Friday, December 14, 2012

Linndale's mayor's court nears abolition; senator cites Cleveland Magazine

Could the Linndale speed trap be nearing its end?

Ohio's legislature voted this week to ban towns of less than 201 people from operating mayor's courts. It's a law aimed directly at Linndale, the microvillage that raises four-fifths of its $1 million budget  from tickets issued on its small stretch of I-71.

Sen. Tom Patton, the new rule's sponsor, says Cleveland Magazine's August 2011 story "Greetings From Linndale" helped him rally support.

"All of the facts you uncovered were facts we used to go along with some of the other data we had," Patton told me today.

My story, co-written with former Fox 8 investigator Mark DeMarino, revealed serious questions about the microvillage’s all-important population count in the 2010 U.S. Census. 

Cleveland Magazine reporters knocked on nearly every door in Linndale last year and discovered that the village's official census count of 179 people appeared inflated. That count was key to Linndale's future because state law already bans towns with less than 101 people from operating mayor's courts.

We discovered one block where nine phantom residents supposedly moved into an industrial zone, and a block that officially doubled in population but didn’t have nearly that many people a year later, and one block the census counted that’s not really in Linndale. Village officials should have notified the census about its mapping error, but didn't. A village official we interviewed said he wasn't sure where Linndale's western boundary was.

"When talked to my colleagues, I pointed out that the clerk of courts, he gets confused about boundaries," Patton said.

Linndale police officers personally encouraged residents to answer the census, the magazine found. The Census Bureau says police involvement in the census interferes with the census’s confidentiality and could intimidate people. That also came up in debate over Patton's bill.

"It has been reported that in a particular village, the officers assisted citizens in filling out census forms," Mark Drum, state secretary for the Fraternal Order of Police, said in his Senate testimony supporting Patton's bill. "It is difficult, if not impossible, for our members to understand what professional law enforcement purpose filling out census forms could possibly have.  This is the type of unprofessional behavior the FOP would like to see eradicated with [the bill]."

Patton noted that Linndale issued 2,800 traffic tickets per 100 residents in 2010. Strongsville, which also polices a stretch of I-71, issued eight per 100 residents.

"When you hide under a bridge in the shadows, instead of 'Protect and Serve' on the outside of your vehicle, it should be, 'Will that be cash or credit?'" Patton said.

Linndale's next move is unclear. In the 1990s, it took a different challenge to its speed trap all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court and won.

Linndale clerk of courts Mike Toczek told me and DeMarino last year that if the mayor's court were ever abolished, the village might approach Brooklyn's mayor's court about sharing court functions. Or it could cut down to basic services and patrols.  "We have always found a way to exist," he said.

To read Cleveland Magazine’s article, “Greetings from Linndale,” click here. To link to it on social media, use this shortlink:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

FitzGerald plan: sell Ameritrust Tower for $27 million, have new county HQ built next door

The Ameritrust Tower and rotunda, ghosts on downtown Cleveland's landscape since 1996, could be revived if Ed FitzGerald gets his way.

Cuyahoga County's executive wants to sell the Brutalist high-rise and the classic bank building for $27 million to Geis Co., which would build a new county headquarters next to the tower and lease it to the county for about $6.5 million a year.

The new, eight-story headquarters at East 9th Street and Prospect Avenue would share two parking garages and a new pedestrian bridge with the 29-story tower, which would be converted into apartments. The rotunda would house stores and possibly a public space.

If the county council approves the deal next month, construction would start right away and could be finished by July 2014, FitzGerald says.

The Geis Co. proposal could exorcise a controversial deal that has haunted the county since 2005. The previous government bought the Ameritrust complex that year for about $22 million as a site for a county HQ, then spent an equal amount ridding it of asbestos, paying its broker and buying a second parking garage.

With the sale, the county would recoup more than half of its $45 million investment. It would also move out of the 1950s-era administration building at Lakeside and Ontario and other offices around town.

"The building we're in now is outdated, inefficient, and duplicative," FitzGerald said during an interview today. His consultants project that the county could lower its annual occupancy costs by $6 million by moving. So the county would recoup its losses on the Ameritrust complex over time.

In a way, FitzGerald is bringing the county full circle, back to East 9th and the same headquarters site that Jimmy Dimora, Tim Hagan, and Peter Lawson Jones picked in 2005. But there are big differences between the old and new plans.

Dimora and Hagan wanted to tear down the tower and build a much larger headquarters than the 222,000-square-foot building FitzGerald and Geis envision. The old plan also had the county constructing and owning the headquarters. Geis' offer is a sell-build-lease deal with an option to buy after 26 years.

FitzGerald is confident the county will lower the cost of government by moving. But that could depend on a lot of things going right. That includes his hopes of selling the current administration building site, which is right next to the medical mart and convention center, to a hotel developer.

But FitzGerald doesn't have a buyer for the site yet. He didn't get an offer he liked in this round of bidding. He hopes to try again in the new year, perhaps after the convention center opens.

The county has for-sale signs on 13 properties, including the old juvenile justice center and the county archives building in Ohio City. Announcements about the sale of several more should come in January or February, FitzGerald said.

The public will have about 45 days to examine the Ameritrust and headquarters deal and the alternatives the county rejected. County council president C. Ellen Connally says the council will hold meetings on the proposal tonight and Jan. 2, 8, and 22.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Last Man Standing: My interview with Bill Mason

Just before Bill Mason left the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office this fall, he and I sat down for a final interview.  It got tense.

Others had already asked Mason why he didn't catch Jimmy Dimora or Frank Russo in the act of pocketing bribes and exploiting their office.  So I drilled deeper.  I asked about the times Mason's name came up at the Dimora trial, the wrongdoing ex-sheriff Gerald McFaul carried out in the Justice Center (where Mason also had his office), and Mason's longstanding alliance and friendship with Pat O'Malley, the former county recorder who served federal prison time on an obscenity conviction.

Mason, I discovered, remains loyal to O'Malley even today. "I'm a pretty trustworthy and loyal guy," he said. "Period." Mason said he didn't know that sheriff's deputies were illegally selling tickets to McFaul's clambake fundraisers in the Justice Center. And he denied any involvement with Frank Russo's successful efforts to push J. Kevin Kelley out of the 2003 Parma mayor's race.

The interview ranged across Mason's 14 years in office and touched on his dual reputation as a tough law-and-order prosecutor and shrewd political insider.  We talked about Mason's aggressive pursuit of the death penalty, his work fighting mortgage fraud and child porn, and his memories of the 2000 Sam Sheppard case.  As the spotlight turns to his successor, Tim McGinty, my last talk with Mason provides a look at the state of the prosecutor's office during a time of transition.

You can read my interview with Mason, "Last Man Standing," here and in the December issue of Cleveland Magazine.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fudge elected Congressional Black Caucus chair

Marcia Fudge is moving up on Capitol Hill. The Cleveland congresswoman was elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus for the next two years, increasing her visibility and maybe her clout.

As head of the caucus, Fudge will become a spokeswoman for black Americans in Congress and across the country. “It automatically gives her a leadership role in Congress,” Louis Stokes, the other Clevelander to have held the position, told the Plain Dealer.

Winning the post is a reversal of fortune for Fudge, who’s been in Congress since 2008. A year ago, she was facing an aggressive primary challenger, state Sen. Nina Turner. But Fudge wasn’t as weak as Turner thought; she announced her reelection campaign with most every big local Democrat united behind her, and Turner backed down.

Fudge sounded like Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson yesterday when she said the Black Caucus focuses on “the least of these,” meaning the needy – though they’re both referring to one of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of Matthew. The caucus, which held a job fair in Cleveland this summer as part of its focus on lowering unemployment, is expected to defend Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the upcoming negotiations on the fiscal cliff.

Speaking for the Black Caucus (which is growing from 40 to 43 members next year) will surely increase Fudge’s visibility, but what about her clout? Seniority matters a lot in Congress, and Fudge doesn’t have much of it. Will the chairmanship give her a shortcut to power, and influence on Cleveland’s behalf? Maybe, Fudge seems to think. “It puts me to some degree in position to talk to the leadership more often,” she told the PD’s Sabrina Eaton.

Links to our past coverage of Marcia Fudge:

-My Most Interesting People interview with her after her election to Congress.

-Mansfield Frazier’s 2010 commentary on her growing role as a player in local Democratic politics.

-Afi-Odelia Scruggs’ profile of Fudge from 2007, when she was mayor of Warrensville Heights.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Taxmageddon looms, but Voinovich sees a way out

Now that the election’s over, the country’s political conversation is changing fast. President Obama and Congress have less than two months to confront the budget crisis known as the fiscal cliff or, better yet, Taxmageddon. What will happen?

Former Sen. George Voinovich thinks it’s time for Obama and the Republicans to bargain: Medicare and Medicaid cuts in exchange for tax hikes on the wealthy.

“We’re trying to warn people about the cliff,” says Voinovich, the Ohio co-chair for Fix the Debt, a centrist group trying to lay the groundwork for compromise.

The Bush-era income tax cuts expire Dec. 31. So does the payroll tax holiday that boosted our paychecks two years ago. Big across-the-board cuts to defense and domestic spending are set to kick in Jan. 1. That double shock to the economy would probably plunge us into a new recession.

Confronting the cliff means confronting the parties’ 20-year disagreement on taxing the wealthy. Obama wants to let the Bush tax cuts expire for households making more than $250,000 a year. Republicans don’t. But Voinovich, a moderate Republican, thinks his party ought to strike a deal.

“[We have] to lay out the contours of reform of Medicare and Medicaid,” argues Voinovich. “Then we need tax reform, pro-growth, which would broaden the base, lower the rates, and raise revenues and reduce the deficit.”

But just when he starts sounding like Mitt Romney, Voinovich draws a distinction.

“That was one of the problems with Romney,” he says. “Romney said [tax reform would] be revenue-neutral. But most of us who’ve been around know that if you’re going to make cuts in spending, you also have to raise revenue. So those people in the higher bracket end up paying more money!

“Almost everyone I know that’s in that category says, ‘George, I’ll pay more taxes if you can guarantee me we’re going to get this ship back on an even keel.’ ”

During the campaign, Voinovich recorded a radio ad for Romney, in which he accused Obama of having a “deeply partisan vision” that kept him from working with Congress. But “neither party has clean hands,” he says now. Perhaps thinking of this Plain Dealer cartoon about his radio spot, Voinovich mentions Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

“I think McConnell made it clear he wanted to defeat the president,” he says. “He has not been as cooperative as he should be.”

Obama and House Speaker John Boehner came close last year to the sort of “grand bargain” Voinovich supports. Voinovich thinks Boehner will ultimately stand up to the tea party wing of his caucus to avoid the fiscal cliff, even at the risk of losing his job as speaker.

“I really believe John Boehner would have given up his leadership to do the right thing,” Voinovich says. “I think [he] will do the right thing. I think John knows how bad things are.”

Voinovich thinks confronting the fiscal cliff may mean limiting popular tax deductions for home mortgages, charitable giving and health insurance. It’s an austere vision.

But he believes momentum is building for a compromise. “There’s a deep feeling that people in Washington have got to get their act together and get something done,” he says. “With the right effort, I think we can.”

Friday, November 2, 2012

Protect your vote: How to make your ballot lawyer-proof

Four days until the election, and both sides are preparing for overtime.

The Democrats and Republicans have their legal teams on standby, just in case a swing state's vote falls inside the margin of litigation.  An NPR report this morning speculated that if Ohio is too close to call, the parties could wage a post-election battle here as fierce as Florida's in 2000.

The stakes are high, but you can protect your vote with a few simple steps.  Here's how to lawyer-proof your ballot and make sure it gets counted. (The links are for Cuyahoga County, but most of the advice applies anywhere in Ohio.)

If you voted by mail: track your ballot online.  Use the UPS-like Track Your Ballot page on the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections website to make sure your ballot made it in.  If it says "Returned," it's in and accepted. 

If it says "Challenged," you're one of the less than 1 percent of mail-in voters who left some info off your ballot identification envelope.  You'll get a letter in the mail asking you to correct it by mail or in person at the Board of Elections office. You'll have until Nov. 16 to do it.

If you haven't sent in your mail-in ballot yet: Double-check that you followed all the directions. Be sure to include your name, signature, address, and ID number (driver's license, last four digits of SSN) on your ballot identification envelope. If not, your ballot will be challenged (see above).

Put your ballot in the identification envelope, seal it, and put the identification envelope in the larger mailing envelope. Then mail the ballot soon.  It has to be postmarked by Monday -- or dropped off at the Board of Elections by Tuesday.

If you're voting in person: Know your voting location and precinct number. They’re on your voter-registration card and other mailings from the Board of Elections. Or you can look them up here if you're in Cuyahoga County or here if you're anywhere in the state.

The precinct number tells you which line to get in. (Ballots cast in the right polling location but the wrong precinct line -- "right church, wrong pew" votes -- are hotly contested in election litigation.)

Bring photo ID -- a driver’s license, state ID or military ID. Or use a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or government check with your name and current address.

Avoid the provisional ballot envelope, if you can. If a poll worker pulls out a yellow provisional ballot envelope, ask a lot of questions to be sure you need to use it. Try to solve the problem first.  If you forgot to bring your ID, go home to get it. If you’re not in the poll book, check your registration card or the wall maps to confirm you’re in the right precinct.

If you do vote provisionally, fill out the envelope carefully, and call the Board of Elections afterward to find out if your vote counted or if you need to follow up by visiting the office.

Mark your ballot carefully. Reread your ballot before you turn it in. Make sure you didn’t double-vote in any races, that you didn’t make stray marks, and that you filled in your choices completely. If you make a mistake, ask for a new ballot.

Update, 4 pm: The New York Times reports that the Democrats will have 600 lawyers in Greater Cleveland on Election Day, while the Republicans will have 70. "If it’s close, you will see both sides running to court," says Jeff Hastings, chair of the board of elections.

Stuart Garson and Rob Frost, the local Democratic and Republican chairs, are trading suspicions that the other side might be perpetrate some Election Day impropriety or deliberately spread misinformation or sow confusion.  They both sound alarmist, but who knows?  Another reason to follow the advice above -- and give yourself plenty of time to vote on Election Day.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Brown sweeps Ohio newspaper endorsements; papers call Mandel unprepared, and worse

Well, this doesn't happen too often.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown has won the endorsement of every major daily newspaper in Ohio, shutting out Josh Mandel 7-0. Even the conservative editorial pages couldn't justify endorsing the senator's young challenger.

"Sherrod Brown has a record of working for Ohio jobs, workers, businesses and consumers," argues the Cincinnati Enquirer, which endorsed Mitt Romney for president. The Akron Beacon Journal, endorsing Brown for the first time, praises his "attention to what matters for Ohioans, from manufacturing and jobs to health care and farming."

Every editorial page -- from progressive (the Toledo Blade) to conservative (the Columbus Dispatch) to centrist pages that didn't endorse Brown in 2006 (The Plain Dealer) -- praised the senator's work in his first term.

But most striking is what the seven papers say about Mandel. Let's line them up to see the trend.

Akron Beacon Journal: "He isn’t ready for the job. It is apparent in his shallow positions, mostly the usual talking points of the far right. ... an ill-prepared candidate overmatched by his opponent."

Youngstown Vindicator: "Imaginary outsiders will say whatever they think the voters want to hear. If there were a dictionary entry for such political mendacity, it could carry the picture of Josh Mandel."

Plain Dealer: "Electing ... Josh Mandel would reward one of the nastiest campaigns ever waged in this state. It would reward a candidate who hasn't moved beyond partisan slogans and careful sound bites. It would reward ambition untethered to substance."

Toledo Blade: "Mr. Mandel has largely ignored basic duties of the treasurer. ... His stances on major issues rarely go beyond simple partisan slogans — Obamacare, bad; regulation, bad; tax cuts, good. ... Mr. Mandel has waged an unusually nasty campaign. Independent fact-checkers have cited him repeatedly for making false statements."

Canton Repository: "Mandel has plenty of sound bites — how many ways can a TV ad say 'Washington is broken'? — but offers little of substance. His calling Brown a liar in another recent debate was another low in a campaign chock full of lows — a campaign marked, ironically, by Mandel’s collecting numerous 'pants on fire' ratings from the PolitiFact fact-checkers."

Cincinnati Enquirer: "Mandel would continue to practice the politics of divisiveness. His campaign has focused on tearing down his opponent, calling him everything from a 'un-American' to 'a liar.' Mandel’s slash-and-burn campaign has been heavily funded by out-of-state interests. ... He showed little depth on the issues beyond his rehearsed talking points. Mandel, frankly, is not ready to represent Ohio in the United States Senate."

The Dayton Daily News doesn't endorse candidates anymore. That left Brown's shutout bid in the hands of the staunchly conservative Dispatch.

Finally, this morning, the Dispatch published a terse, backhanded endorsement of Brown. It complained that he's too liberal and supports Obama Administration policies, but called him "an accessible and tireless advocate for Ohio."

The Dispatch praised Mandel for "youthful energy" but said "his limited experience... can’t compare to the nearly four decades of public service that Brown brings to the job."

What good are newspaper endorsements anymore?

At least this: In a fiercely partisan time, they still warn voters when $20 million worth of catchy slogans and dirty campaigning make a shallow candidate look serious.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Why I'm voting for the Cleveland school levy

A school levy is never just about the kids. It's also about the adults in charge. And the adults behind Issue 107, Cleveland's school levy, have done just about everything we could reasonably ask of them.

I live in Cleveland, and on Nov. 6, I'm voting for the levy. I explain why in "Stress Test," my commentary in the November issue of Cleveland Magazine.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and schools CEO Eric Gordon (pictured) have assembled a coalition of business, nonprofit and labor leaders around an unprecedented set of reforms. Already, the district's new and innovative schools are already producing better results than the traditional schools around them, proving that a better education is possible.

The district has a plan to open more innovative schools, close and replace failing schools, and assemble and reward teaching staffs based on a new evaluation system. In a feat of persuasion and pressure, Jackson got both the state legislature and the teacher's union to sign off on the plan.

Now, it's the taxpayers' turn to join the effort -- or the reforms will become merely a way to manage layoffs and decline.

If you live in the city, or you're curious about Cleveland's school reforms and the levy effort, please read my piece here.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

End gerrymandering: Vote Yes on Issue 2

What is this ghastly beast?

It's the original gerrymander, spawned in 1812 by politicians who drew creepy map shapes to pack the Massachusetts Senate with members of their party. Designer Elkanah Tisdale made a political cartoon of it and named it the gerrymander, after Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who signed the winged, salamander-like lizard into law.

Nothing's changed in 200 years. This freaky animal, Ohio's new 4th congressional district, was created by Republicans last year to guarantee a safe seat for first-term congressman Jim Jordan. Their Dr. Frankenstein scheming somehow links Elyria and Lima into one dodo-like bird. Sandusky is its eye. Sheffield and Elyria are its nose. Lima is the little spot in its tufted tail.

This third unnatural shape looks a lot like the Lake Erie Monster. But it's actually a congressional district slithering along the lakeshore. Stretched to a snakelike thinness, it links Toledo to Cleveland and pitted liberals Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich against each other in a to-the-death cage match. It's been named one of the five ugliest congressional districts in the nation.

When someone tells you not to vote for Issue 2, the ballot proposal to end gerrymandering in Ohio, ask yourself how much longer you want creatures like this to roam our state. When someone says it's a flawed proposal, ask yourself, what could possibly be more flawed than this system we have now?

Gerrymandering, a legal corruption, lets politicians pick their voters and create safe seats for their allies. Safe seats are usually filled by rabid partisans, not moderates, so gerrymandering leads to Congresses and state legislatures where compromise is rare.

Issue 2 would create a nonpartisan citizens' panel to draw the maps instead. Republicans are fighting Issue 2 and Democrats are for it because the current maps shamelessly favor Republicans. But both sides are to blame for gerrymandering. Democrats in the legislature cravenly abandoned their own redistricting reform idea a few years ago once they won an election and thought they'd have a chance to draw the lines.

You might think the press would oppose the political machines and fight to end gerrymandering, but no. Most of Ohio's big newspapers have come out against Issue 2.  (Here's the exception.)

Editorial pages get persnickety with ballot proposals. They'll usually come out against one if there's even a single thing they don't like in it. With Issue 2, the papers are upset that judges would help choose the redistricting panel. But who else can we trust to stand outside politics and pick people fairly?

The newspapers say the legislature should pass redistricting reforms instead. But that hasn't happened in 200 years.  That's what ballot proposals like Issue 2 are for: to go around the legislature when politicians preserve a corrupt system out of self-interest.  Are you willing to live with gerrymandering for another 10 years? Or 20? Or 200?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Plain Dealer, mistrusting Romney, endorses Obama

Mitt Romney had a chance with them, but he blew it.

The Plain Dealer's editorial board endorses President Obama in today's paper, ripping Romney for foreign-policy "bluster," a "lack of policy details," and "frequent changes" in positions. "Which Romney would [voters] elect?" the paper asks.

The board was "sorely tempted to endorse Gov. Romney this fall," the piece says -- but the editorial, clearly written by committee, resists the temptation. The pro-Obama argument dominates 12 paragraphs, compared to 6 for Romney.

What happened?  The Republican convention, the debates, and Libya. Also, Obama's careful talk about Iran, delivered to the PD in person.

You could see the paper's editorial writers pretty much give up on Romney in September. After his convention speech, they complained he was too vague about his tax and budget plans and how he'd replace Obama's health care law.  When Romney blasted Obama right after the Libya and Egypt embassy attacks, the page declared he'd botched the facts and "flunked" a test of his character and ability to be commander-in-chief.

Romney's sudden move to the center in the first debate may have caught Obama off guard and impressed swing voters, but it didn't impress the editors. They cited "the reborn moderate of recent weeks" as yet another example of Romney's shape-shifting.

Before September, I didn't expect this.  I thought the Plain Dealer, which swung right to endorse John Kasich and Issue 2, might keep angling right and go for Romney.

But only a few paragraphs of today's editorial seem to bear the stamp of publisher Terry Egger, a Republican who pushed a liberal editorial page to the center in his previous job in St. Louis.  The pro-Obama grafs read like the work of editorial page editor Elizabeth Sullivan, a foreign-policy expert who wrote scathing critiques of the Iraq war. She knows that, even though domestic issues decide most elections, presidents have the most power over foreign policy, war and peace.

The president shrewdly courted the PD's endorsement. He granted the editorial board an interview before his September speech in Kent, spending an hour with them in the Kent State basketball coach's office.

Likely well-briefed on Sullivan's interests and opinions, Obama gave her a clear answer about his position on Iran: Basically, he'll attack Iran just before it actually builds a nuclear weapon, but not earlier.  Sullivan made that conversation into one of the best pieces I've read about Iran's nuclear program, a column that ought to be required reading on a national level.

Obama's measured responses to Iran and the latest Mideast turmoil reaped rewards with the PD. "Romney's tendency to bluster on foreign policy provides more cause for doubt," the editorial reads. "The United States cannot afford to be drawn into new wars without clear national interests at stake.... Obama has showed that he favors engagement over bluster."

Newspaper endorsements don't matter as much as they used to; there are fewer newspaper readers and undecided voters today. But this endorsement mattered to Obama, and he got it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Brown-Mandel debate: The dodges, and what they revealed

Watch the dodge, watch the pivot. Pay attention to the answers the candidates don’t give. In a debate like Sherrod Brown and Josh Mandel’s today, with a rowdy crowd cheering attack lines we already heard in TV ads, it’s the best way to see the candidates for who they really are.

If you’ve followed the U.S. Senate race, most of today’s City Club debate between longtime liberal Brown and upstart conservative Mandel was pretty familiar. Mandel cast Brown as a failed Washington insider; Brown called Mandel overly ambitious and untrustworthy. Brown defended the auto bailout, health care law and economic stimulus; Mandel bashed the stimulus, the bank bailout, and part of the auto bailout.

The best moments came when a panel of journalists asked well-crafted questions, trying to get the candidates to say something new. The candidates mostly dodged, but the dodges revealed a lot.

-To Mandel: Doesn’t a no-tax pledge compromise your independence? Mandel has claimed he’ll be a less partisan senator than Brown. Tom Beres of Channel 3 poked a hole in that claim by asking Mandel why he signed conservative activist Grover Norquist’s pledge not to raise any taxes.

“You said if you got to Washington, you would not allow yourself to be bullied by political bosses or lobbyists or let anybody dictate to you [how] to vote,” Beres said. “Aren’t you already sacrificing your independence?”

“I’m proud to stand up for lower taxes in our state [and] our country,” Mandel replied. He talked about his role reducing property taxes as a Lyndhurst city councilman and trying to abolish Ohio’s estate tax. Left unanswered was how Mandel could compromise with Democrats and reach a budget deal if he’ll never raise a tax.

-To Brown: What would you give up to solve the fiscal crisis? Henry Gomez of the Plain Dealer asked Brown how Congress can avoid the “fiscal cliff,” the deep spending cuts and expiring tax cuts that hit Jan. 1 and could plunge the country into a new recession.

“What should happen in the lame-duck session?” Gomez asked. “What would you give up?”

Brown quickly called for a “balanced approach” -- the Democrats’ catch phrase for a mix of spending cuts and higher taxes. Then he went back to 1993 to assert his budget-balancing bona fides, citing his vote for that year’s budget deal (which raised income taxes on the wealthy and cut them for the poor). Brown began to blame the deficit on the Iraq war when Gomez interrupted him.

“What should happen in these next few months to address this problem?” Gomez asked. A balanced approach following the same principles, Brown repeated.

After rejoicing that Gomez had challenged Brown, Mandel responded that he’d save money by closing some military bases in Europe. That might not be enough to solve the fiscal crisis, but it was a more specific answer than Brown’s.

-To Mandel: Did the auto bailout help Ohio? Until today, Mandel has been vague about how he would’ve voted on the auto bailout. Instead, he’s blasted Brown for one aspect of it, the fact that it caused some workers at the auto parts supplier Delphi to lose their pensions.

“Do you believe, on balance, that the auto bailout has a boon for the Ohio economy?” Tom Troy of the Toledo Blade asked Mandel.

“I would not have voted for that,” Mandel said. “I couldn’t have, because it stripped from middle class retirees their pensions.”

But Mandel didn’t answer Troy’s question: whether the auto bailout did more good than harm in Ohio. Brown pounced, noting that Republicans George Voinovich and Steve LaTourette also voted for it. “To be against the auto rescue just boggles my mind,” he said.

-To Brown: What free-trade deals would you vote for? Brown is one of Congress’ most reliable opponents of free-trade agreements. Gomez mentioned the senator’s opposition to free trade deals with Colombia, Peru and South Korea and asked what would ever lead him to support a trade deal.

“These trade agreements have clearly sold out the middle class,” Brown said. He argued that Obama’s enforcement of trade rules had led the opening of a steel mill in Youngstown. He said he’d written legislation about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks “that will make a difference in putting trade agreements on the side of American workers and American manufacturers.”

What Brown didn’t say was that he’s almost never met a trade deal he liked. He’s only voted for one in two decades: a 2000 agreement with Jordan.

-To Mandel: How would you pay for the popular parts of the health care law? “As unpopular as Obamacare is among conservatives, some elements of the plan have popular support,” Troy noted. He asked Mandel how the government could maintain those goals, such as requiring insurance companies to accept people with preexisting conditions, without requiring people to buy coverage.

“We’d have to make cuts in other parts of the government,” Mandel said. “In order to pay for covering folks with pre-existing conditions, young adults on their parents’ insurance, if there’s leaders in Washington who want to do that without Obamacare on the books, we’ve got to make significant cuts.”

It’s a confusing answer. How would he help people with pre-existing conditions? Does he mean he’d have the government pay insurance companies to insure them? Or pay to set up a high-risk insurance pool? He didn’t say, and his website’s health care page doesn’t either.

People in the audience of 1,300 definitely noticed most of the dodges. The Renaissance Cleveland Hotel ballroom buzzed as Mandel meandered through his answer on the auto bailout and as Brown tried to steer his answer away from the fiscal cliff. Partisans on both sides cheered and laughed and razzed the candidates, loudly interrupting the debate several times but also calling out Brown and Mandel when they wouldn’t give a straight answer.

Live-tweeting Brown-Mandel debate today

I'm live-tweeting the City Club's U.S. Senate debate between Sen. Sherrod Brown and challenger Josh Mandel today.  It starts at 12:30.  Click here to read my tweets during the debate. 

I'll be posting a report about the debate here this afternoon.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Can Frank Russo please go to prison now?

UPDATED below with news of prosecutors' motion.

Two years after ex-auditor Frank Russo pleaded guilty to stealing more than $1 million from taxpayers, he's still free and living large.

I haven't heard of any Russo sightings in Tremont restaurants lately, but he's comfortably dwelling in a Mayfield Heights condo bought by his longtime housemate, Michael Calabrese, in January. Even county exec Ed FitzGerald has lost his patience, ripping the feds at a town hall meeting Wednesday for Frank's sweetheart fink deal.

Now comes word that Russo's former chief deputy, Samir Mohammad, is pleading guilty to cash-bribing sleaze.  Can Russo please go to prison now?

With Mohammad pleading Monday, only two big cases are left to go in the five-year-long Cuyahoga County corruption scandal.  Charges against Robert Peto, the former port authority board member, don't appear related to Russo at all.

That leaves the February trial of Anthony Calabrese III, who faces 20 charges, including some stemming from his alleged role in Russo and Jimmy Dimora's infamous bribe-spiked Vegas trip. (Calabrese is also accused of witness tampering to cover up possible bribes related to the county's purchase of the Ameritrust Tower.)

Prosecutors say they need Russo close by to prepare for his court testimony. But Russo should only need to testify about two alleged schemes at the Calabrese trial: a contract steered to a halfway house and an alleged property assessment fixing for a senior community in Euclid.

It's time for the feds to do their prep work.  Because it's time for Russo to start doing time.

Update, 10/15: Finally! Prosecutors filed a motion today saying Russo's cooperation is "substantially complete" and asking for a court hearing, where it can recommend a reduction in his 22-year sentence for his testimony.  They want to hold the hearing by Oct. 25.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Vote by mail, starting today

The election starts today. At the Board of Elections office at East 30th and Euclid, the first of 24 voting days between now and Nov. 6 is kicking off with rah-rah ballot hype.

State Sen. Nina Turner held a sleepover outside the elections office so that she could be the first to vote at 8 a.m. sharp. The rally attracted other Democratic politicians, including U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. Supporters of the Cleveland school levy are marching to the board of elections and casting votes starting at 12:30 p.m.  U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge sent out a press release saying she's voting there at 1 p.m.

Everyone who's working to get out the vote is trying to get it out fast, to bank votes now, so we don't see long lines at the polls on Nov. 6.

Which leads to some good, simple advice about how to make sure you get to vote:

Vote by mail.  

Send in the application for a mail-in ballot.

When the ballot comes, vote at home.  Put it in the mail by Nov. 5 at the latest.  No lines, no waiting.

That's the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections' advice. "The ballot is packed with 3 pages of issues and candidates," warns its recent media advisory. "Voters who cast ballots by mail have extra time to study [them]."

All the hype and controversy about how we're voting this fall, all those claims of "voter suppression," focus on a different way to cast a ballot: in-person early voting at the Board of Elections office in each county.  We have 23 weekdays when we can do that too -- basically every weekday from now to Nov. 2 (except Columbus Day, next Monday). They'll be open until 9 p.m. Oct. 9, and until 7 p.m. Oct. 22-26 and Oct. 29-Nov. 1.

Democrats also want us to be able to vote early and in person on Nov. 3-5, the weekend and Monday before Election Day.  A federal appeals court is going to decide that. (Update, 10/5: It decided -- we can vote at the elections office Nov. 3-5.)

But why do that when you can vote by mail?

You probably already got an application for a ballot sent to you by the Secretary of State, or you will soon. You can also click here for it if you live in Cuyahoga County, or click here if you're anywhere else in Ohio. Just be sure to fill out your application, and then your ballot envelope, carefully.

If you're not registered to vote, register by next Tuesday, Oct. 9.  Or, get down to the Board of Elections this week or next Tuesday.  This is the "golden week" -- as election nerds call it -- when you can register and vote at the same time.

If you moved recently, you can change your address online until next Tuesday.  If you want to check whether your registration in Cuyahoga County is up-to-date, click here.

Four years ago, when Cleveland was recovering from all sorts of screw-ups in how we voted, I wrote a long list of advice for voters on how to protect your vote.  Most of the advice still applies, though Cuyahoga County's elections office is in much better shape today.

This time, my advice is simple.  If you're at all worried about having enough time to vote on Nov. 6, if a line at the polls would screw up your day -- then vote by mail.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Romney opens up, Obama surges in NE Ohio visits

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama held rallies only 25 miles apart in Northeast Ohio yesterday -- even as the gap between them in the polls grew. Romney's Bedford Heights appearance reflected his effort to open up to voters more, while Obama rallied like a front-runner before a psyched-up young crowd at Kent State University.  

At Romney's Bedford Heights rally, the candidate fielded questions from audience members about manufacturing and jobs, health care and skilled workforces. (You can read our coverage here.) He also gave interviews to the Plain Dealer, CBS, ABC, and NBC while in Ohio yesterday. It was part of his effort to spend less time fund-raising and more time appealing directly to voters -- "Romney rescue plan: More Mitt," Politico summarized last week.  He's trying to reverse the damaged caused by his comments on the "47 percent" secret video.

Talking to the PD's Henry Gomez, Romney said he needs to win over voters who supported Obama in 2008. He defended his position on the auto bailout, saying he'd supported a managed bankruptcy and had not opposed government aid to GM and Chrysler. He also staked out a moderate position on regulating coal plants. To NBC, Romney cited the universal health-care law he signed in Massachusetts as an example of his empathy for struggling people. He told CBS that he thought the Obama campaign had engaged in "character assassination" of him, but that he wouldn't attack the president harder in response.

To ABC, Romney mostly defended himself from the fallout of his "47 percent" comments, in which he appeared to say almost half of voters won't vote for him because they're dependent on government. Polls have shown him losing ground against Obama since the video surfaced. One poll released yesterday shows Romney 10 points behind Obama in swing-state Ohio, though Obama is up 5.4 percent in an average of all Ohio polls.

In Kent, Obama exuded a front-runner's confidence as he delivered a speech meant to energize support among young voters, a key part of his 2008 coalition. The campaign chose its venue wisely; Kent State journalism students blasted out multimedia saturation coverage, live-blogging, tweeting, and posting multiple articles.

The president described his work to expand student loans and lower their costs. "No family should have to set aside a college acceptance letter because they don’t have the money," he said. He slammed Romney on the issue of women's reproductive rights. He promised that drilling for shale gas in Ohio would continue, while also declaring his support for renewable energy. And despite Romney's protests that his and Obama's positions on the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies weren't as different as Democrats claim, Obama continued to cite the auto bailout as a defining accomplishment.

Most observers think Romney can't win the presidency without winning Ohio. His visit here yesterday showed he's got a comeback strategy. But his change of direction, contrasted with Obama's confident rally, highlighted the fact that his chances in Ohio have grown slim.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012 commenters halt county jail contract's comment sections are usually a malicious playland of thinly veiled racism, hall-of-mirrors impersonations, innuendo and sputtering rage, dominated by anonymous trolls expressing the community's dark, unchained id.

But this week, citizen watchdogs waded into the online mud and accomplished something. Able Googlers jumped onto a page, spontaneously crowd-sourced, and flagged a contractor's questionable record. They got a Plain Dealer reporter to ask some tough questions and got the Cuyahoga County government to hold up a contract award.

It started this Sunday, when the paper published an article about the growing cost of replacing the county jail's 37-year-old kitchen. A builders association president's complaints blamed the price increase, from $5 million to $6 million, on the county's decision to require union labor.

But readers noticed something else. The firm poised to win the contract, Brigadier Construction Services, was partially owned by Frederick D. Perkins. His family has a long history of getting government contracts in Cleveland and elsewhere -- and their companies' structures and business relationships have often come under scrutiny.

The commenters linked to a 2008 Plain Dealer investigation of several companies owned by members of the Perkins and Cifani families, which asked whether the companies were structured in a way that allowed them to take advantage of government set-aside programs for minority-owned contractors.

They also pointed to a Dayton Daily News article that showed Brigadier had been banned from a federal contracting program for companies owned by disabled veterans. The feds found that Shawnté Thompson, a disabled vet and part-owner, did not really control the company. Instead, it seemed largely controlled by McTech, a local company owned by Mark Perkins, Frederick D. Perkins' brother.

A reader e-mailed me, too, remembering the Perkins family from my July 2005 story "Inside the Nate Gray Case." Frederick D. appears to be the son of Fred and Gail Perkins of Choice Construction, a now-defunct local contractor whose offices were raided by the FBI in 2000.  Choice Construction figured prominently in my story, which examined the ties between Gray and several local minority-owned companies that rose to prominence due to generous contract awards from Cleveland City Hall during the Mike White administration.

At one point, the feds charged Choice with acting as a front company for white-owned companies, though the charge was dropped. Fred Perkins pled guilty to campaign-finance law violations, Gail Perkins to filing a false tax return. The FBI scrutinized Choice, McTech, and Perk Co. (a third company once owned by a Perkins) as part of the Gray investigation, though no charges of wrongdoing resulted.

The posts on led Plain Dealer reporter Laura Johnston to the Dayton article, which led her to court documents about Brigadier's federal ban.  Yesterday Johnston asked county executive Ed FitzGerald about the questions surrounding Brigadier, and he responded by pulling the contract from last night's council agenda.  FitzGerald said he would invite Brigadier's owners to meet with him and defend themselves.

In a well-deserved Twitter hat-tip, Johnston thanked commenters for pointing her to the Dayton article. Tipsters are as old as reporting, and reporters are nothing without sources. But online, we can connect and research faster than ever.

In Cleveland right now, we need that immediacy.  Watching the questions about Brigadier spread  reminded me of our columnist Michael D. Roberts' argument that the Nate Gray and Jimmy Dimora corruption scandals indicted the public and the press for a lack of vigilance. This week, we saw how it ought to work.

Update, 10/13: Brigadier got the contract.  I don't expect we've heard the last of this, though.  It raises the question of whether the county's proposed ban on contractors who've violated various rules should include companies who've gotten in trouble with other governments.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Roberts: Vote no on port levy -- and dissolve the port authority

Right now on WCPN's The Sound of Ideas, four guests are making the case for a tax increase for the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority. I just heard port CEO Will Friedman make a case for funding the port's river-dredging plan and Cleveland city councilman Joe Cimperman argue to shore up the eroding Irishtown Bend.

Cleveland Magazine's longtime columnist, Michael D. Roberts, begs to differ. Roberts makes the case against the port levy in "Port Nowhere," his Talking Points column in our October issue.

"The Port Authority is an agency whose time has passed, especially with the creation of a new county government," Roberts writes. He argues that voters should reject the levy on the Nov. 6 ballot to protest Cleveland City Hall's control of the port authority and the meager results of its work on the lakefront. And that's just the start of his argument. He argues that Cleveland's suburbs are under-represented on the port board, and that Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald should sue to dissolve the port authority.

"To ask for an enormous tax increase without altering the status of the Port Authority makes as much sense for voters as giving to Jimmy Dimora’s defense fund," Roberts argues. "City Hall’s control of the Port Authority has not worked."

The port wants to increase its levy from 0.13 mills to 0.67, or $16.50 more a year on a $100,000 house. The increase would help pay for pedestrian and cycling bridges over the Shoreway at North Coast Harbor and over railroad tracks on Whiskey Island, a place to deposit sediment dredged from the rivers, and an effort to stop erosion at Rivertown Bend, near Ohio City. For more about the port levy, read my blog post from July here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Bridge Too Far: Inside the FBI's bridge bomb sting

On the night of April 30, the FBI arrested five scraggly-looking anarchists in the parking lot of the Garfield Heights Applebee's. They'd been caught on video planting what they thought were plastic explosives in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, at the foot of the Route 82 bridge.

Two weeks ago, three of the young anarchists -- Doug Wright, Brandon Baxter, and Connor Stevens -- pleaded guilty in federal court to weapons of mass destruction charges.

Who were these guys? A Cleveland-grown domestic terrorist group, willing to risk killing people to "send a message" to corporations and the government? Or dimwit outsiders lured by an FBI informant? Or both?

I've been looking into the story since the arrests were announced. My story about the case is out now in the October issue of Cleveland Magazine and on our website.

Since their arrest, the story of the so-called "Cleveland 5" has been national news and fuel for political debate. Because the five men were all members of Occupy Cleveland, a Tea Party group held a rally in downtown Cleveland last month, trying to link the Occupy Wall Street movement to terrorism.

Meanwhile, activists and media outlets on the left have compared the case to J. Edgar Hoover's abuses of power more than four decades ago, when the FBI worked to undermine activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

My story follows the five men through their many past encounters with the law -- four of the five have violent pasts -- and describes how their anger and activism looked to their fellow protesters at last October's Occupy Cleveland encampment.

It also takes a close look at the actions of the FBI's informant in the case. Until the five men met the informant, the sixth man at the bridge that night, they appear to have had little means to carry out any of the attacks they dreamed up. They lacked explosives, cars, and arguably, brains. The informant, who had 13 felony convictions, steered them toward an undercover agent's fake explosives, drove them around, hired some of them, and, according to several sources, gave some of them illegal drugs -- while continuing to commit crimes of his own.

My October story, "A Bridge Too Far," gives the public a rare look at thorny questions about counter-terrorism stings. Has the FBI at times overreacted to minor threats and ensnared hapless losers in their stings by escalating the plots it busts? When should the bureau set a trap for a would-be bomber? Who can be trusted to set the trap? And what should happen when a target says he wants to back out?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Mason resigns 3 months early, heading to law firm

Bill Mason just gave us his two weeks notice. The Cuyahoga County prosecutor is leaving Sept. 30, three months before his term expires, to take a job in the public finance unit of the law firm Bricker and Eckler.

It’s the end of an era. The last of the Democrats who took over Cuyahoga County government in the late 1990s is on his way out.

Mason not only outlasted his peers, he helped plan their end. He savvily endorsed county reform in 2009 and helping to write the new charter that ushered every other county Democrat out of office.

Yet the old guard’s downfall ultimately hurt Mason too. The federal obscenity conviction of former county recorder Pat O’Malley, Mason’s longtime friend and ally, raised questions about his political judgment. And when federal prosecutors indicted Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo, critics asked why Mason hadn’t busted them first.

Mason loves politics, but he surely wants to be remembered for more than his political connections. His office boasted a 92 percent conviction rate as of 2008, compared with about 68 percent nationally. His almost 14 years as prosecutor include dramatic cases ranging from the Sam Sheppard civil trial to the conviction of serial killer Anthony Sowell. He chased child pornographers and mortgage-fraudsters with gusto. His cold case unit has revived several cases a decade old or more — including its investigation of serial murderer Joseph Harwell, which I wrote about in the magazine’s July issue.

Defense attorneys and some judges, meanwhile, asked whether the tough prosecutor was too tough, charging too aggressively. His staff’s many political ties, including seats on city councils across the county, also attracted criticism. It made his office an awkward fit with the county’s new ethos, where political connections among public employees are distrusted and limited by new ethics rules.

Mason announced in 2010 that he wouldn’t run again. Will-he-resign rumors -- probably spread by his foes, not his confidants – were circulating wildly that year, and Scene inaccurately predicted he’d go within months. So even without surfing the blogs, I can imagine the buzz of speculation now about Mason’s move.

But Nicole DiSanto, Mason’s interim spokesperson, makes his early departure sound as simple as the reasons your officemate might leave for a new job. “The opportunity presented itself now,” she says. “He wants to make sure the next person can come in and start taking a leadership role.”

That suggests former judge Tim McGinty may succeed Mason in October. {Update, 9/18: He will.} McGinty, the Democratic nominee for prosecutor, is a heavy favorite to beat independent candidate Ed Wade Jr. on Nov. 6. The rules for mid-term replacements are complicated. County executive Ed FitzGerald can name an interim replacement; then, within 45 days, the county Democrats’ executive committee has to pick someone to finish the term. Rather than switch among four prosecutors in five months, FitzGerald and the Democrats may just give McGinty the job early.

Previous coverage of Mason on my blog and in the magazine:

-"Office Politics," March 2012, Michael D. Roberts' column arguing that Mason's successor needs to do a better job fighting corruption

-"Mason won't run again in 2012," October 22, 2010, summarizing Mason's miserable year

-"Mason talks reform," Feb. 26, 2009, one of his first interviews about his involvement in the county charter movement

-"Annette Butler debates Bill Mason," Oct. 20, 2008, my coverage of the City Club debate from Mason's last race

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dimora-esque character propels Les Roberts book

Every morning while Les Roberts was writing his latest Cleveland private-eye novel, he’d check the news for inspiration: the latest in the local political corruption scandal.

“I’d find something else out and [think], I’ve got to put that in the book,” he said at the Happy Dog last night. “You won’t physically recognize the people I’m writing about, but you have to be pretty damn dumb not to know who you’re reading about.”

In Whiskey Island, Roberts’ detective novel out this week, Cleveland city councilman Berton K. Loftus hires private eye Milan Jacovich to figure out who’s trying to kill him. Possible suspects include everyone implicated in the 31 federal corruption charges Loftus is fighting.

Loftus doesn’t look like Jimmy Dimora — he’s got “short, gunmetal-gray hair” and wears Hugo Boss suits “and a huge selection of out-of-date bow ties.” But Loftus' M.O. is strongly reminiscent of the Big D's. The feds have accused Loftus of taking bribes in the form of home remodeling work, free dinners, plane tickets and hotel rooms. “Does that include the Las Vegas hookers?” Jacovich’s assistant asks. And even though he fears for his life, Loftus asks Jacovich for a discount. “Everyone gives me a break,” he insists.

During the Q and A at Roberts’ talk (part of Ohio City Writers’ Write to Assemble series), I asked which Cleveland politicians had inspired him and how.

“A couple of elected officials,” he said coyly. “A couple of judges.” (Judge Lawrence McTeague, a sort of mash-up of Bridget McCafferty and Steven Terry, gets a bunch of calls from Loftus, who asks him to treat some of his gift-giving friends kindly. McTeague lies to the FBI about it.)

“A couple county people. A couple of city people.” (There’s some intrigue involving powerful county prosecutor Jim Hundley, one of the few local politicians not in trouble with the feds.)

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s writing about Jimmy Dimora,’” Roberts said. “I’m not writing about Jimmy Dimora. I’m writing about Berton K. Loftus.”

Then again, Roberts added, he once created a character based on a journalist he knew. They’d dated the same woman, and the journalist started making remarks about him in his column, Roberts recalled. So he gave the character the same profession, same initials, and same appearance, plus some actual quotes from the guy.

When people asked about the resemblance, he shrugged it off: “It’s whoever you want it to be.”

Monday, August 13, 2012

Port board member implicated in corruption probe; next move is FitzGerald’s

Now we know why the Port Authority got hit with a subpoena about its parking deal with the Cleveland Browns. Federal prosecutors think Robert Peto, a member of the Port Authority board, was bribed by corruption-scandal defendant Michael Forlani. They suggest that Forlani used his ties to Peto to try to extort a higher price for flat-screen TVs out of the Browns.

The feds’ new court filing is a fun read for all the F-bombs Forlani drops. (More on that in a minute.) But it’s also relevant because the port is asking for a big new levy on the Nov. 6 ballot. It’s hard for a public agency to ask for more money when someone in its leadership is under federal investigation. (Just ask the Parma schools.)

Peto’s lawyer says he didn’t extort the Browns, has been a good board member, and isn't resigning. But Peto doesn’t have to resign. His term ran out in January. He’s only serving on the port board until Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald names his replacement.

If FitzGerald wants the port levy to pass, he’d be wise to nominate someone to the port board to replace Peto and get council to approve him or her, fast.

Yet despite his eagerness to put a stamp on the county government, FitzGerald hasn’t moved fast to assert himself at the port. Maybe it hasn’t been a priority for him because the city of Cleveland controls six seats on the port board and Cuyahoga County only three. Last year, it took him until fall to pick Chris Ronayne to fill a seat open since January. Maybe it’s hard to find good people for the port board.

But Peto’s been identifiable as PE61 in prosecutors’ filings for months now. (On one tape, Forlani reportedly calls Peto "Hoffa.") He was forced out of his leadership job at the local carpenter’s union last year. After 20 months in office, you’d think FitzGerald would fast-track this talent search.

For more detail, let’s go to the prosecutor's filing.  (These aren't formal charges, but a "bill of particulars" giving Forlani's lawyers more detail about the prosecution's case.  Peto isn't named and isn't formally charged with a crime.)

Public Employee 61 (“PE61”) used his official positions as (1) a member of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority (“Port Authority”), (2) the Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Ohio and Vicinity Regional Council of Carpenters (“OVRCC”) ... to benefit FORLANI
This description matches Peto. 
15. FORLANI, Doan Pyramid Electric, and Neteam AVI gave and offered to give PE61 things of value, including free and discounted home improvements and materials, discounted vehicles, and personal services, in return and in exchange for PE61 using and promising to use his official position with the Port Authority, OVRCC, and ERISA funds to benefit FORLANI and his designees.
Home improvements again! Yes, Forlani is a Jimmy Dimora-style corruption defendant. They were even indicted together.
D. Cleveland Browns Extortion
18. In or around 2008, the Cleveland Browns had an agreement with the Port Authority to lease parking space in close proximity to Cleveland Browns stadium...

19. In or around 2008, the Cleveland Browns were considering a number of improvements to Cleveland Browns stadium. One project under consideration was upgrading to high-definition televisions in the suites. FORLANI was negotiating the contract price with the Cleveland Browns.

20. When the Cleveland Browns tried to negotiate a lower price, FORLANI told a Cleveland Browns employee that FORLANI would use his power and influence with the Port Authority to increase the contract price for the Cleveland Browns parking contract ...
FORLANI then stated, “They f–k with me, you see that parking you guys got next door at that f—ing Port Authority, you wait and see what f—ing happens.” The employee responded, “I know that.” FORLANI continued, “You watch that f–king Port land next door, you’ll guys will be f—ing crying. I’ll tell you that right now.”
The Cleveland Browns employee replied, “They already had a meeting with us. And they said we don’t pay enough money . . . Well you could’ve helped us with that.”
This Browns employee seems to be playing it pretty cool.
FORLANI answered, “Oh sure, I can make it two things [] either, you could, the amount you’re pay’n’s okay, or the amount that you’re payin’ is like half of what it’s gonna be.”

FORLANI also told the Cleveland Browns employee, “I can’t tell you how much f—ing trouble I can cause. That f—ing port. That Port Authority. I can make it so f—ing bad you can’t imagine.”
Next, the feds say, Forlani calls Peto.
FORLANI updated PE61 on the television project. FORLANI said, “Let me tell you, they start f—ing with you down at that parking lot, [PE61], I want you to stick it up their f—ing a– so they know why not to f–k with the good guys in town.”
PE61 replied, “Well, I agree. Like I said, I’m ready to pull the f—ing parking.”
22. Approximately ten minutes later, FORLANI called the same Cleveland
Browns employee and discussed the proposed television contract price.

FORLANI said, “I’m gonna tell you right now, they’re gonna get f—ed on that parking. I can’t even explain it to you.”

The employee replied, “Well don’t worry, he’s gonna find out about that tomorrow”... 
Update, 8/15: FitzGerald has sent a letter to Peto asking him to resign, says this Plain Dealer editorial -- which also points out that the county executive and council can replace Peto anytime they want.

Update, 8/16: Peto has resigned. 

Update, 9/18: FitzGerald has named Jan Roller, an attorney and Democratic activist, to Peto's former seat on the port board.

Update, 10/13: The feds indicted Peto on Sept. 27, just before the five-year statute of limitations ran out.

Monday, August 6, 2012

LaTourette, moderate with a sense of humor, retiring from Congress

As if you needed any more proof that the center cannot hold in Washington, that Congress can't get anything done, that moderates are disappearing as the parties' ideologies harden, U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette announced last week that he's bagging it and retiring.

LaTourette, a moderate Republican, is the congressman people count on to help defend Cleveland when Republicans control the House. He led the effort to keep the Pentagon payroll jobs from moving out of town a few years ago. He's been working to get more money to tear down some of Cleveland's thousands of abandoned houses.

But he's fed up that Congress is at a stalemate, that Tea Party Republicans are scuttling attempts at getting bipartisan agreement on anything. His departure raises questions about whether House Speaker John Boehner truly leads his Republican caucus, or whether the Tea Party hardliners lead him. (Boehner, a friend of LaTourette's, tried to help him pass a transportation bill with funds for mass transit, only to see more conservative congressmen slash it apart.)

I also wonder whether LaTourette is leaving too soon. Congresss will be forced to strike a grand bargain on taxes and spending in December or January, and moderates will have to play a key role in negotiating it.

But another reason to miss LaTourette is his sense of humor. This is the guy who hired humorist Dave Barry as his press secretary for four days when he arrived in Washington, and actually read a Barry-written speech on frivolous lawsuits into the Congressional Record. It began, “As a lawyer, I am the last person to suggest that everybody in my profession is a money-grubbing, scum-sucking toad. The actual figure is only about 73 percent.”

And -- how much more biapartisan can you get? -- LaTourette is the Republican who befriended Dennis Kucinich, worked with him on bills, and appeared on The Tonight Show with him, singing "Kum Ba Ya," riding a tandem bike, playing on a playground swing, practicing trust falls, and wearing blue-and-red-state snuggies.

To commemorate the political career of a practical moderate, let's go to the video.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dimora, defiant in court, gets 28 years in prison

Four years and three days after the FBI raided his office and home, Jimmy Dimora sat at a table in a courthouse in Akron, with one last chance to defend himself.  And he did.

“I certainly was not part of ripping off the taxpayers of Cuyahoga County,” Dimora told the judge, his voice quiet at first. “I never took bribes or kickbacks.” He denied he was ever involved in “steering contracts, bid rigging, or the selling of jobs.”

Even after this winter’s trial, and minutes before his sentencing on 32 corruption charges, Dimora was every bit as defiant, as stubborn, as sure of his own judgment as he was three years ago, when his angry press conferences denying any wrongdoing shocked Cleveland.

“I have no regret or any type of reservation [about] anything I did,” Dimora said, his voice rising like it used to at commissioners’ meetings. “I always did it with the best intentions of Cuyahoga County in mind.”

For four years, Clevelanders have asked, why doesn’t Jimmy Dimora cooperate with the government? Why won’t he plead guilty?

“The county has lost no taxpayer money from any vote I cast, not one cent,” he said today.

Believe it or not, Dimora’s answer to the five-year corruption scandal remains the same: He still doesn’t believe he did anything wrong.

It was like stepping through a time warp, to the strange old days of two or three years ago. Dimora defended himself as he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was still in office, before the government he led was wiped out and replaced with a new one.

“If someone already doing business with the county would buy me a meal or take me to a sporting event – which is not illegal in Ohio – I disclosed it. I filed my ethics forms.”

Earlier in the day, Judge Sara Lioi had turned angry when Dimora attorney Bill Whitaker had tried to bring up those ethics forms. “Why is he accepting all these gifts?” the judge asked. “Concrete work? Valuable items? Does he think everyone wants to give him gifts? Does he think he’s entitled to them? If they are his friends, why is he voting on things that could impact them? Why isn’t he recusing himself?”

Dimora’s answer to that was to assert his integrity. The $250,000 in cash and prizes the prosecutors say he got from his contractor friends? They had no impact on his decisions, he said. 

“It didn’t bother me if someone was a friend, if I knew them, if they gave me campaign donations, or gave me a thing of value, or donated to the Democratic Party,” Dimora said. “If they were not the low bidder… they did not get my vote.”

Dimora denied taking cash from anyone in exchange for county business (he was found guilty of taking $30,000 from Steve Pumper and $6,000 from Ferris Kleem). He said he never told the county staff to circumvent regular procedures.

“It was an honor for me to serve,” he said. “I did it honestly and always put the taxpayers first and foremost in any votes I cast.” The federal government, he said, “had made a mountain out of a molehill.”

Dimora stayed angry right to the end of his 17-minute statement, when he broke down talking about his love for his wife, who had sat through two months of testimony that included details of Dimora’s serial infidelities with prostitutes and an “old friend” or two.

The judge showed no reaction to Dimora’s statement. If his lack of contrition made any difference in her decision, she didn’t say so.

“The reach of [Dimora’s] corruption was far and wide,” she said. “It caused the citizens of Cuyahoga County to lose respect for their government.”

Lioi acknowledged that Dimora was a good mayor of Bedford Heights in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “But somewhere along the way, his focus changed from the people who elected him to serving himself and his friends. Somewhere along the way, he changed.”

Under Dimora and Frank Russo’s leadership, people who wanted a county job or contract “had to pay a fee, a price,” the judge said. “They exacted their fee in different ways.” Russo wanted cash, she said. “Mr. Dimora was content to receive meals, gambling trips, home improvements, the services of prostitutes, and relatively smaller amounts of cash.

“Mr. Russo was more obvious about what he was doing,” Lioi said. Dimora’s conduct was more “insidious and perhaps even dishonest for those who paid for his help. … Sometimes he could help, sometimes he could not. Sometimes [the help was] no more than a phone call that could’ve been made by the briber just as effectively.”

In other words, the smallness of the favors he granted didn’t matter.  The bribes, the exploitation of his office, did.

“The breadth and depth of corruption of county government… was staggering,” Lioi said, “and the destruction left in its wake is incalculable.”

With that, Lioi sentenced Dimora to 20 years in prison for the bribery, extortion and fraud counts; 3 for false tax returns; and 5 for obstructing justice – 28 years in all. Dimora, 57 and in poor health, is stuck in federal prison until 2040, when he would be 85.

Dimora turned away from the judge, looked toward his family in the gallery, and shook his head.

It was a stunning sentence, one of the largest known punishments in a federal public corruption case. And the defense has a point – it is a very long sentence for someone who may have stolen nothing from the public treasury.

This week’s painstaking loss calculations in court identified only two schemes that definitely cost the taxpayers: Dimora’s maneuverings to restore $300,000 in grants for a halfway house and hire two plumbers. The two sides also argued about a decrepit parking garage the county bought for $5 million in a 2-1 vote at Dimora’s urging, but the $30,000 bribe may have merely hastened a decision the county staff was eager to make.

Compare that to Russo, who steered a bloated contract that funded $8 million in bribes, including $1.2 million in kickbacks for himself. He got 21 years and will probably get that reduced.

But there is one more difference between Dimora and Russo.

At the end of the hearing, when the judge ordered Dimora remanded to the custody of the marshals, Dimora dismissed her words with a wave of his hand. He stood and grumbled to his lawyers. His voice was quiet, across the room, but I think I heard him right.

“Bullshit,” he said. “This justice system is fucked, totally.”

He waved to his family. “See you guys. Don’t know when.”

Then he stepped, his walker clicking on the floor, past the prosecutor’s table. He turned to the two FBI agents.

“You’re good storytellers,” he said bitterly. “I hope you guys are happy. Good job. Good job.”

That’s the difference between Dimora and Russo.  Jimmy Dimora still doesn’t think he did anything wrong.