Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Life of the Party: my Jimmy Dimora profile

My newest feature, an in-depth profile of Jimmy Dimora, is now online. It tells the story of the embattled county commissioner's 32-year career and the federal investigation encircling him. It also appears in the October issue of Cleveland Magazine, available at bookstores now and other newsstands next week.

I'll be talking about the story on the radio tomorrow morning on 90.3 WCPN. It's one of several topics on the agenda for the Reporter's Roundtable, from 9:06 to 10 a.m.

Here are the headline and some key paragraphs:

Life of the Party
The most social of leaders, Jimmy Dimora built a career on connections and loyalty. It helped him turn Cuyahoga County’s Democratic Party into a nearly unbeatable machine. It may also be his undoing.

People are fond of Jimmy Dimora — lots of people. Dimora reigned for a decade as Cuyahoga County commissioner and Democratic Party chairman because of who he is. He stood out in a field of gray suits (even when he wore one) as the friendliest and funniest guy in local politics, the guy who showed up everywhere and cracked up crowds with outrageous jokes no one else could get away with.

That side of Dimora, not a caricature of angry arrogance, may be the key to understanding how he became a target of a federal corruption investigation. It may also explain why he insists he is innocent and, when asked at the press conference if he’d done anything wrong, he replied, “I’m not an angel, but I’m no crook,” and added, “I’m not doing anything different than any other public official does.”

Friends, allies and rivals have offered insights into how Dimora has approached politics, friendships, favors and connections throughout his 32 years in public office. Their accounts may help explain how Dimora got into trouble — how the most social of leaders, a guy who rarely said no to an invitation, who made deals over restaurant tables, who knows every political figure in town and what they want, who’s built a career on connections and loyalty, might have said yes to too many gifts, may have put in a good word for too many people and may have nudged and then lumbered his way over a line that he still doesn’t think he crossed.

Update, 9/16/10: Dimora was indicted Sept. 15 on 24 bribery charges and two counts of obstruction of justice. "I have done nothing wrong," he said afterward. See my blog posts on the indictment, his not-guilty plea, and his comments at the courthouse yesterday.
(If you'd like to link to my profile, you can use this shortcut:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Feds: Russo got $1.2m in cash kickbacks

"During the course of the conspiracy, PO2 received approximately $1,220,000 in kickbacks."

--From federal prosecutors' extortion conspiracy charge against former Frank Russo employee Sandy Klimkowski

Now we know how big the FBI's local corruption investigation is: Really big. The feds believe county auditor Frank Russo is a million-dollar crook.

New federal charges suggest Russo got $1.22 million in cash kickbacks over 11 years, delivered monthly in manila envelopes, in exchange for outsourcing the $21 million job of appraising every commercial property in Cuyahoga County. The alleged bag woman was Sandy Klimkowski, a top assistant of Russo's until last week. She purportedly got $154,000 in cash herself. Her lawyer says she'll plead guilty to the charges against her.

The Cuyahoga County corruption scandal has now brought our system of commercial property appraisal -- the core of our tax base -- into question. Treasurer Jim Rokakis and former auditor Tim McCormack are sounding huge alarms. This pair of stories in today's Plain Dealer suggests that the alleged conspirators may have not only corrupted the appraisal contract, they may have tampered with or influenced some of the appraisals themselves. {Update, 11/1: Richard Blake, the attorney who reviewed the county business that the investigation touches on, reported that he did not find evidence of tampered appraisals. His report is online here.}

Rokakis wants state auditor Mary Taylor and attorney general Richard Cordray to investigate. Taylor's spokesperson says she may well start a special audit of Russo's office. It's high time. Her special audit of the county recorder's office, requested by the county commissioners after Pat O'Malley left the job, found that O'Malley had wasted $1 million a year. What would Taylor find in Russo's books?

The feds haven't charged Russo or named him in the Klimkowski charges, but their code phrase, Public Official 2, is no mystery to Cleveland at this point. The description of PO2 in the Kevin Kelley charges fit only Russo, and it fits only him in the Klimkowski charges now. County commissioners Tim Hagan and Peter Lawson Jones have called for Russo to resign. So has Lakewood Mayor Ed Fitzgerald, who wants Russo's job.

{Update, 9/24: Jones and Hagan -- and Jimmy Dimora! -- have also called for Taylor and Cordray to do a special performance audit. Here's the story on Jones and Hagan's statements at the county commission meeting. The photo shows Dimora's seat empty -- he left the room during the discussion about Russo, but signed the audit request.}

Klimkowski also faces charges that she corrupted the Maple Heights school district while she was a school board member. She allegedly got free home improvements -- a free pool deck, a free bay window, free aluminum siding -- from Steve Pumper in exchange for help getting 20 contracts with the Maple Heights schools for Pumper's former company, DAS Construction. She and a deceased attorney for the district, Lou Damiani, allegedly arranged to use school district money to buy "electronic equipment, household items, a swimming pool heater and consumables" for their personal use.

"One effect of the conspiracy was that [the district] had fewer resources with which to serve its students," prosecutors wrote.

The new allegations were filed Friday. (Sorry I didn't write about them earlier -- I was on vacation.) Here are links to the charges and the U.S. Attorney's press release, both in pdf form.

Monday, September 14, 2009

PD's inside story on dueling reforms: Who looks good, who looks bad

Dan Moulthrop of WCPN posted this on Facebook today: "Just finished reading Amanda Garrett's Sunday piece on the politics behind the dueling county reform measures. I've gotta say, if what she writes is true, some of our local leaders look pretty unimpressive. Others look pretty great. Your thoughts?"

I agree. That's one reason Garrett's story is a must-read: her intimate narrative of the politics behind the two ballot measures reveals a lot about how Cleveland's politicians think and act.

Lillian Greene, the county recorder, looks the worst. She comes off as an obstructionist who only joined Martin Zanotti's reform meetings to disrupt them. She walked out of one meeting after giving an angry speech.

Greene's office is the most obvious one to eliminate if you're trying to make county government more efficient -- do we really need to elect someone just to record deeds? But even though the Issue 6 group painstakingly gerrymandered the county council map to create four black-majority districts, Greene thinks she owes it to black voters to hang onto her job:

"Why would the black community go backward when never before in the more than 200-year history of the county have we had two countywide elected officials!" Greene recounted in an e-mail to The Plain Dealer, referring to herself and Peter Lawson Jones. ...

Greene said she told the reform group a story about an older black woman who had recently approached her. The woman asked Greene who she was and when Greene told her, the woman told Greene how proud she was of her being in office.

"That was the final piece that solidified my position on this 'reform,' " Greene said.

State Sen. Nina Turner looks put-upon and courageous in the story. The 2nd graf describes the reaction when Turner signed on to the Issue 6 effort to create a county executive and council:

Several operatives for Cleveland's most powerful black Democrats -- many of whom Turner had looked up to -- telephoned the young black Democrat with this dire warning: They would ruin her if she didn't reconsider, Turner said.

How dare she break ranks with black leaders, they admonished, according to Turner.

Harriet Applegate, the local AFL-CIO head, looks indecisive and defensive of the status quo -- or undercut by her union's rank and file. She surprises Zanotti by e-mailing him a draft of a (never-issued) press release that tenatively praises the Issue 6 group's efforts:

The county reform proposal being released today represents good progress in the hammering out of a consensus document. ... The result is a proposal that addresses the concerns raised by critics over the years as well as the current need for better facilitation of economic development.

But five days later, Applegate's union votes against the reform plan. Here's her explanation:

Applegate said recently that it took some distance from the group to realize that the reform plan was wrong. "We met people so involved, so committed, so passionate about their project that it was hard to say no to them," she said.

Zanotti claims she told him something different:

Applegate later called to explain, Zanotti said. "She basically said the unions were concerned about protecting their friends -- Jimmy [Commissioner Dimora] and Frank [Auditor Russo] -- and the other elected officials."

That's a third-hand account -- union members to Applegate to Zanotti to Garrett -- filtered through Zanotti's bias. But it's still damning, if true.

Zanotti is clearly a key source for Garrett's story. The online version says the reporter spoke to two dozen people, but Zanotti, the public face of the Issue 6 effort, emerges as the main character of the narrative. (He also seems to be Garrett's likely source for the Applegate e-mail.)

So Issue 6 opponents will probably dismiss Garrett's story as biased. They think a county executive and council are a bad idea, so surely they're glad that the effort led to "political turmoil"! But they'll probably like a few parts of the story, including the way it describes county prosecutor Bill Mason:

The Parma native is an insider's insider in the county Democratic Party. Why would he want to change a government he helped foster?

Mason has a simple answer -- to save a dying region. Doubters suspect otherwise.

As the FBI snoops through the homes and offices of Cuyahoga County Democrats looking for corruption, the doubters say Mason may want to shed his party insider image and rebrand himself a reformer who crosses party lines.

Issue 6's opponents will likely scoff at Zanotti's failed attempts to get political organizer Arnold Pinkney to round up black support for the proposal:

Zanotti wanted Pinkney to help break through the fear. As Zanotti tells it, he told Pinkney that reform must move forward but that it couldn't if the change was seen as racially divisive. ... He asked Pinkney to act as a sounding board for the black community and as a catalyst to bring its leadership to the table.

Finally, opponents will note that the story includes the names of three wealthy Republican political donors -- Umberto Fedeli, Mal Mixon, and Ed Crawford -- involved in the Issue 6 charter group. This is only the second PD story to mention Fedeli and Mixon's involvement. Opponents love to call Issue 6 the "Zanotti-Mason-Republican effort," to try to discredit it with Democratic voters.

Issue 6 opponents won't like one part of the story at all: the line where Garrett falls back on a biased bad habit the Plain Dealer has picked up. The paper, echoing Issue 6 supporters, keeps saying the charter commission proposed in Issue 5 would only "study" reform:

Instead of putting forward a specific plan, the commissioners asked voters to create a 15-member charter review commission that would study reform -- again.

I've written about this before. Peter Lawson Jones is right, and the Issue 6 supporters wrong: the Ohio Constitution would require the charter commission to write a charter and put it on the ballot next year.

The real question is, what would the charter commission propose -- major changes to county government or minor fixes? Applegate and the slate of charter commission candidates she heads won't say. You can bet they won't create a county executive, though.

At the City Club debate last month, the ever-shifting Applegate sounded like she might be willing to eliminate some of the many elected offices in county government (like coroner, recorder, engineer, etc.). But this spring, Garrett's story says, Applegate sent a memo to AFL-CIO supporters complaining about Mason getting involved in reform:

The memo included a half-dozen points, including Mason involving Republicans in reform and the possible elimination of "elected offices in a county which is the largest and most solidly Democratic Party in Ohio."

Most county reform ideas address three questions: Should we have an executive and council, or keep the three commissioners? Should some elected offices become appointed? And should some of those offices be merged?

Applegate's April memo makes it sound like she's against all three of those possible changes. So does she really want a charter commission to change anything?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mayor gets 72% in tiny turnout; Patmon edges Kilo, goes on to November

Mayor Frank Jackson scored a huge but somewhat hollow victory tonight, winning 72 percent of the vote in a primary with extremely low turnout.

Jackson is at 24,085 votes, while former city councilman Bill Patmon has edged out businessman Robert Kilo for second place, 3,748 to 3,328, with all but one of the city's 345 precincts reporting.

That 72 percent to 11 percent spread cannot be encouraging for Patmon. But at least Cleveland will get a lively debate this fall with Patmon as Jackson's challenger. With his 12 years of experience on council, Patmon knows City Hall and knows how to campaign and make a case against an opponent. He's challenged the mayor on the city budget, the proposed port expansion, and leadership style. (Here is a profile I wrote about Patmon in 2001.)

If Kilo had finished second (which looked like a real possibility for much of tonight), the mayor's race would've been completely docile and uneventful -- at least, judging by Kilo's repeated praise for Jackson and vague message in the City Club debate last week. Kilo's disciplined businessman's approach to the campaign and his very religious message obviously appealed to a decent number of voters. But if Kilo had beaten the much more politically experienced Patmon, it also surely would have been proof that race can still be a deciding factor in Cleveland elections.

Instead, the biggest news is that a wide range of voters seem comfortable with Jackson, receptive to his steady but quiet leadership and thankful for his balanced budgets. On the other hand, Jackson and his challengers did not excite passion. Only about 33,000 people out of a city of 440,000 showed up to vote.

Here's a link to all of tonight's election results.

Jeff Johnson's comeback is imminent; he takes first in Ward 8

Ten years ago, Cleveland Magazine published "The Rise and Fall of Jeff Johnson," a profile of the talented, charismatic former state senator that detailed his career and his conviction for extortion. Now, Johnson is on the verge of writing a new story about his fall and rise.

Johnson seems to have convinced voters in the Glenville neighborhood that he is rehabilitated. He's in first tonight in the Ward 8 primary, with 906 votes. Shari Cloud, appointed to the vacant council seat this spring, is in second with 614 votes, with 18 of 20 precincts reporting.

I've heard and read few complaints about Johnson's return. Lots of people who follow local politics seem happy that he's back. They remember his work representing Glenville on council in the 1980s, and they think he's a major talent who can add intelligence and energy to a quiet City Hall.

Santiago eliminated; Cummins, Nagin will face off in Ward 14

Joe Santiago won't return to council next year. He came in third in Ward 14, losing to councilman Brian Cummins and former council aide Rick Nagin.

City council will lose its only Hispanic representative. The years-long feud between Santiago and former councilman Nelson Cintron ends (or does it?) with both of them out of the picture. (Cintron came in fourth.) Local Hispanic leaders will be crestfallen, but trouble is, both Santiago and Cintron were flawed candidates.

A few months ago, political observers thought Cummins was going to lose his seat because of redistricting. He'd come out in favor of reducing the size of council, so it looked like council president Martin Sweeney was willing to start by reducing him. But he ran against Santiago in the new ward, and won.

Nagin was no one's pick to finish second a few months ago, but he came on strong toward the end, with endorsements from Dennis Kucinich, the AFL-CIO, and the Call & Post, plus lots of knowledge of the neighborhood dating back to his time as Cintron's council aide. I expect "Communist candidate makes city council runoff" to be a headline somewhere soon -- Nagin is a former head of the Ohio Communist Party!

Zack Reed takes big lead in Ward 2

Looks like Zack Reed adjusted to his new ward just fine. The outspoken, ultra-social maverick councilman cruised to a big win in Ward 2. He got 1,343 votes, way ahead of Charlene Laster, in second with 417 votes.

People said Reed's old ward got carved up in redistricting because he criticized council president Martin Sweeney so often. But that didn't stop Reed. (Nor did it stop Brian Cummins, but I'll save that for another post.) He campaigned hard, and his experience lifted him past a field that failed to make much of a case against him. He'll have to beat Laster in November, but tonight's results suggest that won't be hard for him.

Cleveland votes today

Cleveland residents go to the polls today for the city primary to choose among five candidates for mayor. Eight out of 19 wards will vote on city council candidates. (Find out where to vote and what ward you're in here. Polls are open 6:30 am to 7:30 pm.)

If you're voting, the big question is, what do you think of Mayor Frank Jackson's last four years? And if you don't like the job he's done, do you think any of the challengers can do better? (Here's my previous post about the TV and newspaper interviews with the candidates.)

I think pretty much everyone expects Jackson to finish first, so tomorrow night we'll be waiting to see who'll come in second and challenge Jackson in the general election -- and whether Jackson finishes so far ahead that everyone will write off the second round.

Here's what's happened in the biggest city council races since my post last month.

The three-way fight in Ward 14 (on the near West Side) has become a four-way fight. Councilmen Joe Santiago and Brian Cummins are battling for the seat with former councilman Nelson Cintron. Rick Nagin, Cintron's former aide, has gotten endorsements from Dennis Kucinich and the AFL-CIO. This is really interesting. One reason is that Nagin is a former chairman of the Ohio Communist Party and a frequent contributor to the Communist Party USA's newspaper, People's Weekly World. (He is a registered Democrat.)

Santiago hasn't campaigned much, and he skipped the City Club debate for this seat. I am really curious to see who survives the primary. Here's some analysis of this race from Henry Gomez at

Zack Reed, running in the new Ward 2 (on the southeast side), is trying hard to stay on council. He brought in U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters from Los Angeles to campaign with him this weekend. But he's running in new territory because of redistricting, and his many opponents are using his two DUIs against him. He also can't use the word "re-elect" on his signs. The City Club debate for this ward was cringe-inducingly bad, judging by Gomez's account of it. The Plain Dealer endorsed Charlene Laster, a pharmacist and sister of a judge, saying Reed could "benefit from some time out of the limelight." But the Call & Post, the city's major black newspaper, endorsed Reed, saying he's earned another term at City Hall.

Jeff Johnson won both the Plain Dealer and Call & Post endorsements in Glenville's Ward 8, setting him up for a comeback 10 years after his conviction for extortion. "Johnson deserves a second chance," the Call & Post wrote. "He is smart and can be a great assert to some of the younger council members. Johnson insists he is humbler, wiser and less confrontational."

(This letter writer asked why the Plain Dealer editorial page chose to forgive Johnson for extortion and council president Martin Sweeney for a sexual harassment lawsuit, but not Reed for DUIs.)

In Ward 6 (East Side near Buckeye Road), social worker John Boyd got the Call & Post endorsement, despite having killed a man in 1973. The paper praised his "voice of strength" and called him "enthusiastic and energetic," while criticizing incumbent Mamie Mitchell as having "a very low profile." The Plain Dealer said almost the same thing about Mitchell, and praised Boyd, now a social worker, as "compelling proof of reincarnation after incarceration," but disliked his "abrasive style" and reminded readers of his rap sheet. The PD endorsed Darnell Brewer, a 33-year-old service coordinator.

Over in South Collinwood's Ward 10, former state Rep. Eugene Miller is the incumbent thanks to a switcheroo -- he and former councilman Roosevelt Coats tried to swap seats this April. But House Democrats chose Robin Belcher, an assistant prosecutor, instead of Coats. If endorsements are a guide, Miller might run into trouble holding onto his appointed seat. The Plain Dealer, without criticizing Miller, recommended probation officer Stephanie Pope for the council seat instead. The Call & Post gave Miller a backhanded endorsement, calling him "a hothead" but saying voters should elect him "in spite of his arrogance."

Monday, September 7, 2009

Youngstown says no to Traficant

Good story in the Washington Post today about Jim Traficant getting out of prison. (Click here to read it -- the site may ask you to offer a zip code.)

It's a funny story, as Traficant stories usually are. How can it not be when it starts with an account of Traficant's release party, complete with an Elvis impersonator, a toupee contest, and the return of Jimbo's skinny tie?

But aside from a talk show host and the crowd at Mr. Anthony's Banquet Center, writer Mary Jordan talks to a lot of Youngstownians who say the city has moved on from Traficant's reign of bombast. Jordan writes:

Many others are appalled at the welcome he is getting. They remember the envelopes of money he demanded of his own staff, the taxes he didn't pay, the political clout he traded for gravel and contractor muscle on his horse farm.

"He no longer represents who we are," Mayor Jay Williams tells Jordan. "His antics, his vision of what is appropriate and inappropriate . . . we are beyond that now."

He "brought shame and ridicule to his office and to this community," states regional chamber of commerce head Tom Humphries.

Oh, and the Youngstown Scrappers cancelled their "Traficant Release Night" at the ballpark.

Traficant still thinks he's ready for a comeback of some kind. "I plan to get right back in it!" he told the release party crowd.

Who knows what "it" means. Felons can't run for state office in Ohio. But they can run for Congress.

I bet Jordan just loved being able to end the story with this line:

Paul Gains, the county prosecutor who was once shot by Mafia hitmen, said: "Nobody believes he will sit back and retire."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mayoral candidates debate at City Club

The five candidates for mayor debated at the City Club yesterday. You can download the podcast here if you'd like to listen. Here's WKYC-TV's coverage of the event.

I couldn't make it, but Henry Gomez did. The Plain Dealer's City Hall reporter was unimpressed. "Jackson's opponents miss key chance to score points," reads the huge headline on his analysis on page 1B today. (He's followed up with further thoughts on his City Hall blog.) But Leon Bibb of NewsChannel 5 says the challengers hit the mayor on the state of the Cleveland schools.

This isn't the first time the candidates have debated. Gomez live-blogged from an August debate in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood: you can read his reports here and here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

WKYC, WCPN interview 5 candidates for mayor

In an election like Cleveland's race for mayor, reporters have a dilemma: do they give equal time to all the candidates, or do they use their news judgment, and the candidates' experience and past success, to figure out who the front-runners are?

If you don't want reporters handicapping the field, if you want equal info about all five candidates for mayor, then check out the interviews on and

Tom Beres, Channel 3's veteran politics reporter, has posted his video interviews with the candidates. Here are the links to Frank Jackson, Bill Patmon, Kimberly Brown, Robert Kilo, and Laverne Jones Gore. (The videos take a few seconds to appear.)

WCPN reporters Rick Jackson and Eric Wellman have also interviewed everyone. Here are the links to podcasts of the interviews with Laverne Jones Gore, Robert Kilo, Kimberly Brown, Bill Patmon, and Frank Jackson.

The Plain Dealer has played it both ways. City Hall reporter Henry Gomez interviewed all five candidates and analyzed the race on the same day, then evaluated the mayor's first term and let all four challengers take their shots at him.

The City Club mayoral debate is tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. You can watch a live webcast or listen to a podcast afterwards. It'll be broadcast on WCPN, 90.3 FM, at 8 p.m. tomorrow night.

And if all this equality seems way too neutral for a blog, here's my handicapping.