Thursday, December 29, 2011

FBI investigated failed Ameritrust Tower sale, asbestos contract

Now's the season when we learn new details about the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal, including the stuff the FBI investigated that hasn't led to charges. Before Jimmy Dimora goes on trial next week, we're seeing a flurry of court filings that reveal a lot about the feds' early moves in the probe.

Here's the biggest news so far. The judge's latest opinion reveals that two of the seven alleged schemes the FBI was investigating as of late 2007 involved the Ameritrust Tower. The FBI showed an interest in the county's $22 million purchase of it and failed attempt to sell it, as well as a $7 million contract to remove asbestos from it.

We've known for a while that the FBI was curious about the county's vacant skyscraper. The search warrant executed on Dimora's office in 2008 asked for documents showing his decision-making on the Ameritrust project. This is the first time in 3 1/2 years we've learned anything more.

Judge Sara Lioi never writes the word "Ameritrust," but it's clear which building she's talking about in her opinion. Lioi explains several steps the FBI took to assemble probable cause to believe a crime had been committed before it asked permission to tap Dimora buddy Steve Pumper's phone in December 2007. She describes a conversation between Pumper and a confidential source who's wearing a wire -- probably Cleveland housing inspector Bobby Cuevas -- about a building that is clearly the Ameritrust Tower:

On November 15, 2007, the Cuyahoga County Commissioners voted to place the property in question up for sale.... a number of calls were placed on the evening of November 15th between, variously, Dimora, Company A, Pumper, and Michael Forlani... Pumper, after rubbing his fingers together in a "money" gesture, stated that the County Commissioners often "want a little action"; and Pumper indirectly indicated to the confidential source that the reason the County had opted to purchase the now-for-sale building in the first place instead of another property under consideration was because the owner of the other property refused to pay bribes or kickbacks.

The main competition for The Jacobs Group, which sold the Ameritrust Tower to the county in 2005, was Forest City, which offered to lease the Higbee Building to the county, and David Goldberg of the former Ohio Savings Bank, who offered a lease on the 668 Euclid building.

Next, Lioi describes an alleged "scheme" that clearly involves the contract to remove asbestos from the Ameritrust Tower. In August 2007, Dimora and Tim Hagan voted to award the asbestos contract to the second-lowest bidder, local company Precision Environmental, instead of the low bidder, St. Louis company Midwest Asbestos Abatement. (Peter Lawson Jones voted against giving the contract to Precision.)

In the judge's words:
[One scheme involved] the bidding process for a contract for "soft demolition" in a building owned by the County. ... a confidential source reported that Dimora had close ties to the individuals who owned a contracting company that had submitted the second-lowest bid... another confidential source reported (second-hand) that several Cuyahoga County officials held a private meeting at which they decided to award the contract to the second-place company despite its higher bid; this second confidential source also reported that a public employee close to Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo told the source that Russo and Dimora had been waiting for a company like the second-place company to need their help...

Sounds ominous, but the judge's summary may help explain why the FBI's interest in the contract did not lead to charges. Some of the FBI's suspicions were based on second-hand stories.

It's also worth noting that Dimora and Hagan awarded the contract to Precision based on the advice of their staff. I interviewed some of those staffers in 2008, and they seemed to strongly believe Precision was the best company for the job. You can read about the asbestos controversy and the purchase of the tower in my June 2008 story "Tower Play."

Also, Dimora's friend Bobby DiGeronimo, whose family owns Precision, spoke to me for "Life of the Party," my October 2009 Dimora profile. He told me that he and Dimora didn't speak about the asbestos contract until after the vote.

{Update, 1/6/12: Interesting -- DiGeronimo's relationship with Dimora may come up in the trial. DiGeronimo spoke to me in 2009 for my Dimora profile. “To this day, Jimmy has never asked me for anything except sports tickets,” he told me. Now the feds want to talk about those gifts at trial. They're not drawing a connection with the asbestos contract, but with a land sale DiGeronimo bidded on. He tells the Plain Dealer he did nothing wrong. And yes, this is the same Bobby DiGeronimo from the Ohio State football scandal. Dimora got his famous Beanie Wells jersey at a fundraiser for DiGeronimo's charity.}

Two final notes, giving credit where it's due. Fox 8 reported in fall 2007 that the FBI was investigating the Ameritrust asbestos contract. Now we know that Fox 8 was right, and was the first local media outlet to report on the corruption investigation. Also, the Plain Dealer has long claimed that Bobby Cuevas was a key figure in the probe, to the point where they referred to the county corruption investigation and the feds' stings of crooked Cleveland inspectors as part of the same investigation. I had my doubts and said so. But the judge's opinion seems to suggest that Cuevas was one of the feds' two best sources on Dimora and Pumper in 2007.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Kucinich's future at stake on March 6; state approves new map, single primary

Here's what you need to know about yesterday's compromise on a single primary date, March 6, and a new redistricting map:

Voters may end Dennis Kucinich's long political career in March. The new map adds a big chunk of Toledo to the ridiculous new lakeshore district linking Toledo and Cleveland. That gives Toledo congresswoman Marcy Kaptur an advantage in a primary against Kucinich.

Now comes the guessing game: what will Dennis' "new direction" be, now that he's faced with a map he opposed? Will he run against Marcia Fudge and Nina Turner? Will he revive the move-to-Seattle talk? My guess is he stays in the lakeshore district and fights -- and he may well lose. (Update, 12/30: He's running in the lakeshore district. And getting very chatty in e-mails to supporters, calling Kaptur his friend and saying he faces a difficult election.)

• The map didn't change much for Fudge, who's off to a fast start against Turner, picking up support from Democrats in Akron. Now Turner has less than three months to build a case against the incumbent. (Update, 12/30: Turner has decided not to run, citing the short time span.)

• Ohio may actually have a say in the Republican presidential nomination. The race is so wide-open, it may still be unresolved by March 6 -- a way more influential date than June 12.

• Cuyahoga County Democrats will pick a new prosecutor the same day as the Kucinich-Kaptur and Fudge-Turner races. Here's Mark Naymik's update on the prosecutor's race, and mine.

• Betty Sutton may have a decent chance to stay in Congress after all. Redistricting threw the Democrat into a November contest with Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci. The new district leans Republican, but Sutton just released a surprising poll that shows her and Renacci tied 45-45. The new map won't change her odds by much.

Update, 12/16: Kucinich sent a message to supporters this morning with no mention of the new map or the congressional race. Sounds like he's hedging his bets. "We have big initiatives we will be unveiling over the next few months -- a national campaign to revitalize our democracy, a new website and toolset to more effectively organize our movement and create change. ... I look forward to doing great things over the next year with this movement."

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.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mason mum on race to succeed him, but he's watching

I ran into Bill Mason last month at an event and asked him if he was endorsing in the race to succeed him as Cuyahoga County prosecutor. No, he said, and gave the standard diplomatic line of an incumbent laying low, some variation on, "There's a lot of good candidates out there."

Then Mason told me about a vote the Democratic Party ward leaders had taken the day before on whether the party should endorse a candidate. Like an NFL fan obsessing over his betting pool, he recited the numbers from memory:

28 votes to recommend

James McDonnell, 26
Kevin Kelley, 16
Tim McGinty, 7
Subodh Chandra, 4
Bob Triozzi, 1

Mason may not be running or endorsing, but the veteran political pro still loves the game.

I was surprised at the results. McDonnell, a defense attorney and brother of county judge Nancy McDonnell, is the least known of the five candidates. (Kelley is a Cleveland councilman, McGinty a county judge, Chandra and Triozzi former Cleveland law directors.)

Mason said McDonnell had been working hard for the endorsement, spending months making the rounds of ward meetings to introduce himself.

I knew this was true. I met McDonnell this summer at Zagara's grocery store in Cleveland Heights, where he was wearing a James J. McDonnell For Cuyahoga County Prosecutor T-shirt. He told me he was visiting Democratic neighborhood picnics and the like.

Back then I might've agreed with Mark Naymik's description of McDonnell in an October report on the race: "He's amiable but over-confident and is relying on a decent ballot name to propel him." Guess he wasn't over-confident after all. All that hard work is paying off.

Just how much it pays off, we'll see today. The county Democrats are gathering at the Music Hall to vote on whether to endorse in the March primary. A winner could get a big advantage. Ed FitzGerald's party endorsement in last year's executive race helped propel him through the primary.

But it won't be easy for McDonnell or anyone else to get that endorsement. As Mason, the experienced party politicker, pointed out, a candidate needs 60 percent of the vote to get it. So the five-way race could remain wide open until the voters get a chance to decide.

Update, 12/8: No one got the endorsement. Anastasia Pantsios describes the meeting and vote on Ohio Daily Blog: McDonnell had support in the western suburbs, Chandra in the eastern suburbs, Kelley in the city of Cleveland.

Update, 12/15: Mark Naymik reports that every Parma Democrat voted for McDonnell. Hmm...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What makes Nina Turner so confident?

Nina Turner sees an opportunity. The aggressive, ambitious state senator thinks she can defy the odds against congressional challengers and unseat U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge. Why is she so confident?

Visibility and personality, to start with. Turner gets way more attention than your average state senator. She's become a regular on Ed Shultz's MSNBC show as the Ohio liberal who bashes Gov. Kasich and argues that the swing state is swinging the Democrats' way. Take a look at her feisty call for Kasich to apologize to Ohioans for Issue 2 (at the 1:00 mark).

Political commentator Jason Johnson writes that Turner's "passionate, rough-around-the-edges style" resembles the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones' personality more than Fudge's does. That surely sounds like sacrilege to Fudge supporters, who know Fudge was Tubbs Jones' friend, card-playing buddy and anointed successor. But Johnson is on to something. Fudge has a quiet personality for a politician. Compare her MSNBC appearance to Turner's here.

"We are in dire need of leadership with a purpose, and I'm not seeing that," Turner told The Plain Dealer's Henry Gomez. We'll see how well she backs up that argument. But Turner must feel Fudge (right) hasn't been in Congress long enough to acquire an incumbent's usual clout and advantages. With only three years seniority, Fudge isn't the first congressperson local officials turn to when they need help in Washington -- Steve LaTourette is.

Besides, the tentative redistricting map gives Fudge a lot of new territory to cover, from Garfield Heights all the way down the I-77 corridor to Akron. Turner may find it easier to win over voters there, since they haven't voted for Fudge before.

Turner is betting that established politicians in Cleveland and Washington don't have as much clout as they seem. The Cuyahoga County Democrats are sure to endorse the incumbent. So will the old black political network in town -- Arnold Pinkney, George Forbes, etc.

But the local Democrats got beaten badly when they united against county reform two years ago. Almost every black elected official except Turner came out against Issue 6, but about half of black voters supported it. Turner is probably counting on a similar split in the black vote in this campaign. Plenty of Issue 6 supporters, from wealthy businesspeople to civic leaders to maverick Democrats, stand ready to back Turner now because of her risky stance then. Likewise, the infamous race-baiting attack against her for supporting reform could even rebound in her favor. Cleveland voters tend to admire politicians who stand up to bullies.

The case for re-electing Fudge, or betting on her re-election, is simpler and less dramatic. Fudge is the incumbent, she has a bigger political network, her views on the issues fit the district, and Turner hasn't yet made the case for replacing her. Jason Johnson says the Congressional Black Caucus has tried to boost Fudge's visibility lately. They could easily back that up with national fund-raising on her behalf.

But Turner may also be confident because her backup plan is self-evident. She has a safe seat in the state senate -- her term doesn't end until 2014. So if she loses to Fudge but runs a competitive race, she'll still increase her name recognition and her fund-raising base. That could help her take a shot at another higher office in the future. Even by losing, she could win.

Update, 12/5: Fudge announced her re-election campaign today, touting a long list of endorsements from local elected officials, black ministers, and others. An anonymous Fudge supporter serves up a punchy quote to Mike McIntyre for his Tipoff column today: "We're going to beat Nina Turner like she stole something."

12/6: Good PD coverage of Fudge's campaign announcement from Joe Frolik and Henry Gomez. Frolik says Turner faces "very long odds" and that Fudge pledged to run a clean campaign and "disown" (his words) mud-slinging supporters. He offers this diplomatically couched take on Fudge's personality: "If Fudge sometimes comes across as cold or even imperious -- especially in contrast to her gregarious predecessor -- it may be because she's never had to learn to be a good candidate. Now she will."

12/30: Turner has decided not to run against Fudge in the primary, citing the short campaign season now that the vote will be March 6. Her statement leaves open the possibility of running as an independent in November.