Monday, January 14, 2013

'What do I stand for?' City council's terrible week

Last Tuesday, the day after Cleveland City Council voted to un-retire colleague Ken Johnson and enable his double-dip, flashed this headine:

Cleveland City Council President Martin J. Sweeney comes up in FBI's Forlani wiretap

Two hours later, Councilman Joe Cimperman tweeted this:

I followed Cimperman's link to the lyrics of "Some Nights" by Fun -- an angsty pop hit that, in my fevered imagination, became a councilman's tormented lament at being strong-armed into a taxpayer-wrath-inducing vote by a council president whose links to corruption defendants keep embarrassing City Hall:
Oh, Lord, I'm still not sure what I stand for oh
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights I don't know anymore
Oh, whoa, oh, whoa, oh, whoa, oh, oh...

So this is it. I sold my soul for this?
Washed my hands of that for this?
I miss my mom and dad for this?

"Rough week to be a Cleveland city councilman, judging by these lyrics," I retweeted.

Cimperman, the tweetiest pol in town, answered in a half-hour. In 140 characters, he managed to explain that he'd actually spent the evening at a meeting about the Inner Belt in Tremont, which reminded him of how Tremont had been home to a Civil War camp, which reminded him of the video to "Some Nights":

It does have a very Civil-War Gothic vibe. And considering Cimperman's manic, beatific Twitter feed, regularly filled with Jesuit mysticism and patriotic rapture, his wild explanation actually makes sense.

So it's all me.  I was just imagining how a councilman ought to feel after walking the double-dip plank for Martin Sweeney.


Cleveland City Council is an ancient, self-absorbed institution with peculiar rules even more undemocratic than a U.S. Senate filibuster.  Sweeney, the council president, drove those rules to a new low last week.

Follow me, now: A city councilman "in good standing" can appoint his successor.  Decisions about council membership are subject to the "unit rule," which requires everyone in a legislative caucus or convention delegation to show support for the majority's decision.

Then last week, the "right" to name your successor became Ken Johnson's "right" to retire and reappoint himself, and collect a pension and a salary at the same time, and preserve cost-of-living pension increases that won't apply to future retirees, and have all of city council approve his double dip. All 19 city council members caucus with the Democrats, so Sweeney expected the vote to be unanimous.

Some councilpeople really, truly disagree with the idea that government pensions should go to public employees who've, you know, stopped working. City councilpeople are all public employees, see. They're outraged that the state changed the pension rules so quickly on Johnson, and on them. Fairness to their own tribe preoccupies them. Fairness to taxpayers, not so much.

Others, like Cimperman, voted reluctantly for Johnson's double-dip, fearing Sweeney's punishments, including hostile gerrymandering. Ward lines are being redrawn to eliminate two councilpeople this year.  So the no voters on Johnson's double-dip -- Dona Brady, Brian Cummins, and Mike Polensek (a double-dipper himself) are now the most likely to lose council's game of musical chairs.

Watching this all happen, I marvel at Sweeney's continued ability to whip votes and hold onto his job as council president.  To an outsider, he hardly looks like a strong leader.  New City Hall initiatives seem to come from Mayor Frank Jackson or from creative councilmen such as Cimperman or Matt Zone. And Sweeney's name keeps coming up a little too often for comfort in prosecutors' accounts of the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal.


Last week in court, the feds played a five-year-old wiretap of crooked contractor Michael Forlani claiming he'd funneled $20,000 to Sweeney's Council Leadership Fund. Forlani cynically calculated that the cash might've bought him several votes.

The council leadership fund is another tool a council president uses to reward allies and punish enemies. Its funds are dispersed to loyal councilpeople running for re-election.  Forlani may have been talking out of his ass, bragging about juice he didn't really have -- but it's at least plausible that a contractor could buy influence and legislation by contributing to the council leadership fund. It would work if (I'm talking theoretically here) the contractor had a council president willing to twist arms on his behalf. And if the money was passed through intermediaries, regular councilpeople might not even know why they were being told to vote a certain way. Their votes could be effectively bought without them knowing it.

So if I were a councilperson, the insinuation dropped by Forlani in that wiretap would infuriate me.  I would want to hear an explanation from Sweeney, a straight denial that Forlani had arranged with him for donations to the fund in exchange for any sort of understanding.  Instead, Sweeney's been very tight with his no-comments.

Sweeney's name has come up in federal subpoenas. It came up a few times at last year's Jimmy Dimora trial. In one wiretap, Sweeney told Dimora he'd helped answer Ferris Kleem's questions about an airport contract. (Kleem was one of the underwriters of Dimora's famed Vegas romp.) Sweeney made a mysterious appearance in the Dimora case closing argument, when the prosecutors included him in a 20-person pyramid of key players.  Most entertainingly, J. Kevin Kelley testified that Dimora's cronies considered Sweeney part of their "B Team," but not their "A Team."

After all that, it's easy to wonder how Sweeney manages to hold onto the council presidency.  Once-mighty politicians such as Bill Mason and Dean DePiero have seen their careers cut short by peripheral connections to the scandal, but Sweeney's presidency motors along.  One outraged local writer wants us to sign a petition calling on Sweeney to step down until his name is cleared.

There's just one problem: Cleared how?  Cleared of what?  No one can quite say.  Sweeney hasn't been accused or implicated in any wrongdoing.  Watchdogging the powerful is important, but so is avoiding guilt by association. [Update, 1/17: The petition has been rewritten to call for an ethics investigation, and for Sweeney to recuse himself from voting on contracts until it's finished.]

Forlani's brag could be based on a misunderstanding. Contractor Steve Pumper testified last week that Forlani was trying to help Pumper resolve a court case of his, but the settlement didn't actually need council's approval.  Sweeney's calls on Kleem's behalf may have just helped Kleem navigate red tape without anything in return ("You can take credit," Sweeney tells Dimora on the wiretap). Even being dubbed a member of Dimora's "B Team" may be a character witness of sorts -- yeah, we hung out with the guy, but we didn't share the take with him.

Just because Sweeney is the feds' Public Official 7 doesn't mean he did anything wrong.  Those code numbers are meant to protect the unindicted, not brand them.  To see the problem, consider Public Official 14, Ed FitzGerald.


Last week, an FBI agent mentioned FitzGerald, too, as a recipient of funneled Forlani money.  Suddenly, just as FitzGerald was ramping up to run for governor, he faced a serious threat: a campaign contribution in the name of a guy he says he didn't even know.  Rather than let a stray mention shake up a governor's race, chief corruption prosecutor Ann Rowland issued an unusual public exoneration:

Ed FitzGerald is not a target of the investigation... We have no evidence Ed FitzGerald knew Michael Forlani had anything to do with these contributions.

Rowland did not extend the same courtesy to Sweeney.  Does that mean something?  Or was the agent's mention of FitzGerald (himself a former FBI agent) simply an especially out-of-control example of several careless, career-damaging name-drops flying off the edges of the corruption investigation?

If the feds had something on Sweeney, they'd likely have charged him by now.  Their investigation focused on 2008, and it's 2013.  The statute of limitations, five years for the major federal corruption law, is about to run out.


Still, there's corruption, then there's bad government.  Federal prosecutors' sentencing memo for Forlani reused a classic quote from convicted former councilwoman Sabra Pierce Scott, who pleaded guilty to taking bribes to help Forlani with the VA expansion project in University Circle.

At a 2006 council committee meeting, Zack Reed questioned whether the VA project was using enough minority workers. Pierce Scott responded with this gem:

How dare you use your own approach to question a project in my ward without having a discussion with me first. You are out of line. And you will not continue to come to this table and get in other people’s ward business. I do not appreciate it and if you’ve got a problem with this project you should have said something to me. You have no right to sit here and question them. You don’t understand what it takes to get this done. And you’re wrong. I don’t appreciate it. And you’re not going to sit here and build a reputation off of me. I don’t mess with your projects and don’t you mess with mine.

The feds quoted Pierce Scott's attack because it was bought and paid for by Forlani's protection money.  But Pierce Scott was actually explaining the regular rules of business at Cleveland City Council. Her tongue-lashing of Reed was part of a hallowed council tradition.

The late Fannie Lewis once did the same to Cimperman, calling him a "judas goat" for questioning a building project in Hough. Daring to ask a policy question about a project in someone else's ward is an outrage in city council's arcane, undemocratic world.

Those old, unwritten rules are the real reason to hope for a change in leadership at city council.  When is someone going to open those creaky, cobwebbed windows and let some sunlight in?


Richey said...

great stuff erick

Angie said...

Cleared of what? Corruption. Cleared how? Some receipts from his home repairs would be a good start. He hasn't even answered to these charges publicly. Are these guys answerable to the public at all? Something has broken down severely in NEO. Thank God for the FBI because if were up to the citizens and the local institutions to address this problem, Jimmy Dimora would still be the most powerful man in this region.

Marc Lefkowitz said...

Using his position as Council President for fixing a contract for Dimora has to cross some ethical if not criminal line. Something is structurally missing in Cleveland City Council when information like that comes to light on a member and it doesn't trigger an ethics investigation. If Sweeney crossed the line ethically for this reason, he should be censured and possibly lose his position as Council President.