Monday, April 30, 2012

How the county spent $3 million on Staubach’s Ameritrust contract

Jimmy Dimora, Peter Lawson Jones, and Tim McCormack were thinking big when they set out on their quest for a new county headquarters in 2004 -- a journey that ended in the $45 million Ameritrust Tower debacle.

They decided they needed a lot of advice to pull off their plan to move the Cuyahoga County government into enormous new offices of 600,000 square feet or more.

They signed a big, sprawling, 26-point contract with a big, sprawling team of consultants headed by real estate company The Staubach Co. Despite advice to scale back the contract, the county commissioners promised the consultants they’d get paid $4 million to $5 million out of the final deal. A year later, the county got out of the contract for $3 million.

That’s some of what I’ve discovered by reading public records, interviewing people on both sides of the negotiations, and reviewing interviews I conducted in 2008 about the Ameritrust Tower.

The 2004 Staubach contract is back in the news because Cuyahoga County’s inspector general and law department are reexamining it as part of their inquiries into the Ameritrust affair. County executive Ed FitzGerald is talking about suing the former Staubach, which has merged with Jones Lang Lasalle. My requests for public records about the contract led me to the inspector general’s office, where I looked through the same documents her staff is examining.

I discovered that a consultant, Neil Dick of the Dick Group in Shaker Heights, warned Cuyahoga County’s government not to pay The Staubach Co. any more than $400,000 to help acquire a headquarters site.

Ever since the Ameritrust deal went bad, Dick has been waiting for a call.

“Three million dollars to do that work is beyond anything that’s reasonable,” Dick says now.

Dick was hired in 2004 to help Cuyahoga County choose a real estate consultant team. The county wanted the team to provide a vast range of services. They would evaluate several developers’ proposals for the headquarters project and recommend a site. The county also wanted the consultants to confirm the government’s current space needs and give advice on the new headquarters’ space planning, design, architecture and engineering. It wanted advice about financing the deal and on move management.

Eight consulting teams who wanted the job responded with a wide range of pitches. One company, Allegro, offered to simply evaluate the developers’ proposed sites for $190,000 to $220,000. County staff rejected Allegro for responding too narrowly to its request. (Allegro recently worked for the FitzGerald administration. It was paid $220,000 to evaluate all of the county’s property holdings.)

Another team that didn’t make the final cut, headed by the Oliver Design Group, offered to provide all the services the county wanted for about $1.9 million to $2.2 million.

The three teams chosen as finalists had different approaches to charging for all those services. They all offered to do the first two phases of work -- recommending a site and negotiating with the chosen developer -- for between $390,000 and $500,000.

The third phase, the project’s implementation, proved harder to price.

The Staubach Co. said it wanted an initial fee of $396,000 for phases one and two -- which it would pay back if it received a brokerage commission as part of the county’s final development deal. Staubach originally proposed a commission of $5.85 per square foot of space in the new building. Since the county commissioners wanted a 600,000 to 700,000 square-foot headquarters, that meant $3.5 million to $4 million.

Dick noted in his July 2004 evaluation that Staubach was well-qualified for the job, but its fee proposal was the most expensive. Staubach, unlike the other finalists, was offering “the option of re-evaluating the entire process and development direction” for the headquarters project, he wrote.

Staubach was “offering to provide services that may be redundant and costly,” Dick warned.

“I was raising the issue of, for that high a fee, even with those additional services, are they really needed?” Dick recalls. “And what can the county really afford?”

But county staffers agreed that Staubach was one of the better-qualified firms. That July, the county commissioners -- Dimora, Jones, and McCormack -- authorized the staff to begin negotiations with Staubach.

In August, Staubach sent the county its proposed terms. The company had raised its price: it now wanted $6.85 per square foot, or $4.1 million to $4.8 million. Dick objected.

“Staubach’s charge of $6.85 [per square foot] with third party unacceptable. This should not be part of this agreement,” he wrote in 2004. “Brokerage commission – this is not a traditional approach and not appropriate.”

Jay Ross, then the county’s director of central services, also objected to Staubach’s fee proposal. “NO,” read repeated notations on it in Ross’ handwriting. County staff created a counter-proposal that would’ve capped Staubach’s fees at $390,000.


Formrer Staubach managing partner Rob Roe, in his first interview on the Ameritrust affair in years, argues that the company’s fee was a fair-market cost for the vast range of services its team provided.

“We supported our fee proposal with other contracts and similar types of things we had done with other municipal and federal and city governments,” says Roe, now managing partner at Jones Lang Lasalle. “The fee was shared amongst somewhere in the neighborhood of nine companies.”

Roe argues that observers who think the Staubach team was overpaid don’t understand the wide scope of its contract.

“A deal of this nature is not a traditional deal in the city of Cleveland,” Roe says. “You can’t look at it in just the microscope of Cleveland, Ohio. [It’s] a national, significant, headquarter-caliber transaction.”

The price dispute fell to lawyers for the county and Staubach to resolve. The question boiled down to this: Should Staubach be paid like an owner’s representative reviewing proposals? Or like a real estate broker, who lines up tenants to fill a building and is paid by the landlord?

The county’s lawyer was Kathleen Martin, then the head of the prosecutor’s office’s civil division. (Martin is now deceased.) Staubach was represented by two lawyers from the law firm Vorys, Sater, Seymour, and Pease, including Anthony O. Calabrese III, now a defendant in the county corruption case.

Calabrese’s role in the Staubach contract has raised alarms for FitzGerald, who ordered the two new inquiries into the Ameritrust affair. Calabrese’s federal indictment claims that by summer and fall 2004 -- the time when Calabrese was negotiating for Staubach -- he was already engaged in a racketeering conspiracy with Dimora crony J. Kevin Kelley involving the nonprofit Alternatives Agency.

Roe says that nothing about Calabrese’s conduct while representing him appeared improper or gave him pause, and that Calabrese never talked about using any connections in county government to help with the contract.

Staubach’s fee proposal won out. All the developers contending for the headquarters project signed agreements promising to pay Staubach $6.85 per square foot as part of a final lease deal, according to Roe. Martin’s successor at the county, David Lambert confirmed this after reviewing a file from the negotiations.

In October 2004, Dimora, Jones and McCormack approved the contract, including the fees Staubach wanted. McCormack told the Plain Dealer in 2009 that he liked Staubach’s proposal because the developer, not the county, would’ve paid in the end.

Actually, the developer would’ve likely rolled the cost of Staubach’s fee into the county’s lease payments, for the county to pay over the course of 20 or 30 years.

It didn’t work out that way. Tomorrow, I’ll post about how the county’s relationship with Staubach ended.

Update, 6/7: The FBI and IRS investigated the Ameritrust Tower purchase and the Staubach contract as part of the county corruption investigation, according to a new indictment of Calabrese. See my new post here

(photo from

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