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.