Monday, March 29, 2010

PD maps Mason's power

The Professor is still in hiding, so I'll say it: Class, Mark Puente's big Sunday report on prosecutor Bill Mason's office is required reading.

After weeks of research, the Plain Dealer has given us an evolved sequel to its 2008 "Politics and Payroll" series on Pat O'Malley and Frank Russo's offices. Patronage is no longer the buzzword: It's power.

No one who follows Cleveland politics will be shocked to hear that Bill Mason is a political prosecutor, or that he gets involved in small-suburb council and school board races, or that he wields clout in the Democrats' mid-term appointments to county offices. (See my Oct. 2008 Pat O'Malley profile, for instance, which describes how Mason and O'Malley rose to power together.)

But Puente maps out Mason's vast influence, documenting what was anecdotal. Four former Mason employees are now on Cleveland city council. Five are judges. Current Mason employees work for 21 Cuyahoga County towns. Ten are on city councils. An assistant prosecutor on Solon's city council voted to appoint his boss's boss to a vacant council seat in December. Tom Day, a Mason ally and business partner -- and the possible future county Democratic chairman -- co-owns Qwestcom Graphics, northern Ohio's biggest distributor of campaign literature, which gets lots of work from Mason, his employees, and towns where his network is strong.

Puente's report isn't just thoroughly researched, it's well-thought-out. I sense meticulous editing as well as strong reporting, for fairness and impregnability against counterattack. The "to-be-sure grafs" -- the passages where the writer offers counterweights to his thesis -- are carefully crafted. Mason gets a chance to cast his office's political connections in a positive light. ("I have a highly educated and hard-working staff... I strongly encourage them to be involved in their communities. When good people are involved in government, good things will happen within government.")

Gone is the front-page mug-shot exposé feel of the O'Malley and Russo reports, maybe because the paper found that the recorder's and auditor's offices more closely resembled pure patronage machines. Lots of people are qualified to record deeds, but prosecutors have to pass law school and the bar. "The records show that about 18 percent of Mason's current work force had political ties before they were hired," Puente writes -- compared to about 33 percent in Russo's office and 35 percent when O'Malley was recorder.

By publishing this, the PD gets a small monkey off its back. Joe Wagner, author of the 2008 patronage exposés, reportedly looked into writing a sequel on Mason, but the project was shelved. That became Exhibit A in anti-Mason forces' arguments that the PD had gone soft on the prosecutor (see this backhanded imitation, for instance). If that was ever true, it isn't now.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dimora defends himself: "Who doesn't argue to try to get a better price?"

Jimmy Dimora's talking again, trying to poke holes in the federal investigation of him, giving us more glimpses of his potential defense.

"We’re very confident," he told Duane Pohlman of NewsChannel 5 on Thursday. "I feel that I’ve done nothing wrong."

Dimora thinks he's found a weakness in the case the feds are building: the latest two contractors who've pleaded guilty to bribing him with home improvements didn't do any work for the county.

This is true: Nicholas Zavarella and John Valentin say they bribed Dimora to get recommendations for friends and family, not to get county work. (See my posts here and here.) Dimora says he's probably written thousands of recommendation letters.

"When I’m personally going to use them for my own use, I try to get companies and businesses that do no work with the government that I’m involved with," Dimora told Pohlman. He said his Ohio Ethics Commission disclosure forms list contractors who gave him discounts.

"I pretty much try to disclose for any type of discounting or any gift that I receive. Most of these people are friends." Dimora said he haggled with those friends for discounted work. "Who doesn’t argue to try to get a better price on work being done?"

Dimora also claimed a forthcoming state audit will show that his personal dealings did not involve taxpayer dollars. County staff "have been told by the auditing firm that the audits are clean, and they’re good, and they show that all the bids that were approved are all the lowest and best bids," he said.

Should we buy Jimmy's latest defense? Well, what he's saying may be true, but at most it highlights the gray areas in the feds' investigation of him. Dimora didn't address the prosecutors' claim that he didn't pay his contractor buddies until he learned the FBI was after him. Or the allegations that Dimora took $33,000 in cash and $60,000 in work from Steve Pumper, whose companies were very much involved in county business.

But we're seeing more and more of Dimora's defense emerge, and he's sounding a consistent theme: He still insists publicly that he's done nothing wrong.

Pohlman, NewsChannel 5's chief investigator, is good at getting Dimora to open up. The most infamous quotes from Dimora's already-legendary July press conference -- “I’m not an angel, but I’m no crook,” and “I’m not doing anything different than any other public official does” -- were responses to Pohlman's questioning. His interview style is probing, but seeks understanding; his questions sound almost sympathetic, but zero in on key parts of the charges.

Like other TV reporters, Pohlman also benefits from Dimora's running feud with the Plain Dealer. Dimora's decided the paper's out to get him, so he'd rather argue with PD reporters than give them straight answers. On Thursday, Dimora complained to Pohlman about the paper in front of PD reporter Henry Gomez. Awkward!

(You can watch most of Pohlman's interview with Dimora by clicking the six-minute video embedded above. The segment that aired on NewsChannel 5 on Thursday night, which includes a few more quotes, can be seen here. To read my Oct. 2009 profile of Dimora, "Life of the Party," click here.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Kucinich will vote yes on health care

It was a moment of truth for Dennis Kucinich: Would he preserve his progressive purity by voting down the biggest progressive reform of our time?

No. He's changed his mind: He's voting yes on the president's health-care plan.

"This is not the bill I wanted to support," Kucinich said at a Capitol press conference this morning. "However, after careful discussions with President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, my wife Elizabeth and close friends, I’ve decided to cast a vote in favor of the legislation."

Notice how his wife ranks up there with the president and the speaker of the house? The health-care talks in the Kucinich household must've been as weighty as Dennis' high-pressure ride with Obama in Air Force One. The young, striking Mrs. Kucinich doesn't just help her husband by attracting press cameras and coverage. She's become his conscience, an adviser who reminds him what he stands for -- and tells him when compromise isn't a sell-out, but a wise strategy.

"In the past week it has become clear that the vote on the final health care bill will be very close," he said at a 10 a.m. press conference at the Capitol. "I know I have to make a decision, not on the bill as I would like to see it, but the bill as it is." (See the Plain Dealer and The Hill for more coverage. Or, read his full remarks here.)

After holding out for government-run health care longer than most anyone, Kucinich has accepted something Sherrod Brown has been reminding progressives for months now: Reform in America is almost always accomplished step by step, not all at once.

"If my vote is to be counted, let it now count for passage of the bill, hopefully in the direction of comprehensive health care reform," he said today.

At the last moment, on the verge of either making himself irrelevant at a moment of great change or actually scuttling it, Kucinich proved that even he knows how to compromise.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Obama pressures Kucinich in Strongsville, on Air Force One

Dennis Kucinich flew to Cleveland on Air Force One with Barack Obama yesterday, and the president spent the flight pressing stubborn Dennis to vote for his health-care reforms. Up on the podium in Strongsville, Obama turned up the pressure with a smile. He name-dropped Kucinich, an audience member shouted, "Vote yes!" and Obama turned and said, "Did you hear that, Dennis?"

But Kucinich has already said he's voting no on the Democrats' health-care bill. {See update below.} His Sunday Plain Dealer op-ed lays out his reasons why: Forcing people to buy private health insurance, without giving them a publicly-run option, risks exposing more people to insurance-company abuses.

Kucinich is taking a huge risk. Voting no will preserve his reputation as a champion of government-run health care -- and his self-image as a solitary hero. But it'll anger his progressive allies and donors across the country. They'll see what many Clevelanders saw in 2007 when I wrote my Kucinich profile, "The Missionary": His solitary far-left stands can make him irrelevant when progressives try make real but incremental change. Markos Moulitsas, founder of the left-wing blog Daily Kos, says Kucinich should face a Democratic primary challenge in 2012 if he votes no and the bill goes down.

Last night on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow was interviewing U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, and she mentioned Kucinich in her question about a public option. Without talking about his colleague, Brown drew a distinction between Kucinich's approach and his.

"You understand how progressive movements work," Brown said. "When Social Security was passed in the '30s, it wasn’t all that great at the time. When Medicare was passed, it was good but not great. So much of what we’ve done on abolishing child labor, on safe drinking water and clean air, worker’s compensation and minimum wage: We passed a decent bill and improved on it decade after decade."

Check out this video, with Obama making his case in Strongsville at 0:30 and pressuring Kucinich at 3:38, and Maddow's question to Brown at 8:32.

{Update, 3/17: The pressure worked. Kucinich will vote yes.}

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Dolan: “I represent a new mentality, a new energy”

Matt Dolan is 45 and looks younger, a polished advocate who can talk about every level of government with authority, a former state rep who says he works well with both parties.

Oh, and he’s the son of Indians owner Larry Dolan. So he’s got name recognition and plenty of money.

But the conventional wisdom scoffs at his run for county executive. He’s a carpetbagger, the chatter goes. Worse, a Republican. In Cuyahoga County, that makes him a long shot.

I’m not so sure.

This Republican can do a better job as county executive,” says Dolan, stressing his bipartisan credentials. As House finance chair in 2007, he helped forge a budget deal that passed almost unanimously. “We came up with a budget that lowered taxes, lowered growth of government, and lowered spending without crippling needed services,” he says. Last year, he was one of the few Republicans who voted to suspend an income tax cut to plug a hole in the new budget.

“The message to Democrats is: I understand the nature of working together,” Dolan says. “This reform, while it changes the form of [county] government, if we put the same mentality in the new positions, we’re not advancing forward. I represent a new mentality, a new energy, a new spirit of cooperation that has not been here in years.”

The new government will have to balance the county’s social-service role with the new charter’s focus on job growth. Dolan’s thoughts on that reflect his moderate Republicanism.

“People are in need,” he says, “and you have to provide the services to them.” Still, “Government can’t sustain these folks. The only thing that’s going to help everybody is to improve the economy, to get more jobs.”

Dolan has said he might cut the county’s 7.75 percent sales tax. That led to the first debate in the county executive race, with independent Ken Lanci arguing all savings from a more efficient government should go to economic development instead. Dolan responds like a true conservative: Tax cuts are economic development.

“We have the highest sales tax in the state,” Dolan says. “It's counterproductive to the creation of job growth.” Dolan says he wouldn’t cut social services, public transit, or the Medical Mart project to trim the sales tax — he’d cut the 1 percent of the 7.75 that directly funds government operations and staffing. “If we have the highest sales tax, and we have a government that’s overstaffed, and we have duplicative services, what have we been paying for?” He’s also open to using the savings to invest in aging infrastructure — roads, sewers — or intellectual capital, such as more business incubators.

If elected, on his first day in office, “I’m issuing an executive order for ethics training for all county employees,” Dolan says. “If you fail to conduct yourself as a public servant, you will be let go.” He’d address the concerns about minority inclusion in the new government with his cabinet appointments. “I think a big mistake would be to create a cabinet that didn’t look like Cuyahoga County, both in terms of race and politics,” he says.

Most coverage of Dolan’s candidacy has focused on his December move into Cuyahoga County, from Russell Township to Chagrin Falls. So he plays up his Cuyahoga bona-fides. He went to Gilmour Academy and Case Law School. His state house district included Mayfield, Mayfield Heights, Gates Mills and Highland Heights. In the House, he championed the new county land bank and the state’s Third Frontier program, 44 percent of which is spent in Northeast Ohio. “I feel very comfortable that the issue will be my passion for the community and knowledge of the community, much more than where my address is or was,” he says.

Here’s why I think Dolan has a better shot at becoming county executive than people realize. Plenty of Republicans think he’s not conservative enough — Strongsville Mayor Tom Perciak seems to have tested a possible primary run against him with a robo-poll last week — but that may mean he’s moderate enough to win county-wide. He could appeal to independents who’ve lost trust in local Democrats. And the general election will be a three-way race, so Dolan may not need a majority to get elected.

He’ll be accepted as a Clevelander, if only because his dad runs the town’s beloved baseball team. He can raise money on his own — $1 million for his last House race — and has his family’s fortune as a backup.

But those family ties also pose a peculiar challenge: If Indians fans suffer through another dismal rebuilding season, they may be in no mood to vote for a Dolan by November. Candidate Dolan might be better off telling his dad he can best help his campaign not by footing the bill for political ads, but by adding to the Indians’ payroll.

{*Correction: The original post incorrectly stated that Dolan voted for Gov. Strickland's budget last year. Dolan voted against the July budget deal. He voted for the December deal to suspend an income tax cut to plug a hole in the budget.}

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Patio party at Jimmy's! Another contractor pleads guilty

More swag for Jimmy Dimora!

That's if you believe construction contractor Nicholas Zavarella, who pleaded guilty yesterday to bribing the county commissioner with a retaining wall around his pool, masonry columns in his back yard, and brick walls in his outdoor kitchen. (Patio party at Jimmy's! Must've been good times, until the hammer came down.)

Total value: $25,000 to $28,000. Total the Big D paid: nothing, the feds say -- until Jimmy got a tip that the feds were on to him. Then, a $500 check and a belated request for an invoice.

So what? you, the scandal-fatigued public, might say. We already know Steve Pumper pleaded guilty to bribing Dimora with a patio roof, barbecue shelter and bathhouse, valued at $60,000 -- oh, and $33,000 in cash. And that John Valentin of granite retailer Salva Stone Design is accused of bribing him by installing granite in Dimora's indoor and outdoor kitchens and master bathroom ($3,250).

Well, here are a few so-whats. First, we're seeing the feds tighten the noose on Dimora, lining up witnesses. (Here is where I'll add the usual disclaimers: Dimora has not been charged with a crime, he proclaims his innocence, and the charges don't name him. Once again, the feds call him "Public Official 1.")

Second, a pattern is emerging. Every time another contractor admits he didn't bill Dimora for his services until months or years after the fact, the idea that Dimora just got good deals and paid late gets stretched thinner, and the feds color a bit more gray area with a little more black.

Third, Dimora's potential defense is emerging. It's not exactly, when does a gift become a bribe? It's: Putting in a good word for someone isn't an illegal favor.

Take a look at this quote from the Feb. 25 Plain Dealer:

Dimora's attorney Richard Lillie said Dimora helped Zavarella's daughter get a teaching job, but did nothing wrong.

"Writing a reference letter for somebody is not bribery," Lillie said.

What I said in my October profile of Dimora, "Life of the Party," still holds up: So far, the feds "never claim that he single-handedly rigged a bid or steered a contract, " I wrote then. "The filings depict Dimora doing little favors: He puts in a good word for people, nudges, recommends, asks for a meeting to be moved up, calls the county staff to see if anything can be done for a buddy — and takes gifts from his friends before or after."

That's the gray area Dimora's lawyer could exploit in a trial. (Not that I assume Dimora won't cut a deal with the feds -- it may well be in his best interest.)

Finally, the Zavarella charge gives us another quick glimpse at how Dimora allegedly acted when news came that the FBI tried to flip his pal, Pumper. (From the charging document, with Dimora and Zavarella's names substituted for "PO1" and "defendant." ZBC is Zavarella's company:)
Dimora asked Zavarella to send him a bill for the work ZBC had performed at Dimora's residence. Dimora told Zavarella that something was happening and Dimora did not want Zavarella to get involved because Zavarella did not do county work. Dimora referenced Pumper's divorce and said that there were going to be some issues.

Zavarella sent an invoice to Dimora falsely stating that $6,687 worth of work had been completed "as of 3/31/08," when as Zavarella then well knew, the work had been completed in 2007 and earlier and was valued at more than $6,687.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Peter Lawson Jones co-stars, dances in drag in Karamu’s Great White Hope

Peter Lawson Jones’ bio in the playbill for The Great White Hope doesn’t mention that he’s a Cuyahoga County commissioner. It doesn’t even say he’s a lawyer. The Peter Lawson Jones in Karamu House’s latest play is a Jones from the alternate universe of theater. “In addition to doing voice-over and commercial work, Peter is a playwright,” the cast bio says demurely.

I went to see The Great White Hope last night to enjoy the absolutely fascinating story of Jack Johnson, the fearless, cocky, skirt-chasing provocateur who became the first black heavyweight boxing champion in 1908. But I also got a good look at Jones immersed in his other great passion, the theater, and how he integrates it with his political life.

Jones plays Tick, who trains Jack Jefferson, the play’s fictionalized version of Johnson. This is no cameo. Jones is onstage more than anyone except the actors who portray Johnson and his girlfriend.

He proves he’s got acting talent. I didn’t see the Jones I’m used to: The formal lawyer, so careful and precise with his words he can sometimes seem stiff. Jones gives Tick a turn-of-the-20th-century drawl and a physical wiliness, slipping out of the boxer’s way at one moment, getting between him and trouble the next. He’s funny and folksy, wise but reticent.

This is Jones’ third acting gig in two years: He’s appeared in Karamu’s A House With No Walls and the Cleveland Play House’s Bourbon at the Border. He was active in student theater at Harvard, and wrote a play back then, The Family Line, which Karamu produced in 2005. He’s also writing another play, Bloodless Jungle, about a politician torn between friendship and civic duty (timely, huh?). He’s a board member at Karamu, the 95-year-old multicultural theater Langston Hughes once wrote for. He told Mike McIntyre of the Plain Dealer that if he leaves politics, he may well take a shot at professional acting.

Don’t count him out as a lame duck just yet, though. Jones hosted a fundraiser for his campaign committee before last night’s performance. Guests — including prominent county contractor Dominic Ozanne — also got tickets to the play. It’s something Jones has done along with all three of his local acting appearances, he told me after the show.

How was the play? I agree with the theater critics (see the Plain Dealer, Scene, and Rave and Pan): The main actors are great. Anthony Elfonzia Nickerson-El plays Jefferson with the ferocious charisma and dignified rage the part demands. Ursula Cataan is passionate, gorgeous, and graceful as Eleanor Bachman, the white woman Jefferson risks his career for. They and Jones make the play worthwhile. But the 1968 play is too long at three hours, with too many over-the-top scenes that don’t include the main characters. An abridged production would’ve packed more punch.

Still, Clevelanders into both politics and theater will be jaw-hanging shocked at one scene: A purposely awkward play-within-a-play staging of a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin — with Jones as Topsy(!), dancing goofily, arms flailing, in a gingham dress and pigtails.

Watching Jones’ spectacularly ridiculous moment, his total letting-go for comedy’s sake, a thought came into my head: Tim Hagan would never do this.

But Jimmy Dimora might.


The Great White Hope runs at Karamu House through Sunday, March 14, then moves to Akron’s Weathervane Playhouse April 1-18. If you’re interested in Jack Johnson’s life, the PBS documentary by Ken Burns, Unforgivable Blackness, is required Netflix-ing.

Nina Turner dodges the hype

Everyone had an opinion about state Sen. Nina Turner back in November: A county executive contender, if you liked Issue 6; a marked woman, if you didn’t. Then the filing deadline for the May 4 primary revealed the drama-free truth: She’s running for re-election to the state senate. Unopposed.

What happened? Well, first, we know for sure now that the black political old guard is declining in power. I’m mostly thinking of George Forbes, widely assumed to be the mastermind of the Call & Post’s infamous Aunt Jemima attack on Turner. That in-house slur didn’t just backfire, winning Turner new allies and reluctant defenders among the anti-Issue 6 crowd. It wasn’t just made ridiculous by the actual voting results, which showed that a slim majority in black communities supported 6.

The threat to ruin Turner’s career was also empty. It lacked follow-through. Forbes, in his prime, would’ve lined up a challenger to chase Turner through the primary, accusing her (however implausibly) of selling out black folks. Instead, Forbes ally Zack Reed took a look at running against her, then passed.

Another part of the anti-Issue 6 coalition looks weak: labor. Kenny Yuko, a hardcore pro-union state rep, also considered running against Turner, but decided to run for his House seat again. He must’ve looked at the map of Turner’s 25th district, and realized it was a bad place to try to re-fight the November reform battle. It includes four Cleveland wards and 15 East Side suburbs, many of which — Shaker Heights, South Euclid, Beachwood, Orange — strongly supported 6.

As for that early buzz about Turner for county executive, it wasn’t coming from her. Issue 6 supporters were dropping her name to reward her for standing up to Forbes. But Turner knew better than to overreach. She’s only been in the state Senate for a year and a half. She may well want to move up someday -- but her time on city council and as an aide to Mayor Mike White position her better for a run for Cleveland mayor when Frank Jackson retires. She’s better off to wait, gather experience, and let the grudges over county reform become old news.

Back from vacation

Sorry to disappear for a while. I’ve been on vacation, trading winter for spring in a city where the political news wasn’t corruption and reform, but gay marriage and menacing homeless people.

Now I’m back, re-immersed in the latest Midwestern blend of naked ambition and federal charges. My posts will include thoughts about news from the last week or two as I catch up.