Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Voinovich's two legacies, in Washington and Cleveland

George Voinovich hasn’t changed much in 31 years. That’s clear from a moment in his recent Washington Post interview when he recalled his 10 years at Cleveland City Hall.

“When I was the mayor, shooting for those All American City Awards each year was a real motivator,” he said. “And it never would have happened without the private sector and urban pioneers helping us rebuild a city where Cleveland used to be.”

He’s echoing a line from his 1979 run for mayor: “I want to build a great city where Cleveland used to be.” It’s a line I quote in “The Great Divide,” my piece on Voinovich in Cleveland Magazine’s December issue.

My story describes how Voinovich realigned Cleveland politics as mayor by introducing the phrase “public-private partnership” into our vocabulary. In the 30 years since, our biggest arguments haven’t been between conservatives and liberals. They’ve been about whether you see Cleveland the way Voinovich did, especially whether you’re for or against big public-private projects downtown, from Gateway to the Rock Hall to the Medical Mart. The Post interview picks up on Voinovich’s ideology, asking him how he’ll be involved in public-private partnerships after he retires from the Senate Jan. 2.

In Washington, Voinovich will be remembered for his role as a deficit hawk and his moderate politics. He showed both streaks in this month’s climactic lame-duck session, blasting the Obama-Republican tax-cut compromise for running up more debt on one hand, and on the other, voting to allow gays to serve openly in the military and supporting the New Start arms control treaty.

At home in Cleveland, he’ll be remembered for his philosophy of partnership. Last week, when county executive-elect Ed FitzGerald created a task force of business executives to aid the transition to a new county government, his announcement explicitly referred to Voinovich’s 1980 task force that helped the city climb out of default. And the county charter calls for FitzGerald to sit down with representatives of labor, nonprofits and business to develop a new economic strategy for the region. Voinovich may be retiring, but his philosophy is written right into our new government.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ellen Connally’s horrible week

Well, this isn’t what C. Ellen Connally expected. Belligerent Tea Partiers from “District Zero” getting in her face. A rival who cuts a deal with her, then publicly apologizes. Angry front-page headlines for four six days straight.

Yes, Connally, my November profile subject, had the Worst Week in Cleveland.

On Friday, Connally thought she’d nailed down the six votes she needed to become Cuyahoga County council president. Turns out it won't be so easy. News of the private meeting where she forged a pact with fellow councilman-elect Dale Miller reached the Plain Dealer, and the town went wild.

The council-to-be’s get-together yesterday at Cleveland State degenerated into a chaotic embarrassment, the likes of which I haven’t seen at a public meeting since Jimmy Dimora shut up and East Cleveland got rid of Eric Brewer. Now, an extremely scientific online poll of people who read the Plain Dealer’s angry editorial finds (as of tonight) that 84.75% think the “secret meeting” was “outrageous” and “must not stand,” while 9.36% think it’s merely “regrettable.”

Watching the pitchforks gather, I’m tempted to mount an extremely unfashionable defense of the old-fashioned art of politics. I'm as big a fan of transparency as the next reporter, but I also know how leadership contests in councils and legislatures really work. Of course candidates line up their support before the actual vote. Of course a three-way fight ends with two hopefuls cutting a deal to ice out the third. Connally's machinations look pretty mild by most political standards. And compared to the gladiatorial combat I’ve seen break out over the Cleveland city council presidency, the county councilors who met at Julian Rogers’ house look like nuns in a convent.

Still, I’m counting four errors Connally and her allies made that are impossible to defend as good politics, let alone good government.

#1: After Stuart Garson’s plan to hold a Democratic caucus was ferociously slapped down, she didn't take the hint that "secret meetings" are not in vogue in the post-Dimora era. She showed a tin ear for the public's desire for transparency -- and a simple lack of shrewdness by not striking her deal in a dozen phone calls instead.

#2: Connally called Chuck Germana to say there was a party, but he wasn’t invited -- thus assuring the friendly get-together would end up exposed on page A1. (Note how Dave Greenspan was “shocked” in the Saturday story, but Germana wasn’t.)

#3: Rogers invited five council members, but let a sixth in when he showed up. Now everyone can say they violated the spirit of Ohio’s sunshine law. Once the council takes office, it’ll be illegal for six or more of the 11 to meet in private.

#4: Connally tried to talk her way out of the mess and made it worse. Her possibly fatal quote, “Leadership is not the public’s business,” strikes me as a former judge’s failed attempt to be law-school clever. Trying to argue that the sunshine law doesn’t apply to leadership debates, Connally stumbled into a gaffe that may have done terrible harm to her reputation.

That’d be a shame. Connally doesn’t fit the arrogant caricature flying around Cleveland.com’s scabrous comment sections. She’s still one of the new council’s top talents. Like I said in my profile, “Change Agent,” she’s got a judge’s calm demeanor, rectitude and intellect, combined with a blunt honesty and sharp wit. Her op-ed takedown of George Forbes last year over a fawn-beating in Euclid is a classic of recent Cleveland political humor. It’s ironic how quickly someone can go from being the rotten-tomato-thrower to the splattered.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Why didn't the Plain Dealer catch county corruption?

Doris O’Donnell, one of Cleveland’s best reporters of the mid-20th century, asked the question first. Why didn’t the Plain Dealer expose Cuyahoga County’s corruption before the FBI?

“The reporters had to be pretty goddamn lazy if they didn't know that Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo have been living on the hog for 10 years,” the retired reporter raged to Scene in 2008, after federal agents raided the county building. “How can they get away with those houses and that real estate company without anyone knowing?”

The ten houses Russo bought and sold, some for upwards of $400,000. The 619 gift-givers and 389 free meals Dimora meticulously reported to the state over 11 years. Why no stories about them before the FBI noticed?

Now, Ted Diadiun’s spent 4,729 words trying to answer the question. His review of the paper’s county government coverage in last Sunday’s paper wasn’t as harsh as O’Donnell’s. The PD wasn’t lazy before 2008, the reader representative wrote, but it was guilty of “sins of journalistic omission -- the failure to follow up leads, to cultivate sources and mobilize resources, to report aggressively on matters of keen public interest rather than accepting business as usual.”

Diadiun’s final verdict was fair and tough. But his story starts slow, leaving the best stuff toward the end. Fascinating details hang in the air, their implications never nailed down. Here’s my guide to the highlights – or, really, the lowlights.

The paper’s old hands let Gerald McFaul off easy. Dick Feagler, former columnist for the PD and the Cleveland Press, offered one of the story’s most honest and disappointing quotes:
I knew Gerry McFaul back in the old days. I knew he was probably playing fast and loose . . . but I think my mind was that that's the way the system was. I don't remember anyone fainting with shock when they found out that the sheriff was taking kickbacks.
Brent Larkin, the paper’s political sage and editorial page editor, also missed a possible chance to catch McFaul. Diadiun writes:
Larkin had a friendly relationship with the former sheriff. … One of [Mark] Puente's sources said that he saw Larkin jocularly talking to McFaul at public gatherings and concluded that he'd better keep whatever information he had about McFaul to himself. Larkin was just doing his job as a columnist by getting out and about, but that's not the way it appeared, at least to this potential tipster.
Diadiun cuts Larkin too much of a break here. He notes that Larkin wrote a column accounting for his failure to see McFaul’s true character, but he doesn’t quote this key line from Larkin’s piece:
There were periodic rumblings about the aggressive fund-raising tactics surrounding McFaul's annual clambake. But the overwhelming consensus in town held that McFaul was a pretty good sheriff.
Turns out those clambakes were a big story. Investigators say McFaul made deputies spend 500 hours a year selling tickets to them on county time. Also, McFaul pocketed $50,000 in cash over 10 years from souvenirs he sold at them. Oops!

The paper published warnings about Dimora and Russo’s character – then took its eye off them. Diadiun starts by summing up decades of the paper’s Dimora, Russo, and McFaul coverage. The PD ran tough pieces that foreshadowed today’s corruption scandal: 1992 reports on the political mini-machine Dimora assembled in Bedford Heights, coverage of Russo’s guilty plea to misdemeanor dereliction of duty in 1998.

But that sharp coverage begs the bigger question. When Dimora and Russo survived those scandals and became the local Democratic Party’s most powerful leaders, why didn’t alarm bells go off in the newsroom? Why wasn’t the paper watching to see if they’d cut corners on a bigger scale?

Doug Clifton hunted corruption at the city, not the county. For years, the paper had only one reporter covering Cuyahoga County government, Diadiun reminds us. That inevitably reflects on Clifton, editor from 1999 to 2007.

Clifton hangs the reporters who held that beat out to dry. “We had people covering the county, and if they’d been doing their job, they should have been looking into it,” he told Diadiun. Yes, but guidance and resources come from the top.

Chris Quinn, now metro editor, defends Clifton by saying he woke up the paper and took on more serious journalism. True, but he’s reminiscing about the good old days when Clifton set Quinn and Mark Vosburgh loose to aggressively cover Mike White’s third term as mayor. Meanwhile, the county attracted less challenging coverage.

(Of course, Clifton’s hardly alone. Local media attention shifted from City Hall to the county building about three years ago, when the commissioners tried to launch a building boom with taxpayer money. I’ve written about this shift before, and I include myself: I moved here in 2000 and started reporting more about the county and Dimora in 2007. I first heard about Dimora’s gift lists in 2005, and looking back, I wish I’d sent away for them and asked, is this normal? Who are these people?)

What changed? Susan Goldberg – and Jim Rokakis.
The Cuyahoga County treasurer outed himself to Diadiun as the corruption scandal’s super-source:
The politification of the county was complete, and in plain sight. All you had to do was match up the hiring rolls with the lists of precinct committeemen. This has been going on for years. As I told Susan Goldberg in my first lunch with her after she got here, this county was Sodom and Gomorrah.
Goldberg took Rokakis’ advice, Diadiun implies, and launched patronage exposés of Frank Russo’s and Pat O’Malley’s offices.

Rokakis also said the FBI interviewed him about county government in 2000, 2004, and 2005 – further evidence that, unlike the Plain Dealer, the FBI never took their eye off Russo after his 1998 conviction.

Rokakis has won a lot of praise for his honesty and conscientiousness in a corrupted county. Now we can add one more thing. When Rokakis knew, or suspected, that Russo was corrupt, he didn’t go along to get along. He blew the whistle to both the feds and the press. For reporters, that’s further proof of the importance of good sources.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dimora, commissioners say goodbye today

As the town braces for the post-traumatic return of LeBron James, a figure already receding into our past, a similar drama is taking place more quietly at the county building. Today, Jimmy Dimora will cast his last vote as an elected official. It's likely his last public appearance until his next federal court hearing and his trial.

Yes, the county commissioners are holding their last meeting today.

So it's probably also Peter Lawson Jones' last moment in public until his cameo on Detroit 187. And Tim Hagan's last, until the next party or cast photo with his wife, Capt. Janeway.

It's a severe anti-climax, what with county executive-elect Ed FitzGerald practically governing already. But the Big Three are pounding through a month's worth of stuff in one day, nailing down unfinished business before the new county council arrives and has to figure it all out for the first time.

They're casting 86 votes on an agenda twice that size: one vote will approve 86 more agreements, contracts, etc. Most are routine: an environmental agreement on a piece of the Flats East Bank project, renovations of the jail kitchen. A few catch the eye: $150,000 to design a bridge connecting Whiskey Island's Wendy Park to the Flats West Bank, $60,000 to Richard Blake for legal services related to the county corruption investigation.

After that comes the commissioners' last chance to talk before the cameras and, if Jimmy and Tim revert to old habits, scold the reporters in the room.

Will Dimora offer one last roaring self-defense? Will Hagan offer one last angry defense of the old county government's work? If cleveland.com is true to form, they'll post video of the commissioners' swan songs this afternoon. Update, 12/3: Here's the video.

Dimora will be spared the cavalcade of boos LeBron faces tonight. The commissioners' meeting room holds several dozen people, not 20,000, and a gavel can restore order. The two men have something in common: Clevelanders feel they betrayed the town. There's a difference, though: No one was rooting for LeBron to go away.

Update, 4:05 p.m.: Nope, no melodrama. "County commissioners bow out gracefully before governmental change," reads the headline on Jay Miller's Crain's story.

"I won't say that the two years have been hell," Jones said as the meeting ended. “What we had was a challenge."

"I resent very much Dimora and Russo," Hagan said in a press conference afterward. "I believe public service is an honorable profession." Hagan called the aides who worked for the commissioners "good and honorable people."

Dimora kept silent except to vote. As the meeting ended, he left through a side door.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Puente, politicians' scourge, leaves Plain Dealer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

FitzGerald's quick moves as executive-in-waiting

You can tell Ed FitzGerald really likes being county executive-elect. You can tell he can’t wait to shoo the lame ducks out of the pond.

It’s almost as if he feels he has something to prove. After seven weeks of Matt Dolan trying to sink him by tying Jimmy Dimora to his ankle, after the Plain Dealer’s attempts to find his Achilles heel, FitzGerald seems very eager to show he’s no cog in the political machine.

The day after the election, FitzGerald launched onecuyahoga.com, a new website where anyone (not just people who know people) can upload a resume to try for a job with the county. They can also volunteer and even, get this, Report A Concern about county government. (Just imagine the e-mails that button would’ve collected three years ago: I just saw Jimmy Dimora at the Mirage in Vegas, and…) {The county’s tweeting and Facebooking too.*}

Yesterday, FitzGerald asked all the old elected officials not to hire or transfer anyone, or give anyone a raise or job protection, without consulting with him. (You can read his entertaining combination of saber-rattling and diplomacy below.) That pretty much ensures that any lame duck who was thinking of doing a loyal employee some Christmastime favor won’t do it now, or risk it showing up on page A1 with an angry FitzGerald quote appended.

Tomorrow, FitzGerald’s appointing William Henterly, a retired FBI agent who helped bust crooked broker Frank Gruttadauria, to conduct an “integrity audit” of county government. Henterly will start “immediately,” a press release says.

Matt Carroll, FitzGerald’s transition director, says county transition funds will pay for Henterly’s work. Someone already in authority, perhaps county administrator James McCafferty, will have to sign off on that. I wonder if* the commissioners will have to approve it and what they’ll say if they do. Perhaps McCafferty has the power to spare them that awkward moment.

*Update, 11/11: The commissioners will have to pay for it. Peter Lawson Jones says he'll vote for it, grudgingly. Meanwhile, commenter Adam Harvey notes that the county's social networking predates FitzGerald.

FitzGerald's letter to county elected officials:
November 8, 2010

Dear Cuyahoga County Appointing Authority:

I write to you for two reasons: first, to state my intention to meet with you to discuss your areas of responsibility and potential changes related to the new county government; and second, to share with you an important request related to the conduct of business over the next two months.

For a variety of reasons – not the least of which is to signal to Cuyahoga County residents that change is happening in our local government – I request that you agree not to make any personnel changes, including new hires, transfers, salary increases, changes in status (example - from at-will status to civil service protected), or union agreements or take other similar actions before the new government takes office in 2011.

Actions that appear to be the same old “musical chairs” seen so many times at the eleventh hour before new leadership takes over must be avoided. I recognize that certain personnel actions may be necessary in order to conduct the county’s business, but I respectfully request that you consult me in regard to actions that you feel are urgent and require immediate attention.

With a new County Executive and County Council beginning its work now and taking office in January, we owe the citizens of Cuyahoga County nothing less than the utmost respect for their desire to change the way the county does business. I do not want to pre-suppose that any such actions would be taken, but I wanted to make my expectations as clear as possible.

My office will be calling this week to request a meeting with you to talk about this matter and other significant issues that you and your staff are facing. I look forward to that discussion. I appreciate your cooperation in regard to this request.


Ed FitzGerald
Cuyahoga County Executive-elect

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dems, FitzGerald defy scandals, celebrate victory

“I was a little late coming down,” Ed FitzGerald told local Democrats at the downtown Doubletree hotel tonight, “because I couldn’t decide if I should change into my czar uniform.”

FitzGerald was joking about one of his top opponent’s attack ads, one volley in a barrage he’d withstood. Now, his czar moment was behind him. So was his PO14 moment. The Democrat had survived Republican attempts to tar him by association with Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo. He’d beaten Matt Dolan 45 percent to 31 percent to become the leader of Cuyahoga County’s new government.

“A stream of scandals were laid at our doorstep, whether it was fair or not,” FitzGerald said as 11 o’clock news cameras’ spotlights glowed white. “We had to deal with it over and over again. … We still won.”

Like Cleveland mayors on their victory nights, the county executive-elect declared that his campaign had bridged divides between the East and West sides, black and white — and urban and suburban, he added. “These divisions have held this county back. [Our campaign is] proof positive that we can shake off those old habits once and for all.”

FitzGerald acknowledged the need to shake off corruption’s damage. “Faith in county government has never been at such a low point,” he declared. “Speeches cannot fix that.” Instead, he said he’d tackle his agenda: restoring “the idea that public employment is a trust,” creating a jobs program, making higher education more affordable, caring for the poor and encouraging regional cooperation. “I want to make Cuyahoga County a national model for how to get things done,” he said.

As FitzGerald stepped down from the stage, Democratic chair Stuart Garson closed the speeches with a reminder of their party’s bad election night nationwide and a final nod to the scandals Cuyahoga Democrats had shaken off.

“Look what we do with a gale force in our face,” he said. “Imagine what we can do next year with a gentle breeze at our back.”

To read my coverage of FitzGerald in the September issue of Cleveland Magazine, click here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

FitzGerald heads toward victory against Dolan

It looks like Ed FitzGerald will be the first Cuyahoga County executive. He leads Matt Dolan, 43 percent to 33 percent, in the early voting results.

Independents Ken Lanci and Tim McCormack are third and fourth with 10 percent each.

The early voting results likely make up almost half of the votes cast in today’s election. So these results are likely a good indication of how things will look at the end of the night.

The last two months have battered FitzGerald, but not enough (it seems) to deny him victory. The Lakewood mayor went into the general election as the front-runner, thanks to a sharp campaign and the Democrats’ huge natural advantage in Cuyahoga County. His own poll showed him 17 points ahead of Dolan in early September.

Then came his cameo appearance as PO14 in the Jimmy Dimora indictment and Dolan’s fierce attack ads. They cut into his lead, but not by enough.

FitzGerald mounted a strong defense. He said Lakewood's lease of the Winterhurst ice rink to a now-indicted Dimora buddy had been above-board and benefited taxpayers. He couldn't compete with Dolan's $1 million-plus ad barrage, so he countered it with direct mail accusing Dolan of slinging mud.

Two viable independent candidates, Lanci and McCormack, made it hard for Dolan to win votes. Voters sick of Democrats had somewhere else to go. Dolan's 33 percent doesn't even reach Republicans' recent high-water mark in Cuyahoga County -- Debbie Sutherland's 38 percent in 2008 against Peter Lawson Jones.

If these results hold, plenty of Greater Clevelanders will complain about their fellow voters' loyalty to Democrats despite the scandals of the last three years. But FitzGerald tackled the integrity issue right away. Fighting corruption was a passion of his, he told me last December.

His experience as an FBI agent helped insulate him. So did his relative inexperience in politics. Dimora didn't try to befriend FitzGerald until he won the Lakewood mayor's race in 2007. The few ties between the two -- Dimora's phone call asking FitzGerald to return someone else's call, a few campaign contributions -- weren't enough to scare voters off.

Republicans will have a few results to console themselves with. Their candidate Michael Astrab is beating indicted judge Bridget McCafferty. Republicans Dave Greenspan, Michael Gallagher, and Jack Schron all have strong leads in the outer-ring suburbs' county council districts.

A year ago, I wrote that the Issue 6 framers had gerrymandered the council districts to elect four white Democrats, four black Democrats, and three Republicans. Looks like it worked. Democrats are headed for an 8-3 majority on council, but the three Republicans will bring two-party government back to Cuyahoga County for the first time since the mid-1990s.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ellen Connally: first county council president?

When the county executive race ends Tuesday, another contest will heat up: The 11 new county council members will choose a council president. Four Democrats are vying for the job. My profile of one contender, C. Ellen Connally, is out now in the November issue of Cleveland Magazine.

My story, "Change Agent," calls Connally "the feisty bookworm of Cleveland politics, a historian and legal scholar whose integrity belies a courageous bluntness." Connally, a former judge and frequent correspondent with the Plain Dealer's opinion page, jokingly calls her mischievous op-ed takedown of George Forbes "the best thing I ever wrote." She's also danced onstage with Morris Day & The Time.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ken Lanci shows me his homework

Ken Lanci walked into the conference room looking very stern. He carried two bulky binders and few sheets of paper. He showed no sign of the smile he’s replicated on 75 buses. No diplomacy, just business.

Lanci set the binders and papers on the table in front of him. I recognized my blog’s logo on the top sheet and saw a single paragraph marked. I knew which one.

I first interviewed Lanci in January, a week after he announced his run for county executive. I slammed him on my blog for not knowing the county government well. I’d asked him to critique the county’s economic development department and he gave a maddening non-answer.

“There are a lot of things I can’t comment on without getting in the belly of the beast,” he said then. “I’m not promising anything until I get inside.”

I wrote: “This sounds too much like, Trust me, I'll figure it out. Before voters can trust him as a turnaround expert, Lanci needs to show that his business turnaround experience is relevant to county government.”

Now, in our second interview, Lanci wanted to confront what I’d written. He turned one of my questions around and read my “Trust me” paragraph back to me.

“The challenge, I consider legitimate, a great question,” Lanci told me. “I answer it the way I’ve always done business. I look at the county as if I’m buying it.”

I don’t know if I’d nudged him to dig deeper, or if he’d meant to do it all along. But the guy had done his research.

“I’ve had about 60 agency visits, meeting with directors and with staff,” he said. “And as a result of that, I’ve put together my plan. Now, I’m not going to share the details with you because —

“There’s 60 of them,” I said.

“That wouldn’t be prudent at this time either, to lay out the plans for everyone else to take a look at.” (Meaning the other candidates, I assumed.)

He opened a binder. “I have each budget for each agency I reviewed. I have the director, a bio of the agency, as well as photos of directors.”

Lanci said he thought some county departments were working just fine, including Developmental Disability and, surprisingly, Children And Family Services. He defended Deborah Forkas, CFS’s embattled director, as a “professional of the highest standard,” unfairly blamed for abuse of kids in families the agency monitored. The law prefers that kids be reunited with their parents, Lanci noted. “It’s easy to say it’s the director’s fault. It’s not the director’s fault.”

He promised to reorganize the auditor’s and recorder’s offices, but wouldn’t tell me which other offices he thought needed improvement.

“The last thing you want to be perceived [as] is a bull in a china shop before you get there,” he said. “That’s not what I am. I don’t want people to anticipate things that aren’t real, just because I say, this department has issues.”

I suggested he was passing up a chance to show voters what sort of change he’d deliver.

“I’m schooled on the business of the county,” he replied. “They can trust that if I spent the time getting that information, I know which [agencies] are the tough ones, and the ones I need to deal with. … This is that part where you said ‘Trust me.’ I ask you to trust me not based on my statement, ‘Trust me.’ Trust me based on the work that I’ve done.”

I left full of conflicting thoughts about Lanci. By the interview’s end, he’d reinforced my feeling that he’d have trouble getting along with other elected officials. He told me he’d press Northeast Ohio’s congressional delegation to bring home more federal spending.

“Every one of these people are going to be called in and are going to be required to be part of the solution,” he declared: “Every other senator, every other [U.S.] representative, the governor, treasurer, everybody, has got to work for Cuyahoga County.”

To the best of my knowledge, county officials don’t “call in” governors, senators or congressmen. They have to ask them for help. Politely.

But addressing my criticism showed his willingness to tackle a challenge. And he proved this much: He’s worked hard to figure out county government in case voters choose him on Tuesday.

Monday, October 25, 2010

FitzGerald argues Dolan should bow out of major downtown development decisions

This weekend, Ed FitzGerald e-mailed me his letter to the Ohio Ethics Commission about Matt Dolan’s conflict of interest with the Indians. It argues that if Dolan is elected county executive, he should have to bow out of any decisions about the casino, the RTA, Public Square, or roads, bridges, or sewers downtown -- because they all “directly and uniquely impact the Cleveland Indians.”

The casino because it’ll be a block or two from the stadium, I assume. But the RTA? Because people take the Rapid to ball games, I guess?

Dolan told me last week that if he’s elected county executive, he’ll let the county council president take the lead on Indians matters and Gateway appointments. He asked the Ethics Commission to give him advice on his plans.

But FitzGerald, his main opponent, is pushing the commission to go way farther than that. He also wants it to rule on whether Dolan should return the huge campaign contributions from his father, Indians owner Larry Dolan, “to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.” FitzGerald’s letter, written Oct. 8, pegs the elder Dolan’s contribution at $280,000. On Thursday, we learned Larry Dolan’s now given a total of $630,000.

The Ethics Commission isn’t answering Dolan’s request until after the election. No wonder: It’ll also have to deal FitzGerald’s letter, which reads more like a political argument than a request for a legal opinion. At one point FitzGerald talks about “an assessment of the appropriateness of Mr. Dolan’s candidacy and potential service as County Executive.” That’s up to the voters, not the Ethics Commission.

But politically, FitzGerald’s playing an interesting card here. He’s saying taxpayers should trust him, not Dolan, to represent their interests on downtown development issues. He’s trying to tap into the mistrust of sports teams’ political influence in Cleveland, a concern that dates back at least to the Gateway project. And he’s again reminding voters that Dolan’s millionaire family is funding the TV attacks against him.

To read FitzGerald’s letter to the Ethics Commission, click here. To read Dolan’s letter, click here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Mason won't run again in 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dolan's Indians dilemma: How he'd avoid conflicts

I called Matt Dolan this week to ask him something I've wondered about for a while -- how he'll avoid dealing with the Cleveland Indians if he's elected county executive.

"If the Indians are involved," Dolan told me, "there will be program in place so I’m not involved in any decision-making." He says he'd ask the county council president to take the lead.

Dolan -- whose father, Larry Dolan, is the Indians' owner -- first addressed the issue this summer. It's a touchy subject, since Dolan's family is donating $1 million to his campaign. His main opponent, Ed FitzGerald, has needled him for the conflict of interest.

The thorniest challenge: The county executive will appoint three out of five board members of the Gateway Economic Development Corp., the Indians' and Cavs' landlord. Dolan wrote to the Ohio Ethics Commission on Sept. 27, asking for an advisory opinion on his plan to recuse himself from that decision. (To read a copy of his letter, click here.)

So I asked Dolan, how can an executive recuse himself from making an appointment? He said he'd pass the decision on to the county council president and a bipartisan advisory panel.

The panel is an idea he proposed in April. It would help the executive choose potential members for dozens of appointed boards and commissions. (See this page of his website.) "They would submit recommendations of who they’ve screened," Dolan said.

"For the Gateway appointment, they would submit it directly to the council president. The council president would make the appointment to council." Then council could approve or reject the person.

Dolan's answer fits what Jennifer Hardin, chief advisory attorney for the Ohio Ethics Commission, told me when I asked how other government executives recuse themselves from appointing someone.

"In most cases, where there are several branches of government involved, another branch may be able to substitute," Hardin said.

What about other decisions the county executive might have to make about the Indians? Say, if the Indians ask for money to renovate Progressive Field?

"If there's a scenario in which the Indians make a request on Gateway," Dolan said, "then the Gateway folks will be instructed to work directly with the council president." No such scenario has come up in the 11 years his family has owned the team, he added.

But the Indians began exploring possible upgrades to Progressive Field in May. The team's lease says Gateway has to pay for any "major" capital repairs costing more than $500,000. But Gateway is not flush with cash, so the team might ask the county and city, which control Gateway, to pay.

"I don't speak for the Indians," says Dolan. "They’re talking about doing renovations. There's no indication at all how Indians intend to finance it. My opponents just assume the county is going to pay for it. That's not accurate."

In 2006, the Cavaliers briefly floated the idea of having taxpayers spend $30 million to renovate Quicken Loans Arena. It fell to Jimmy Dimora, as a county commissioner, to shoot the idea down.

But the mayor of Cleveland would probably take the lead in dealing with any major renovations to the baseball stadium. Under Gateway's structure, the city is the contact for Progressive Field, Dolan notes, while the county is the contact for The Q.

Dolan's letter to the Ethics Commission asks for "a timely response," since "we are drawing constantly closer to the end of campaign season." But Hardin says the ethics commission won't respond until November or December, if Dolan wins.

Dolan's letter asks if recusing himself would be legal. But he says voters shouldn't be concerned that he won't get an answer by Nov. 2. He says he phrased the letter that way because having an advisory opinion backing him up would protect the county in case anyone filed a taxpayer's lawsuit to challenge a Gateway appointment.

"I’m doing the appropriate steps leaders do to prevent any problem in the future," he said.

To read my coverage of the county executive race in Cleveland Magazine, including pieces on the leading candidates, click here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sun papers endorse McCormack

This summer, I asked Tim McCormack, the former county commissioner who’s running for county executive, what he’d say to voters wary of electing someone who served in the old government.

“I think they’d get best of both worlds,” he replied: “Somebody who knows the government and somebody who has a good reputation.”

That argument won over the editors of the Sun papers. The suburban newspaper chain endorsed McCormack this week.

“At a time when honesty and experience are paramount in this election, Tim McCormack more than fills the bill,” they write.

The editorial dismisses Ed FitzGerald for accepting campaign contributions “tied to the old county regime” (without mentioning he’s gotten rid of most of them) and Matt Dolan for running “divisive” campaign ads. The Sun News admits McCormack isn’t well-funded, but says he “has something worth more than gold: his good name.”

When I interviewed McCormack, I thought he stood out in two ways. He’s the candidate most likely to pursue the ultimate step in regionalism: an actual merger of the city, suburbs, and county. “We can build a region if we unite,” he said at the City Club debate this week. “Pittsburgh has done so. It’s growing.” (Pittsburgh and Allegheny County haven’t merged, but they’re talking about it.)

He’s also the candidate who defends human services most passionately. With a budget briefing in hand, he complained hotly to me about cuts to county child-health programs. He did the same when a City Club questioner asked how to fight human-services cuts if budget-slashing Republican John Kasich is elected governor.

“I served with John Kasich,” McCormack replied. “I know him well. Should he succeed, what I would emphasize [is] -- people die. They will die without funding for these programs. The Help Me Grow program, visiting young women who are pregnant. The Early Childhood [program], the only chance most kids in Cleveland have. … Kids that drop out of school -- we need to heavily invest in those children or they won’t make it.”

This summer, I talked to people who saw McCormack as a short-tempered lone crusader when he was county commissioner. The Sun editors have heard that too. “If elected, we urge McCormack to temper his reported testy demeanor,” he says. McCormack agrees – he told me he’d have to set a “positive tone” as executive.

Reading the Sun editorial, though, and thinking about McCormack’s chances in the unusual six-way race, I wondered about a different scenario. What if McCormack doesn’t win, but pulls just enough liberal voters away from FitzGerald to help Dolan edge him out?

McCormack seems to dislike FitzGerald. He praised Dolan’s temperament during the City Club debate. So maybe that ending wouldn’t bother him too much.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dolan-FitzGerald, Lanci-Scipione feuds heat up at City Club debate

Matt Dolan and Ed FitzGerald fought the main bout while Ken Lanci and Don Scipione faced off on the undercard at the county executive candidates’ debate this week at the City Club.

FitzGerald, who's endured two weeks of brutal attack-ad beatings from Dolan, led with a classic political jujitsu move.

“Five out of the six candidates have run positive, issue-based, substantive campaigns,” he said. “Mr. Dolan is the quite clear exception to that. He ran an exceedingly negative primary campaign, and he’s run an exceedingly negative general election campaign. And you can’t change this county if you don’t ennoble this process by trying to be positive and tell people what it is you’re going to do differently.”

Dolan said voters need to know FitzGerald was among the “Democratic entrenched interests” who opposed Issue 6 and supported the “sham reform” Issue 5. Anticipating FitzGerald’s next move, Dolan disclosed that his relatives – including his father, Indians owner Larry Dolan -- are contributing more than $1 million to his campaign.

“Before I got into this race, I talked to Democrats and Republicans,” Dolan said. “I said, ‘What’s it going to take to win? What’s it going to take to beat the entrenched interests?’ They said, ‘It’s going to take about $2 million.’" He repeated his plans to recuse himself from Indians matters and create a bipartisan committee to advise him on appointments. {Update, 10/20: Here's my new post on how Dolan would handle this.}

FitzGerald said Dolan’s friends should have told him to run a positive campaign instead of “commercials that are showing me Photoshopped as a Russian monarch.” The ad's image -- accompanied by balalaikas, no less! -- refers to FitzGerald’s Oct. 2009 complaint that the county executive would be “a czar” who “will control just about everything in Cuyahoga County government.”

“I apologize for being out of uniform this afternoon,” FitzGerald joked.

“Issue 6 is a concentration of political power,” he continued, “but what aggravates that is if you have a concentration of economic power.” A wealthy family "spending money like it’s water" to "capture the most powerful local political office" is "the worst way possible to actually to reform this government. It can’t work.”

Ken Lanci, taking advantage of the latest Bill Mason controversies, tried to make the prosecutor a political bogeyman.

"Who's connected to what?" he asked. "You have Mr. Mason, who is a friend of Mr. Scipione’s, who worked on the charter with him. You have Mr. Mason, who is a friend of Mr. Fitzgerald. You have Mr. Mason, who is a friend of Martin Zanotti’s, who’s now a friend of Mr. Dolan’s. It’s anybody but Lanci! … Lanci is the only guy none of them can control!”

That roused Don Scipione, normally a quirky-scientist figure, the opposite of Lanci’s brawny CEO persona.

“This Mason stuff! Give me a break!” Scipione exclaimed. "The first time I met Bill Mason was a year and a half ago. … The only advice he gave me was not to run!

“Ken, give me a break! You did the pay-to-play with Zack Reed at Luke Easter Park to try to keep me from getting [petition] signatures! You filed a [complaint] at the Board Of Elections saying I was a Democrat, not an independent, and they voted 4-0 against you!

“We’re not going to split the Italian vote! I’m Italian in the vein of Marconi and Michelangelo and Galileo and Enrico Fermi! That’s my Italian heritage!

“What was I going to say before that? I forgot!” The audience cracked up.

A questioner tried to force decorum by asking the candidates which opponent they’d choose as a chief of staff. Dolan chose Scipione, David Ellison named Tim McCormack, and McCormack cited Dolan.

“I’d be tempted to choose some people just so I could fire them,” FitzGerald cracked before picking Scipione.

“I was going to say Mr. Scipione,” said Lanci, “but I can’t get past $200 million in savings without a plan.” (Scipione claims that he could reap vast savings by modernizing the county’s technology and systems. A county transition committee also claims the county could save huge sums that way. {Update, 10/21: See the Comments for more on this.)

Scipione deflected Lanci with more humor. “I would look at Ken, because at $1 a year—” The audience, who’d heard Lanci promise to work for a $1 salary, drowned him out with more laughter.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Plain Dealer endorses Dolan, criticizes FitzGerald

The Plain Dealer spills lots of ink endorsing Matt Dolan for county executive today. But the most interesting part of its editorial comes at the end, when it explains why it's not endorsing Ed FitzGerald.

The Dolan endorsement is no surprise. He's a center-right candidate, and the paper's editorial page is centrist and swinging right this year, dissatisfied with Democratic incumbents, rhetoric and bad habits. So the editors praise Dolan as "thoughtful and independent," citing his work on Cuyahoga County's behalf in the legislature and his willingness to break with fellow Republicans.

What I wanted to see was how the paper judged the recent controversies around FitzGerald, including Dolan's attempts to link him to the Democratic establishment. The PD's answer is about as tough as can be while still showing some balance. "FitzGerald's Achilles heel," it says, is "his ties to the swamp of politics-as-usual."

The editorial does scold Dolan for his "aggressively negative campaign," likely a reference to his TV ad about FitzGerald's appearance as PO14 in the Jimmy Dimora indictment. FitzGerald has rightly protested that the feds' "PO" code-names don't necessarily imply wrongdoing, but are meant to protect the uncharged, including innocent bystanders.

Yet the PD doesn't let FitzGerald off the hook on Winterhurst-gate, turning instead to a campaign donation I've reported about here. "Taking a call from now-indicted businessman William Neiheiser at the behest of ... Dimora may not have been wrong," the editorial says, "but accepting a campaign donation from Neiheiser while his firm was negotiating a contract with Lakewood was."

The paper also scolds FitzGerald for getting rid of contributions from Dimora and Frank Russo -- a move first reported in Cleveland Magazine and on this blog -- and not doing the same with contributions from Plumbers Local 55, a union that's endorsed FitzGerald and was named in the Dimora indictment. It repeats the common complaint about FitzGerald's ambition and his quick switch from Issue 6 critic to executive candidate.

FitzGerald still has a good chance to win the election. He's a talented candidate, and Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 in Cuyahoga County. But the PD endorsement amplifies the argument that the county's best chance for reform is to elect an executive with no ties to the Democratic Party at all.

To read my coverage of the county executive race in Cleveland Magazine, including pieces on the leading candidates, click here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Cool Cleveland endorses Lanci

Here's an interesting pairing. Thomas Mulready has just posted Cool Cleveland's endorsement in the county executive race: Ken Lanci.

You might not think the porkpie-hatted culture maven and the deeply-tanned millionaire have much in common. But remember, Mulready's e-newsletter isn't just about the arts, it's also about the new tech economy. The Internet entrepreneur praises Lanci's "ability to turn around companies" and "really strong grasp of the issues."

Lanci "has the best opportunity to take this county in a new direction in a new era," Mulready says in a video. "It's time for the county and voters to make a strong statement that they really want change."

Mulready -- who's done video interviews with all six county executive contenders -- calls Matt Dolan and Ed FitzGerald strong candidates, but doesn't like Dolan's conflict of interest with the Indians and Gateway. He calls FitzGerald "part of the Democratic machine" and complains that the party let Jimmy Dimora remain its chairman too long.

Sure, CoolCleveland's endorsement is not nearly as weighty as the Plain Dealer's. But Mulready, a voice in the ear of the arts-and-culture crowd, may nudge some of his readers to take a second look at Lanci. I think he did that in the 2005 mayor's race, when he surprised the artsy crowd by presciently recommending Frank Jackson over Jane Campbell.

What about the PD endorsement? I think it's coming Sunday. The editorial board interviewed the candidates this week. They liked both Dolan and FitzGerald in the primaries, but they seemed to like Dolan a bit more. My guess is, they'll endorse him.

To read my coverage of the county executive race in September's Cleveland Magazine, including pieces on the leading candidates, click here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dolan, FitzGerald exchange punches over corruption, family ties

Matt Dolan and Ed FitzGerald think they've found each others' weak spots.

Dolan's on the air with an attack ad that tries to tie FitzGerald, the Democratic front-runner for county executive, to the county corruption scandal.

Dolan's ad notes FitzGerald got campaign contributions from several figures in the scandal -- a fact first reported on this blog and in Cleveland Magazine's September-issue coverage of the county executive race. It doesn't say FitzGerald has given most of that money to charity. It cites FitzGerald's cameo appearance as PO14 in Dimora's indictment and slams him for opposing the new county charter.

FitzGerald has put out his own ad touting his anti-corruption bona fides as a former FBI agent.

He's also punching back. This morning he's holding a press conference at the county administration building, attacking Dolan, his Republican opponent, for a conflict of interest. Dolan's father owns the Indians, yet as county executive, Dolan would have to appoint members of the Gateway board, which oversees Progressive Field. From FitzGerald's press release:

Dolan has described his personal financial interest as being a "beneficiary to a trust" that owns a portion of the Cleveland Indians. The new County Executive will be involved in appointing 3 of the 5 members of the Gateway Economic Development Corporation, the landlord for the Indians and the Cavs. Gateway sets financial terms with the sports teams, often involving large sums of money. ... In addition, candidate Dolan has received $430,000 in campaign contributions from his father Larry, owner of the Indians, and uncle Charles Dolan.

Dolan has asked the Ohio Ethics Commission to offer advice on the Gateway issue. He's also said he'd recuse himself from Indians-related matters (which might not be easy). {Update, 10/20: Here's my new post about how Dolan says he'd handle this.} He went online Tuesday with a letter defending his family's donations to him.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rare sighting of kitschy Dimora mug

It's a thing of beauty, isn't it? I spotted this kitschy Jimmy Dimora mug in a downtown office today and immediately snapped a photo. It's at least vintage '90s, maybe '80s, from when Dimora was mayor of Bedford Heights. I think it's a communal office mug, since its owner is new in town: "Isn't he the guy who got in trouble?" he asked.

I want one of my own. But I guess I'll have to start hunting at Bedford Heights garage sales. I checked eBay, and the only Dimoriana I found was this T-shirt -- XL, of course -- from one of Jimmy's campaigns for commissioner, on sale for a patriotic $17.76.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lanigan & Malone mock PD's corruption blues

The guys on the Lanigan & Malone show were making fun of this Plain Dealer story today. Two shrinks tell a health reporter that the county corruption scandal has plagued Clevelanders with feelings of anxiety, betrayal, disillusion and doom.

The radio guys didn't buy it. Jimmy Malone mocked the idea that anyone would see a psychologist because their county government was crooked.

That gave Chip Kullik an opening for a Dimora-in-Vegas joke.

"I did see someone about this," Kullik quipped, "but she was too chatty."

To be honest, the PD piece does read kind of like the bogus trend stories Jack Shafer of Slate is always ripping into. It's based on only two sources. Neither psychologist actually says the latest Frank Russo or Jimmy Dimora news has sent any of their patients spiraling into depression.

A quick reference to "those more at risk, those who have ties to the scandal" almost hits upon a truer trend. The corruption defendants themselves are frequently depressed. When they plead guilty, they have to tell the judge all the medications they're on. Many mention anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, sleep aids. One or two have even said they're seeing a doctor to cope with the psychological consequences of their crimes.

But the average taxpayer won't have sympathy. Clevelanders' common reaction to the scandal isn't anxiety or despair. It's anger. Fury that so few people tried to blow the whistle on Russo. Rage because Dimora still has a job. But we know how to channel our anger at government constructively. Six candidates for county executive want to help us work through it. A voting booth will be more healing than a shrink's couch. Coincidentally, voting by mail starts today.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dimora's appetite, now on Facebook

Jimmy Dimora's appetite now has its own Facebook page.

"This is not actually Jimmy Dimora but rather the burning hunger that lives deep within his massive midsection," the Appetite informs us in a disclaimer.

The Appetite packs heat, plans to party in Florida with Kevin Kelley, and hits downtown, looking for a club with VIP bottle service.

It's been posting daily since Dimora's indictment, reacting quickly to the latest news, from the judge's decision that Dimora could stay on his job to reporters' entertaining standoff with armed county security guards and a door Dimora was hiding behind.

"Need good rest bc the money don't steal itself," it reports today.

Warning: As you might expect, given the sex-for-favors allegations stretching from Vegas to Independence to the Superior Viaduct, some of the Appetite's posts and reader comments are not safe for work.

The Appetite is the second Facebook presence inspired by Dimora's dance with the FBI. The Professor's "Resign Dimora, You No Good Fat Corrupt Pig" Facebook group lives on as the anonymous blogger's last surviving contribution to cyberspace.

As much as I'd love to hear from The Professor again (Hey, Professor! trickey@clevelandmagazine.com! Don't be a stranger!), the Appetite seems driven by a different sense of humor and politics -- less Daily Show and reformist liberal, more @LeBronJamesEgo and lonely conservative. Note the "waste a $1.4 billion budget" line in the Appetite's rewrite of Dimora's official county bio and the disdain for all of us who might've actually voted for the guy once.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dimora gets to stay on the job until year’s end

I’m trying to imagine the look on Tim Hagan’s face if Jimmy Dimora shows up for the commissioners’ meeting tomorrow. Head in hands? Disgusted grimace?

Yes, Dimora gets to stay on the job, as long as he abstains from voting on vast amounts of county business. Here’s the list of stuff Magistrate Judge Nancy Vecchiarelli barred him from deciding, courtesy of cleveland.com:

any issue involving: personnel; private contractors referenced in his indictment; the county's juvenile justice center; the county engineer's office; companies providing halfway house services; funding for the county courts; unions or union members; and matters related [to] Parma, Lakewood, Bedford, Solon and Berea. …

Oh, is that all?

In the brilliant system of county government we’re stuck with for 100 more excruciating days, there’s no real way to keep Dimora from showing up and collecting a paycheck. We can’t recall him, and it’d take 68,000 signatures just to start a separate misconduct trial in county court. He’d lose his job if convicted of a felony, but no way will he go on trial before the new year. Gov. Strickland could remove him for “official misconduct,” but given how the governor deferred to investigators in the McFaul scandal, he probably won’t.

For those of you waiting for Dimora to resign in shame, dream on. His paycheck is more valuable to him than ever. White-collar defense lawyers don’t come cheap!

Update, 9/23: Looks like Dimora can only vote on about half of the county's business. He showed up at today's meeting, voted on 14 items, and abstained from 14.

"It is terribly awkward," Hagan told reporters afterward, according to cleveland.com. "It's even hard to be civil. ... Who would like to sit next to someone who diminished the office where I've served for 22 years?"

Friday, September 17, 2010

County exec candidates talk corruption on Dimora’s day of reckoning

At the very moment Jimmy Dimora was pleading not guilty to 26 corruption charges on Wednesday, the six candidates for Cuyahoga County executive were sharing a stage at a forum in Lyndhurst. Moderator Steve Gleydura, Cleveland Magazine’s editor, asked them how they’d drive corruption out of the county government.

Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald stressed his credentials as a former FBI agent investigating crooked Chicago-area politicians. He described feeling “déjà vu” while watching Dimora’s arrest on TV.

“Greed – that is the fundamental motivation behind these crimes,” the Democrat said. “You have people in leadership positions that either went into public service for the wrong reasons, or they forgot why they went into it in the first place. What happens when you set that example at the top is, it gives tacit permission for all kinds of misconduct below those levels.”

The FBI can’t clean up a dirty government by itself, he warned. “They pick out specific instances of federal violations, and that’s it. They don’t look at whether an employee is maybe cutting time on clock, or misusing a county computer, or just isn’t motivated or is going through the motions. Those things have to be done by management.”

FitzGerald said he’d set up a “completely transparent” hiring process the day after the election and fill the new county administration with people chosen for their knowledge, not connection. “If we set high ethical standards and bring the right team in, we can turn this situation around.”

The forum, held at Executive Caterers at Landerhaven, took place at lunchtime Wednesday. Most of the audience knew Dimora had been arrested early that morning, though news outlets were still sifting through the details of the 138-page indictment. Tim McCormack, on the other hand, sounded like he’d already read the indictment and noticed FitzGerald's cameo appearance as Public Official 14, taking a brief 2008 call from Dimora about the lease of Lakewood's Winterhurst ice rink.

“Bad people knew where there’s a weak spot,” McCormack said. “They do not approach and they don’t do business with bad administrations. You set that standard every single day in the way you use your voice, your telephone calls, your practices. It happens every hour of the day. That’s how you root [corruption] out and avoid it in the future.”

McCormack, who once served with Dimora on the county commission, made the startling suggestion that “hundreds of additional people” may have “paid bribes to secure county positions.” It was hard to tell whether to take the comment literally, since McCormack based his comment on “information” from a source he didn’t name. (He recently said the FBI asked him around 2000 about rumors of a jobs-for-bribes scheme in former auditor Frank Russo’s office.)

Republican candidate Matt Dolan also swiped at FitzGerald. Better ethics, he said, starts with not electing a county executive candidate who “stood shoulder to shoulder with the current establishment and did not support Issue 6 county reform.” Dolan described his proposal to establish a bipartisan committee to screen appointees for all county boards and commissions. The committee would set qualifications, sift resumes, and examine whether to abolish any boards or commissions entirely.

“We’re going to do something brand new, unfortunately, in this county: we’re going to require job descriptions for everyone,” Dolan added. “If you are not qualified to do the important work, you will be removed.” He also hinted at Russo’s recent reassignments of workers caught in the Board of Revision scandal. “We are not going to shift people around,” he said. “If you breach the public trust, you’re not qualified, you’re fired! No longer are we going to be moving them to back rooms.” Dolan also said he’d institute an ethics policy by executive order on his first day in office.

Independent Ken Lanci cited his proposals for employee ethics training and an office to regulate and register vendors, lobbyists and consultants doing business with the county. Stressing his experience as a business turnaround expert and his many recent conversations with county department heads, he also said the new executive would have to inspire the county’s ethical employees.

“Everybody thinks they’re corrupt,” he says. “I can tell you, there are a lot of extremely qualified, very good employees, in this county. So don’t be confused by what you saw this morning. There’s 8,000 people there, you probably have 7,500 people that are pretty honest. It’ll be up to the CEO to turn their attitude around, make them proud of the job that they have.”

Don Scipione, also an independent candidate and businessman, said he endorsed the recommendations of the county transition work groups on ethics and campaign finance reform: limits on campaign contributions to county candidates (none exist now), ethics training for county workers, and “online transparency of the relationship between vendors and campaign contributions.” (Scipione served on the campaign finance transition group before resigning to run for county executive.)

Green Party candidate David Ellison, the last to respond, changed the subject to encouraging collaborations among “all the people who have the answers.” He warned that the county faces a $19 million deficit, which could worsen if the state’s $8 billion budget shortfall causes it to cut funds to counties. “We may have to get rid of people we don’t want to get rid of,” he said. “We might be good, thorough house cleaners of the ethical problems and still have to get rid of more people.”