, Kelley, and Blaze and Phoenix. If I hear from any of them, I'll post about it.

Charge: Bribes over engineer's offices at Stonebridge

The feds also think bribes were paid regarding the county engineer's leased offices at the Stonebridge condo complex on the Superior Viaduct.

This charge is carefully worded. Money and gifts are alleged to have been passed through a long chain, and who allegedly did what in exchange for what is complicated. Here are the parts related to "PO1," the unnamed elected official:
From in or about the Summer of 2003 through in or about April, 2008, Business 5 provided PAYNE, PO 1 and other County officials with free personal use of a furnished condominium at Stonebridge.
PAYNE paid for PO 1 to receive personal services at a cost of approximately $2,000 to $3,000, and paid approximately $11,525 for limousines to chauffeur PO1 and his family on approximately 22 occasions. These trips included travel to the airport, trips to Detroit and Canada for gambling, and transporting POl's child to college. In exchange for the things of value POI received from PAYNE, POI used his official position to benefit Eagle's clients, Business 5, and PAYNE.

The Plain Dealer has a story online about the Stonebridge charge. It names Dimora as PO1. That would fit a detail in the search warrant executed at the engineer's office last July. One thing the FBI was looking for was: "All records, including keys, pertaining to Kevin Payne's, John Kevin Kelley's, or James "Jimmy" Dimora's use of a condominium in the Stonebridge development in 2008."

Two thoughts about the possible implications of this.

{One is that the Plain Dealer has often written about the FBI's county corruption investigation and the probe of Cleveland's building and housing department as if they were one investigation. Last month, the acting U.S. Attorney told me there was "very, very little" connection between the two. I wrote that his comments suggested the PD didn't know much about what the feds were thinking.}

{But this Stonebridge charge could add weight to the PD's theory of the case. This spring, federal prosecutors charged Hank Picozzi, an employee of Stonebridge owner K&D, with bribing a city inspector. If Picozzi aided the feds in their county investigation, that would fit the connection the paper has drawn.} Update, September: This story about Picozzi's guilty plea says he did not offer to cooperate with the feds until after March 2009. That weakens this possibility.

My other thought is: K&D is also the company that would like to buy the Ameritrust Tower from the county. I wonder if this will have any impact on that deal.

Update, 4 p.m.: I talked to Virginia Davidson, a lawyer for K&D. She declined to comment about the prosecutor's filing's references to a Business 5, which operates Stonebridge.

"K&D Group is not mentioned, is not named, is not a party, in the [filing]," she said.

"K&D is not accused of doing anything wrong. K&D has not done anything wrong. K&D is a good company with good people. K&D is doing a lot of things downtown."

Feds: Berea contractor paid for part of trip to Vegas, got help with bid and his choice of inspector

The complaint against J. Kevin Kelley and others also alleges that a business executive paid for parts of PO1 and PO2's April 2008 trip to Las Vegas.

Last year, Phoenix Cement of Berea got a $4.6 contract for a concrete job at the new county juvenile justice center. Blaze Construction, which shares an address with Phoenix, got a $2.8 million contract to resurface part of Snow Road in Parma. Blaze also bid on a $36 million general trades contract at the juvenile justice center, but didn't get it.

All three of those contracts are mentioned in the charging document against Kelley, though Phoenix and Blaze are referred to as Business 4 and Business 3.

An executive of both companies, "BE1," is alleged to have spent $4,500 on the Vegas trip "entertaining KELLEY, PO1, PO2, and PO2's travel companion." The document says: "On approximately seven occasions during the April 2008 Las Vegas trip, BE1 gave gaming chips to PO1."

When a problem developed with Blaze's bid on the $36 million contract, the complaint against Kelley alleges that "PO1 and PO2 talked on the telephone to each other and to other County employees concerning the problem with BE1's bid and instructed County employees to research bids, collect documents, contact other County employees, and take other actions with the intent of assisting BE1's companies."

Blaze didn't get the contract. It went to competitor Panzica Construction in April 2008. It got the Snow Road contract in May.

The feds allege that BE1 requested to have a certain inspector assigned to the Snow Road project. They say Kelley managed to make that happen. The charges say Kelley did that at PO1's urging -- to carry out BE1's request to have a certain inspector assigned to the Snow Road project:

KELLEY told PAYNE that PO1 again asked KELLEY if the particular inspector had been assigned to the Snow Road project. PAYNE said, "Why is that a big f-king deal to him [BE1]?" KELLEY responded by telling PAYNE about BE1 losing the general trades contract for the Juvenile Justice Center and mentioning that since PO1 could not help BE1 with the general trades contract, POI said to KELLEY, "I really want to get this done for this guy."

This charge is interesting for what PO1 allegedly did and what he didn't do. The feds say PO1 got part of his Vegas trip paid for by the Blaze/Phoenix official, that he successfully pushed for the inspector to get assigned to the Snow Road project, and that he tried to help Blaze with its bid on the juvenile justice center trades project.

But the trades contract went to someone else. There's no allegation that either concrete contract was steered.* And PO1's defense might easily include pointing to this line:

"It is going to be $35 million [POI] instead of $22 [million]. You going to be able to award it to me if I am low?" PO1 responded, "Yeah."
Here, PO1 could say he is just following the law: the low bidder usually gets a construction contract.

*Update, 6/17: Actually, the charges do suggest PO1 helped the Phoenix concrete bid in some way, but how is not clear. See this post for details. And again, Phoenix was the low bidder.

Feds: Kelley bribed with raises to get out of Parma mayor's race

The charges against J. Kevin Kelley include the allegation that he accepted a raise and reduced work hours in his job at the county auditor's office in 2002, in exchange for dropping his plans to run for mayor of Parma in the 2003 election. The deal was allegedly struck by an anonymous elected public official, "PO2."

Perhaps this is obvious, but: the elected official in charge of the auditor's office is the auditor, Frank Russo.

From the charging document:

In or about 2002, KELLEY was running for Mayor, City of Parma, Ohio. P02 told KELLEY that he had met with other members of the Democratic party, and that they wanted KELLEY to withdraw from the mayoral race. At that time, KELLEY was working 35 hours per week in the Auditor's Office, at an annual salary of approximately $58,000. P02 had ultimate authority over KELLEY's work hours and salary.
P02 offered to reduce KELLEY's work hours to 30 hours per week and to increase his annual salary to approximately $75,000, in exchange for KELLEY withdrawing from the mayoral race.
KELLEY withdrew from the race in or about December 2002, and P02 thereafter adjusted KELLEY's compensation. These raises were unnecessary and unjustified, in that they were based on KELLEY's agreement to withdraw from the mayoral race and not based on KELLEY's performance at the Auditor's Office.
196. In exchange for P02 convincing KELLEY to withdraw from the mayoral race, KELLEY's opponent gave a thing of value to a relative of P02.

Update, 3:15 pm: The Plain Dealer interprets that last part as referring to Parma Mayor Dean DePiero's 2004 hiring of Vince Russo, Frank Russo's son. DePiero, caught off guard, tells the PD that Kelley was never officially a candidate and calls Kelley a fabricator. I have a call in to DePiero.

Update, 6/15: Here is a written statement DePiero issued to the press: “I’m shocked at the allegation. What is being alleged about my actions is just not true. I have never been afraid to run against anybody, especially J. Kevin Kelley. I stand by my solid service and reputation as a public official.”

The trip to Vegas

The prosecutors believe that a county commissioner and another elected official received a trip to Las Vegas in exchange for getting a contract for Alternatives Agency.

Here's another excerpt from the charging document. The section 1951 mentioned at the end is the Hobbs Act, the federal bribery and extortion statute.
KELLEY used the additional funds he received from Business 1 to purchase first class airfare aboard Continental Airlines for P02, P02's travel companion, and PO 1, at a cost of $1,268.50 per ticket. PO1 and P02 each gave KELLEY a check to cover the cost of the airline ticket to make it appear as if PO1 and P02 each paid for his own ticket. P02's check did not include payment for his travel companion's ticket. Upon receiving the checks from P02 and PO 1, KELLEY gave them back cash in the approximate amount of the check each had given to KELLEY. Business 1, through increasing KELLEY's monthly consulting fee, intended to pay for P02's and PO 1's hotel rooms in Las Vegas. Despite KELLEY receiving an increase in payment from Business 1 for this purpose, the hotel rooms were paid through another means.
On or about April 6, 2008, KELLEY telephoned SCHUMAN and said, "Hey, we're heading out now [on the Las Vegas trip]. The guys [PO1 and P02] wanted me to call and thank you." SCHUMAN replied, "Oh, I hope everybody has a good time."
On or about April 6,2008, KELLEY, POI, P02, and P02's travel companion boarded a Continental Airlines flight from Cleveland to Las Vegas.
On or about April 9, 2008, SCHUMAN asked KELLEY if he was back in town. KELLEY confirmed he flew from Las Vegas on "the red eye" the previous night. SCHUMAN then said, "Come on down to the Agency tomorrow. I got the rest of your money." KELLEY replied, "Oh beautiful. I appreciate it sir."
On or about April 14, 2008, KELLEY and SCHUMAN discussed the Las Vegas trip. SCHUMAN then confirmed that KELLEY had picked up his check from Business I and inquired, "We're all square right?" KELLEY explained that one month remained at the increased rate before returning to the regular rate.

On or about April 17, 2008, the County Commissioners approved a $250,000 contract with Business 1 for residential facilities for the work release program, PO 1 having performed official acts to secure this contract for Business 1.

All in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1951.

"PO1" to Kelley: "I don't wanna know what you get out of this"

PO1, the anonymous public official mentioned but not charged in the prosecutor's allegations released today, is clearly a county commissioner.

An excerpt from the charges against J. Kevin Kelley, released today:

On or about February 13, 2008, SCHUMAN, another Business 1 employee, and KELLEY met for lunch at Delmonico's restaurant in Independence, Ohio. During that meal, KELLEY called PO1 and said that he was having lunch with SCHUMAN and another Business 1 employee. KELLEY said, "Yeah, their thing is on your agenda for tomorrow for their money.

PO1 asked, "Yeah, give 'em more you mean or take it away?" KELLEY responded, "No to give 'em back some of their, what you stole from them." POI laughed and said, "I don't wanna know what you get out of this, I don't even wanna f--ing know." KELLEY replied, "I get nothing out of this," to which POI responded, "I don't even wanna know.... The less I know the better." KELLEY responded, "Definitely. The less you know the better is right." KELLEY added, "Speaking of that, Vegas." KELLEY and PO1 then discussed reservations for their upcoming trip to Las Vegas.

On or about February 14, 2008, the County Commissioners approved a $250,000 allocation for Residential Facilities for the Work Release Program for the period May 1, 2008 through December 31, 2008, and authorized the Office of Procurement & Diversity to advertise for bids. Business 1 knew that it would be the sole bidder for this contract.

J. Kevin Kelley, two other former county employees indicted; two unnamed elected officials also implicated

The first charges in the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal came down today. J. Kevin Kelley, the former county engineer's employee and former Parma school board president, is charged with corrupting county and Parma schools contracts. Two other former county employees also face charges.

The charging document also says two elected public officials, "PO1" and "P02," received "property not due to them" from "Business 1." The document doesn't name them (in federal prosecutors' practice of not naming uncharged people in indictments). It charges that J. Kevin Kelley provided PO1 and PO2 with gifts such as expensive meals and a trip to New Orleans, in exchange for the expectation of favors.

The description of Business 1 matches the non-profit Alternatives Agency. A fourth person indicted is Brian Schuman, a former co-executive director for Alternatives Agency. See this Plain Dealer story from March for more on the organization.

{Update, 4:20 p.m.: "I’m aware of that allegation, but have no personal knowledge to that effect," said Tom Griveas, the new executive director of Alternatives Agency. Griveas says he started his job in May, and that Schuman resigned a week later. The agency also has a new board of directors, he says. "The board of directors has wanted to take the agency in a new direction, to get away from the taint Mr. Schuman has placed on this agency. We do good work here and want to continue to do it."}

The charging document quotes conversations of J. Kevin Kelley's dating back to December 2007, suggesting that the feds may have electronically monitored Kelley.

"These charges mark the beginning of the end to the reign that a few corrupt officials have held in Cuyahoga County government," Frank Figliuzzi, head of the FBI's Cleveland office, said in a statement.

Read the U.S. Attorney's press release here and the prosecutor's court filing here.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Medical Mart story, on the radio

Here is my story about the Medical Mart, which I talked about on WCPN's Reporters' Roundtable this morning. And here is the audio archive of the show.

I got to talk about most of the main points in my story, but not all. (We talked about the Mart being a promising but risky concept, because medical manufacturers are noncommittal about it so far. I didn't get into how the risk is mitigated by the fact that Cleveland will also get back into the competition for conventions of all kinds.)

The most fun was talking with Mark Puente of the Plain Dealer (who I profiled in the June issue because of his exposés of former sheriff Gerald McFaul). Dan Moulthrop and I asked him about his story on Earle Turner, the city clerk of courts, apparently not showing up to work much.

Some odd details that didn't make the story, but came out on the air: Turner was wearing a blanket during one interview with Puente. Another day, Turner sat in his car for 45 minutes, trying to avoid getting his picture taken. Eventually he gave up and the newspaper photographer got his shot. It's not that bad a photo!

Final draft of charter released

The county reform group has released a final draft of their proposed charter. Here it is. The only change since last week: They threw out the idea of electing the public defender.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Fudge, Jackson, Kucinich oppose county reform effort

U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge has just released a statement opposing a local reform group's new county charter proposal. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich have signed Fudge's statement, along with 5 state legislators, 11 suburban mayors, some black ministers and a labor leader.

Here is a link to their press release.

The signers say they support changing county government's structure in the future, but they argue that the proposed county executive and council system would result in "a concentration and dramatic increase in executive power." They also say it would decrease public oversight -- an argument they don't explain. Most of all, they say the effort to draft the charter wasn't inclusive enough.

This is an interesting position for Fudge to take. She pushed to include more people in the discussions about a charter. For a while it seemed like she was supportive of the reform effort. Now she and a lot of other public officials have formed an opposition to the charter petition drive before it even launches.

me on WCPN

I'll be on the Reporters' Roundtable on WCPN, 90.3 FM, tomorrow morning from 9:06 to 10 a.m.

Mark Puente from the Plain Dealer will also be a panelist. I'm looking forward to asking him about his exposé of Cleveland clerk of courts Earle Turner. Bill Cohen of the Ohio Public Radio Statehouse News Bureau will be on with us.

We're also going to talk about my Medical Mart story, the reform effort's proposed county charter, and the end of Cleveland's residency requirement. Lots of news this week!

Mansfield instructs county officials in perp walks

Anticipating indictments from the FBI probe, Mansfield B. Frazier taps into his life experience to give county officials and employees under investigation some advice: how to pull off a perp walk.

Cleveland's residency law struck down

Expect a new exodus from Cleveland with the Ohio Supreme Court's ruling today. It struck down all residency requirements for city employees, including Cleveland's 27-year-old law.

Cops were high-fiving each other in the Justice Center this morning as the news spread, according to Henry Gomez's report on cleveland.com.

Mayor Frank Jackson, who had fought to uphold Cleveland's residency law, admitted defeat. "Cleveland will survive," he said. "We've been through difficult times before."

Expect hundreds of cops and firefighters to move to the suburbs as soon as this summer, further shrinking Cleveland's tax base and housing values -- that is, if they can find buyers for their houses. (The ruling allows all city employees to move out of town, including civil servants, but the safety forces' unions led the 20-year fight against Cleveland's residency law.)

Jacqueline Marino contemplated what a ruling like this could cost the city in "It's Wonderful Living in West Park," her essay in the October 2005 issue of Cleveland Magazine.

Politically, the ruling could defang other legislation passed by Cleveland and other cities. It's a new precedent about conflicts between city and state laws and the "home rule" provision of Ohio's Constitution, which gives cities "all powers of local self-government." The state legislature banned residency requirements in 2006. Today, the court upheld the ban on the grounds that the Constitution gives the legislature the power to “provid[e] for the comfort, health, safety and general welfare of all employe[e]s."

Here is the Supreme Court's summary of the ruling, which links to the full opinion. Here's the story on the ruling from the Toledo Blade.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Charter draft is released, would transform county government

Reformers have released a draft of the county charter they want to put on the November ballot. (UPDATE, 6/10: I've replaced the June 4 draft with a link to the final version of the charter.)

A quick read shows it would create a county government very different from the one we have now.

-We'd have an elected county executive and an 11-person county council, instead of having three commissioners holding legislative and executive power.

-A prosecutor and public defender would be elected. All other county officials would be appointed.

-The council would have the power to investigate the spending and conduct of any county official or department. Today, the commissioners exert scant oversight of the other nine elected county officials.

-The county auditor and recorder would be replaced by a fiscal officer who would have to be a certified accountant.

-A human resources commission would establish uniform pay scales and job descriptions for all county offices. An internal audit commission would keep watch over spending.

-Voters could start petition drives to recall elected county officials. In the current system, we can't do that.

-County officials would have to report attempts to bribe them, and would be removed from office if they don't.

-Any money saved by creating the new government would go into a scholarship program for county residents.

-Several rules would encourage the county to focus on economic development as a mission.

-The elections for the new government would take place in November 2010, and the new county officials would take over in January 2011. Several current county officials elected in 2008 would lose their jobs.

Monday, June 8, 2009

How much time does reform effort have?

Update, 6/17: I got an answer to this -- the reformers have to turn in 45,000 signatures by July 13. The second round is to make up for any signatures declared invalid. See this new post.

The reform effort to create a new Cuyahoga County government has had an improvised, midnight-cramming-session feel, like a study group of procrastinators who've finally gotten together in the dorm-room lounge the night before the semester ends to try to ace the poli-sci final in the morning.

But they might get an extension.

It takes more than 45,000 petition signatures to get a proposed charter on the ballot. The deadline for turning in petitions is July 13. If the petition drive falls short, there's a second deadline, Sept. 4, for getting more signatures. Reading the law, {I think the reform effort could use this to buy more time. It looks like they could turn in, say, 10,000 signatures in July and 40,000 more in September, and still make the November ballot.}[Update: I was wrong.]

Or do they have to get 45,000 the first time around, with a second chance to make up for any signatures ruled invalid? [Update: Yes.]

I've asked the Board of Elections to explain. I'll let you know what they say.

Earle Turner latest target of PD exposé

Has the Plain Dealer run out of county officials to expose as patronage kings? Maybe -- because now they're investigating a city official: Earle Turner, the Cleveland municipal court clerk.

Both stories are by Mark Puente, the reporter whose exposés of former sheriff Gerald McFaul I wrote about in this month's Cleveland Magazine.

I'll let Puente's latest work speak for itself:
Turner averaged about seven hours in the office per week last year, according to parking records at the Justice Center.
Turner has hired 127 clerks since taking office in 1996, but none of them have taken a civil service test. ... Turner said state law allows him to use the "chief deputy" title on all hires. The label is not used to skirt civil service laws, he said. But he later added that if his employees took entrance tests, the city's civil service commission would oversee it and determine how many workers the office needs.

"I would lose my power," Turner said. "I wouldn't have no authority."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

My Medical Mart story, now online

In my newest feature, "Affairs of the Mart," I take a look at the prospects for the Medical Mart and convention center, Cleveland's biggest downtown project in a decade.

The story is in the June issue of Cleveland Magazine's sister publication, Inside Business, and it's online here.

Here are some key paragraphs:

The Medical Mart project is not the sure bet some supporters claim, nor the certain failure its critics envision. It is a significant risk on a promising concept.

It could give medical manufacturers and medical professionals an easier, more efficient way to connect and do business. But as an unproven idea in the medical industry, it is built on a challenging startup strategy. ...

Once the 77-year-old convention center is replaced with a state-of-the-art one, will conventioneers return to Cleveland? This simpler prospect has gotten much less attention than the Medical Mart. But it could make the project a success, even if the Medical Mart concept fails or takes a while to catch on.

(If you'd like to link to my article, you can use this shortcut: tinyurl.com/medmartIB.)

Voter fraud indictments: one guy

Looks like this is the end result of last fall's Cuyahoga County "voter fraud" scare -- the one that got Fox News, out-of-town Republicans and ACORN-haters frothing with a conspiracy theory about election-stealing.

One voter got indicted.

Not quite a vast left-wing conspiracy.

By the way, the guy was caught trying to double-vote.

Here's the press release from the county prosecutor's office:

Darnell Nash Indicted for Voter Fraud

CLEVELAND-Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason announced that Darnell Nash was indicted on charges of Tampering with Records, False Registration and Illegal Voting. County Sheriff's Office conducted the investigation.

Between May 31, 2008 and September 30, 2008, Nash registered to vote via ACORN nine times using fraudulent names and addresses in Shaker Heights and Cleveland. On September 30, 2008, Nash registered and voted at the Board of Elections using a false address on Lee Road in Shaker Heights.

Nash is indicted on 19 counts: nine (9) counts of Tampering with Records, third degree felonies; nine (9) counts of False Registration, fifth degree felonies; one (1) count of Illegal Voting, a fourth degree felony.

Downtown through Roldo's eyes

In this week's Cool Cleveland, Roldo Bartimole looks at downtown Cleveland as almost no one else can.

He walks and rides along Euclid Avenue, saddened to see the empty storefronts and the meager number of people on the street. Then he taps his 40 years of reporter's knowledge to see the scene in another way. He looks up at buildings restored with the help of public subsidies and tax abatements, recalls how many millions each one cost the taxpayers, and asks whether all that money has done any good.

Bartimole is Cleveland's original alternative journalist. His newsletter Point of View, which he published from 1968 to 2000 (now partially archived on clevelandmemory.org), critiqued Cleveland's media and power elite long before alternative weeklies debuted here.

Most of his writing is very newsy, full of numbers and references to controversies of decades past. This one, though, is vivid like a good magazine piece, weaving observation and fact, past and present.

It's also a very clear statement of Roldo's ideology, which is still very influential in our alternative press and blogosphere. He's not just a left-liberal -- his take on Cleveland is a sort of frugal populism. Simply put, he is always against tax abatement and public subsidy of local development.

He writes:

I had lunch with Norm Krumholz, picking him up at CSU’s Urban Studies office. I mentioned the dismal state of downtown. “It’s your fault,” he said, not really meaning it. I knew he meant I had opposed every project in the downtown area. “What are you talking about? Everything I opposed was done. How could it be my fault?”

He looks at downtown and sees more than $660 million in taxpayer money spent.

All for what? A depressed and depressing downtown. The price hasn’t matched the expectations. ...

What is the answer? Private development done naturally to meet needs. You can’t force people to be where they don’t want to be, to do what they don’t want to do.

Plenty of people would argue with him. A lot have. A few weeks ago, Roldo took on some of his online critics in this column.

I tend to think tax abatement is sometimes necessary because Cleveland is not competing with other communities on a level playing field. It's hard to attract development downtown when there's no undeveloped land and property tax rates are lower elsewhere.

But even if you don't agree with Roldo's ideology, his work plays a role in town: he knows the hidden costs of all of Cleveland's big projects, and his questions help us evaluate if the next one is worth it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The reporter who took on the sheriff

I've got a new politics article in the June issue of Cleveland Magazine. It's about Mark Puente (pictured), the Plain Dealer reporter whose exposés this winter ended with Sheriff Gerald McFaul's resignation.

Here's a link to the article on clevelandmagazine.com.

(If you'd like to link to it, you can use this shortcut: tinyurl.com/PuenteMcFaulCM)

Reform announcement tomorrow?

Today on WMJI, Parma mayor Dean DePiero said an announcement on the county reform effort is likely coming tomorrow. (DePiero has attended a few meetings about it.)

Once I hear more, I'll post.

Today's Plain Dealer says the group is close to an agreement on a charter. Some state representatives are preparing a backup plan in case the charter can't get on the ballot. An editorial demands a plan now. Politics reporter Mark Naymik is talking with Mike McIntyre about the effort right now on a live webcast.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fudge to reform group: Write the charter already!

I just got this press release from U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge's office. It means two things:

-Fudge still supports county reform, even though her friend, county recorder Lillian Greene, claims it won't benefit black voters.

-The reformers are running out of time to get a county charter on this year's ballot -- they only have until July 13 to launch a petition drive and turn in signatures. So Fudge wants them to quit arguing about what powers a county executive should have, or how to draw lines for county council districts, and propose a charter already!

Plusquellic, Sutton win "Sexiest Politician" contest

The votes are in at Political Science 216, and Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic and U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton have been elected "Sexiest Politicians in Greater Cleveland."

The Professor's readers think power is sexy at any age. Plusquellic, 59, was the oldest of the male contenders, while Sutton, 45, beat out several challengers in their 30s and early 40s (as well as Judge Joan Synenberg, who's 48). Sutton's victory is her second in such competitions -- she was named one of Capitol Hill's most beautiful people last year.

As voting trends became clear, The Professor speculated that Plusquellic's supporters were flocking to his site, using the contest as a proxy war in Akron's mayoral recall campaign. But an Akron reporter I talked to recently thinks the surge for Plusquellic was authentic. Female reporters in Akron often gush about the mayor's good looks, he says: "He's got movie-star presence."

I guess I can see that. The mayor has sort of a Sinatra thing going in this picture, don't you think?