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.

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