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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Keep a tight focus on FitzGerald. His political track record never received the proper amount of scrutiny. This guy has a big time addiction to power, and it heavily sways his actions. The dark line between right and wrong easily gets blurred.