Thursday, September 29, 2011

Corruption charge filed against former Cleveland councilwoman Sabra Pierce Scott

The corruption investigation has touched Cleveland City Hall again. Former councilwoman Sabra Pierce Scott was charged today with taking $2,000 from businessman Michael Forlani in exchange for supporting his development of Cleveland's new veterans' hospital tower.

Pierce Scott represented Glenville's Ward 8 from 2002 to 2009, when she abruptly and mysteriously resigned from city council.

The charge suggests Pierce Scott asked for, and got, $2,000 in cash to pay her daughter's tuition as well as a job for her son with Forlani's company Doan Pyramid Electric. In exchange, it's alleged, Pierce Scott co-sponsored several pieces of legislation that supported the veterans' hospital tower, including a tax financing agreement.

I say "suggests" because the filing doesn't name Forlani, who hasn't been charged with a crime, or his companies. But the details about "BE 10," "Business 14," and "Business 42" make his identity clear. It also doesn't name the VA hospital tower, but the references to a $120 million project with Port Authority financing are unmistakable.

The filing also says Pierce Scott chewed out an unnamed fellow councilperson at a 2006 finance committee meeting for questioning the amount of minority participation on the hospital project.

"How dare you use your own approach to question a project in my ward without having a discussion with me first," the prosecutors quote her as saying. "I don't mess with your projects and don't you mess with mine."

Sounds like a typical city council turf war, if not for the alleged cash in an envelope! (Update, 9/30: Zack Reed tells the Plain Dealer he's the councilman Pierce Scott ripped into. That makes sense. Reed often pushes for minority participation in construction jobs, and he often breaks the unofficial council rule Pierce Scott so clearly articulated in the quote, that councilpeople don't question what goes on in others' wards.)

Prosecutors filed the charge against Pierce Scott as an information, not an indictment, usually a sign that the defendant is cooperating with the investigation.

The charge finally brings to light a quiet part of the FBI's corruption investigation. The VA project was named three years ago in a search warrant executed on Jimmy Dimora's office. Forlani's Doan Pyramid Electric was raided on the same day. But no county employee was ever charged with improperly influencing the VA project. Instead, a former city councilwoman is now charged with doing so.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Primary moves back to March 6; Kucinich-Kaptur, prosecutor races to heat up

UPDATED with Kevin Kelley campaign announcement.

Buried in the news that Ohio Republicans rushed their ruthlessly gerrymandered congressional map through the state House and Senate this week was another change: Ohio's 2012 primary will be on March 6 after all, not May.

So if Mitt Romney and Rick Perry battle to a near-tie this winter, Ohio Republicans may actually get a say in who their presidential candidate will be, as Democrats here did in the tight 2008 race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

It also means campaigning will start soon in two big local races. Dennis Kucinich will be fighting to stay in Congress, forced to compete against fellow progressive Marcy Kaptur from Toledo.

And the race to succeed Bill Mason as county prosecutor will get hot fast.

Cleveland city councilman Kevin Kelley announced today that he's running for the job. (No, he's not Parma's J. Kevin Kelley, of corruption scandal fame.) "Kelley’s plans for the office include expanding the community-based prosecution model, improving efficiencies to save taxpayer dollars, and focusing on quality of life crimes that destroy neighborhoods," his press release says.

I've already blogged that Subodh Chandra, Bob Triozzi, and James McDonnell are running. Recently, Mike McIntyre, in Tipoff, basically confirmed a rumor I've heard: that judge Timothy McGinty is thinking about running too.

Meanwhile, Brent Larkin swiped at Mason in his Sunday column, as if to urge voters to elect a less political prosecutor this time.

Cuyahoga Co.'s vote by mail campaign kicks off

They can't do a mass mailing, so they're inviting you, even urging you: ask us for a ballot!

Cuyahoga County's board of elections kicked off a drive yesterday telling residents how they can vote by mail in this November's election. They've asked 400 local institutions to put a Request a Vote By Mail Ballot Application link on their websites. The link goes to a nifty new page that lets residents create a personalized mail-in ballot application. They can download it, or have it mailed to them. They can also download a blank application.

Voters can also call pick up ballot applications at libraries or call the board to request them at (216) 443-3298.

Cuyahoga County residents got used to voting by mail between 2006 and 2010, when the county sent the applications to every voter's home. Next year, every Ohioan will get an application for the 2012 presidential election, thanks to the bargain between Ed FitzGerald and Jon Husted. But for the this November's election -- mostly a referendum on Senate Bill 5 plus some local contests -- people who want to vote by mail will have to ask for a ballot. So Cuyahoga County -- which still wants voters to vote by mail to prevent long lines at the polls -- is doing everything else it can to make it easy.

Voters in other counties can also contact their board of elections -- here's a list.

Update, 9/24: The fragile bipartisan coalition around Cuyahoga County's vote by mail effort is breaking up.

Rob Frost, county Republican chair (and congressional candidate) has resigned from the county's vote by mail task force, upset that several unions have asked the county for ballot applications. The AFL-CIO asked for 185,000. Frost thinks having the county pay to print them, when they'd be used for a political group's get out the vote efforts, would amount to an end run around FitzGerald's deal with Husted. See today's Tipoff here. Update, 9/26: FitzGerald and others on the task force tell Tipoff that the unions are printing their own applications.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Plusquellic wins Akron mayoral primary

Even after 24 years, Don Plusquellic is still Akron's indispensable man. So the city's voters decided yesterday, giving the mayor a 55 percent to 43 percent victory in the Democratic primary against challenger Mike Williams.

Plusquellic's record of accomplishment triumphed again over the complaints about his sometimes abrasive personality. Much of Williams' 40-point campaign plan was written as a critique of Plusquellic's leadership style. But the mayor, energized at the chance to take on a longtime rival, spun his combativeness as a positive. "Don Plusquellic is Fighting for Us... Because He Is One of Us," read a campaign flier. "The leader we need in tough times."

The mayor's aggressive, innovative record on job attraction and retention earned him the support of Akron's power elite. His victory party was filled with city leaders, the Beacon Journal reports, including CEOs, University of Akron president Luis Proenza, city councilpeople and Summit County officials.

In his victory speech, the mayor promised to revive his biggest, most elusive goal: setting up a scholarship program for Akron high school students. As he did in my interview with him, Plusquellic said he's willing to “work with anybody who didn’t mislead the public” -- a dig at Williams, who he feels misled voters about his 2008 ballot proposal to fund scholarships by leasing the city sewers.

Akron's intensely combative politics are not about to mellow out. Two pro-Plusquellic city councilpeople lost yesterday, inspiring Williams to renew his opposition to the mayor's leadership. “I’ve got some new members of council who are prepared to change how we function,” Williams said, according to the Beacon. “We cannot tolerate this old way of doing business.”

To read “Tire Calling,” my article about Plusquellic in the September issue of Cleveland Magazine, click here. For other excerpts from my interview in the latest issue of Inside Business, click here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Kucinich sounds like he'll stay, run against Kaptur

Looks like the Dennis-to-Seattle buzz was a feint. Here's Dennis Kucinich's reaction to the Republicans' redistricting map:

It is an amazing turn of events that the legislature decided not to dismantle the district I represent.

I have been praying that I could continue to serve my Cleveland-area constituency and it looks like I have a chance.

That is all I could have hoped for.

That's not to say the Republicans have left Kucinich an intact district. He's been thrown into a stretched-on-the-rack monster as thin and ridiculous as the original gerrymander: a piece of Toledo and a piece of Cleveland strung together by a tiny strip of shoreline. I'd call it the Route 2 district, for the lake-hugging highway, except it's so thin that even Route 2 probably slips out of it for a piece. Take a look at it in this pdf.

But Kucinich sees something most people didn't today: the map keeps Kucinich's base together -- Cleveland's West Side and Lakewood.

The new map pits him against Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo, an ally and fellow member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. It's a cruel dare -- will two friends fight for the same unnaturally created congressional seat?

Will Cleveland have to get to know Kaptur, and Toledo Kucinich, in the primary this winter or spring?

The map sets off a lot more drama. Marcia Fudge's district stretches down I-77 to Akron, peeling away enough voters who know her well that state Sen. Nina Turner might have more of a chance if she challenges her. Steve Latourette gets a bigger slice of Cuyahoga County. Betty Sutton is either redistricted out of a job or into an uphill fight against Jim Renacci, who also may end up representing a piece of Cuyahoga County. Meanwhile, the Democrats and Republicans are fighting over whether the primaries will come in March or May.

But the best storyline is surely the latest twist in Kucinich's 40-plus-year relationship with Cleveland. It's not over yet.

To read my profile of Kucinich, "The Missionary," click here. To see The Complete Kucinich, an archive of Cleveland Magazine's coverage of Kucinich's career, click here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Plusquellic, charismatic and combative as ever, aims for 7th term Tuesday

This summer I went to Akron to meet Don Plusquellic, the big personality who’s dominated the town’s politics since he was elected mayor in 1987. I’d blogged about him before and interviewed him by phone long ago. But during his campaign for a seventh term, I wanted to size up the guy in person.

I hoped he’d prove to be as intense, charismatic and combative as his reputation. And he was.

“This is a magic wand,” Plusquellic announced, waving a gavel handle, at a press conference. “It is a magic wand that good people, even probably my own mother, wishes I had waved a long time ago, to bring 35,000 or 40,000 or 50,000 rubber jobs back to this city.”

It was his sarcastic, strong-willed way of reminding voters that he’s spent 24 years trying to expand what a city hall can do for a local economy, while forging partnerships with businesses and suburban neighbors.

I thought I might get a dose of Plusquellic’s endless feud with his motley crew of enemies, the fury he inspires and inflicts.

“I despise ‘em, I think they’re despicable human beings, and I put Mike in that category, of people who lie to the public,” he told me.

“Mike” is Mike Williams, Plusquellic’s opponent in Tuesday’s mayoral primary. Plusquellic thinks Williams misled voters about his failed 2008 plan to fund college scholarships for Akron kids by leasing the city sewers. It’s one of several reasons the mayor’s race has gotten fiercely personal.

Tuesday’s election looks like it’ll be a referendum on Plusquellic — both his record of job creation and his combative politics. You can read “Tire Calling,” my article about the Rubber City’s mayor, in the September issue of Cleveland Magazine and online here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Race to replace Mason taking shape; Triozzi resigns to run for prosecutor

People call Labor Day the start of the fall campaign season, but that's much too simple. Here in Cleveland, the 11th Congressional District parade marked the point when two campaign seasons sped up.

The Democrats' campaign to repeal Senate Bill 5 in November got the attention -- it was Labor Day, after all. But it also marked the start of the 2012 race to replace Bill Mason as Cuyahoga County prosecutor.

Subodh Chandra, who was Cleveland law director in the Campbell Administration, and James McDonnell, former North Royalton city prosecutor and brother of county judge Nancy McDonnell, both marched in the parade as candidates for the prosecutor's job.

They launched their campaign websites earlier this summer, but you're forgiven if you didn't know that. Only serious party loyalists have been paying attention so far, with the all-important Democratic primary still eight months away, in May (or March, if the Democrats' petition drive to stop Ohio's new election law succeeds).

Not to be outrun, Cleveland law director Bob Triozzi resigned today and declared he's a candidate too. Triozzi ran for mayor in 2005 and got about 10 percent of the vote, impressing Frank Jackson enough to win City Hall's top-lawyer job as a consolation prize.

Chandra ran for attorney general in 2006 and lost in the primary to Marc Dann, a decision state Democratic primary voters surely regretted after Dann's ridiculous scandals knocked him from office.

It's the first wide-open prosecutor's race in Cuyahoga County in 55 years, the first since Frank Cullitan, Eliot Ness' partner in crusading anti-corruption battles, retired in 1956 and John T. Corrigan won the race to take his place. We've only had three prosecutors since then, and Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Bill Mason both got the job through mid-term appointments by Democratic party insiders.

I wouldn't be surprised if even more candidates jump into this race. Given the office's history, it's an opportunity that opens up once in a lawyer's lifetime.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ballot war ends; all Ohio voters to get vote by mail application in 2012

Turns out Ed FitzGerald is a shrewd negotiator, and Jon Husted meant what he said about treating all voters the same. They've ended their battle over voting-by-mail with a dramatic compromise announced this morning.

FitzGerald extracted a major promise from the secretary of state and Republican leaders in the legislature: Husted will send every Ohioan an application for a mail-in ballot for the 2012 presidential election. The legislature will agree to let Husted use federal money from the Help America Vote Act to pay for it. That'll help prevent long lines at the polls from returning in 2012.

The deal satisfies the Republican goal of treating voters in all 88 counties the same. They're doing something I thought they wouldn't do, the opposite of the thrust of their newly passed election law. They're taking urban counties' best solution for overcrowded voting locations and expanding it to everyone, instead of banning it.

FitzGerald had to make a major concession to get a deal with Husted. He had to drop Cuyahoga County's plan to send out ballot applications for the 2011 election. No other county was going to do it, which defied Husted's insistence on creating uniform statewide standards.

Jill Miller Zimon, over at Writes Like She Talks, sounds disappointed, skeptical about the details. But I think the compromise is shrewd. This year's Senate Bill 5 referendum is big, but the presidential election is much bigger.

By using his leverage to make voting easier for people across Ohio, FitzGerald becomes more of a force in state politics -- note how the Columbus Dispatch report calls him "perhaps Cleveland's most powerful Democrat." And Husted gets to reclaim his image as a moderate in ballot controversies. It won't stop the fight over HB 194, but it's the sort of bipartisan compromise on voting issues that has become all too rare.

The biggest question left is, will the statewide mailing only happen once, in 2012? Or will the deal create a precedent that Ohio will follow from then on?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

FitzGerald vs. Republicans: the new voting war

So another ballot battle has broken out in town, another partisan fight about how Greater Clevelanders vote. This time it’s between Ed FitzGerald and Jon Husted, the Cuyahoga County executive and the secretary of state, and it’s about the absentee ballot applications all county residents get in the mail.

I get why FitzGerald and the county council decided to have county workers mass-mail those applications to everyone, now that a new election law says boards of elections can’t do it anymore.

The county has been sending absentee applications to all voters since 2006, and it’s helped prevent a repeat of the terrible polling-place traffic jams that marred the 2004 presidential election. I wrote a lot about the voting problems we struggled with a few years ago, and I don’t want to see them come back.

Still, I’m finding the whole fight disappointing. One reason is I don’t think it’ll end well. Republicans in the legislature, enraged that FitzGerald found a way around their new election law, may simply ban counties from doing it again, making FitzGerald’s clever move a mere one-time victory.

Also, it’s tiring to see FitzGerald fall in with the partisan troops. “All the usual suspects are lining up,” he complains of the Republicans, but by saying that, isn’t he lining up on the other side? His use of the fight as ammo in a Democratic Party fundraising letter escalates the conflict. It’s another chapter in a sorry story: At least since the 2000 Florida recount, we’ve been stuck fighting over dueling Democratic and Republican ways of conducting elections.

FitzGerald didn’t start this particular battle. Republicans in the legislature did when they passed HB 194, which banned the mass mailing of absentee applications by election boards. Secretary of state Jon Husted followed up last week with a directive that did the same, before the law takes effect.

(Democrats are circulating petitions to repeal HB 194, which also cuts early voting at election offices from five weeks to two. They say the law is aimed at their voters. Early and absentee voting helped President Obama get out the vote in Ohio in 2008.)

Republicans’ argument for stopping the mass mailings is that if some counties send them out and others can’t afford it, then the state is tolerating “unequal treatment of voters in different counties,” as Republican state auditor David Yost wrote.

The argument does have a certain logic to it – it’s not “deceitful,” as state Rep. Mike Foley said yesterday. But it ignores the fact that long lines to vote are a more serious problem in urban counties and college towns than in small rural precincts. And it throws out a helpful solution rather than expanding it. Even if you give Republicans the benefit of the doubt about their motivation, they’re still so worried about consistency, they’re insisting on a system that’s less helpful to voters than it could be.

Yost may come out of this looking worse than anyone. He knows that HB 194 doesn’t stop counties from mass-mailing ballots, just county election boards. So his warning that he may punish Cuyahoga County with a “finding of recovery” in its next audit is a misuse of his authority. And his blog post, “The Wreck of Edward FitzGerald,” which slyly connects the county executive with the old county government’s scandals, shows he’s more interested in fighting with a Democrat than watching the books.

Husted’s arguments with FitzGerald are especially disappointing because, until last week, it looked like he was a moderate in the ballot wars, the Republican who discouraged his fellow Republicans from passing a new voter ID law. But his awful reaction to FitzGerald’s move – he said he might block boards of elections from processing mass-mailed ballot applications -- would’ve really caused a vote-suppression scandal.

Connie Schultz got Husted to back off that idea (he said he’d been “thinking out loud”). Her column yesterday encouraged his independent instincts. We’ll need to see a lot more of that side of Husted, if Ohio is going to have any hope of avoiding another partisan blood feud around our voting rules in 2012.