Thursday, April 26, 2012

Last thread from Nate Gray case tied up

Ah, nostalgia.  Romantics pine for lost love, sports fans recall long-ago championships, and journalists reminisce about scandal.

So I bet I'm not the only journalist in town surprised by woozy vertigo on Tuesday as old times rushed back onto the Plain Dealer's front page.

"Allega pays $500,000 to resolve complaint," the headline read.  The last legal vestige of the Nate Gray scandal is, at last, finished.

Eleven years ago, Anthony Allega Cement Contractors laid a new runway at Hopkins Airport, the biggest single construction job Cleveland City Hall ever awarded. Now, Allega is paying the Justice Department a cool half-million dollars to resolve its complaint that Allega used minority subcontractors as false fronts on the job. 

Every time I fly out of Hopkins on that western runway, I think of Nate Gray. He doesn't appear in the PD article, but he was suspected to be all over that contract.  The FBI investigated the runway job, trying to prove that Gray, former Mayor Mike White's best friend, corrupted the city's minority subcontractors program during White's administration.  The FBI also thought Gray was the mayor's bag man, but couldn't prove it. The feds never filed charges against White, and the 45 corruption charges it leveled against Gray didn't include the runway scandal and never mentioned the mayor.

I still remember the shock I felt when, reporting on the Gray case in 2005, I laid three public records side by side. One was a FBI subpoena served on East Cleveland City Hall. The second was a letter from an FBI agent to a Cleveland City Hall official, asking for the names of the minority subcontractors on Allega's runway contract. The third was a report that listed those subcontractors: RMC, Chem-Ty Environmental, and Bradley Construction. They also appeared, in sequence, on the East Cleveland subpoena. 

That's when I knew for sure that the Nate Gray case was much bigger than his bribes to East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor or his dalliances in Houston and New Orleans.  The FBI was aiming right at the White Administration's biggest projects, including its $1.4 billion airport expansion.

My interview with John Allega still ranks as one of the most tense conversations I've ever had. I remember walking into his office and making small talk about I-480's towering Valley View bridge nearby, and he replied that people often committed suicide by jumping off it.

Allega, who knew the FBI had tapped his fax machine, confirmed that Gray was in the business of connecting contractors with minority subcontractors for city work.

"It was the talk of the town," Allega told me. "People would ask, 'Did Nate Gray ever come to see you?' "

Allega said he'd taken on Chem-Ty and RMC on Gray's advice. (RMC was owned by Gray and White's buddy Ricardo Teamor.) As Allega told the story, he later learned that both companies, and Bradley Construction, were paying Gray a percentage of their contract and calling it a consulting fee.
Gray also made an offer to Allega. "He'd say, 'I'm friends with the mayor. Maybe I can help you out with some of your problems.' I had no problems. I told him, 'I don't need no help.'"

Allega told me Chem-Ty proved incapable of finishing its work.  City and federal investigators later decided that wasn't the half of it.  They declared that Allega's minority subcontractors had performed little work on the runway, and that Chem-Ty was merely a "pass-through," a front. Allega was banned from getting Cleveland contracts for four years.

Since then, over drinks, lunch and coffee, I've heard fellow reporters spill their impressions of Gray and White's relationship, wonder if the FBI still had a final shoe to drop (despite the five-year statute of limitations on most federal crimes), theorize about the leaked affidavits that proved the FBI  targeted White, and basically reminisce about the good old days of mortal combat with an often-vicious mayor.  The standard speculation (and here I should repeat that there is no proof) centers on whether Gray could've confirmed the FBI's suspicions about White but, out of a loyalty no one can comprehend, took his secret with him to federal prison.

Today, Nate Gray is in the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Institution in Indiana, almost halfway through his 15 years. White is retired in Newcomerstown, kissing alpacas. And Allega has resolved its dispute with the feds without admitting any wrongdoing.  That is the real, quiet end to the story.
To follow me back to the bad old days, check out my stories "Inside the Nate Gray Case" and "Scenes and Secrets: Nate Gray on Trial."

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