Thursday, April 25, 2013

Can FitzGerald’s reformer persona work in governor’s race?

Ed FitzGerald has a gift for timing. He’s the Cuyahoga County executive today because he sensed the leadership vacuum left by the county corruption scandal and filled it. A former FBI agent as well as Lakewood mayor, he promised to restore honest government after the fall of Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo. The ambitious FitzGerald was the right candidate at the right time.

But yesterday, when FitzGerald announced he’ll challenge Gov. John Kasich, he took a big risk. Can he win a very different race with very different issues? Will his record as a reformer propel him past Kasich, or will the race transform him into a conventional Democratic politician?

Before a cheering crowd at the Hilton Garden Inn downtown, FitzGerald tried to take his reformer persona statewide and connect the job he holds with the job he seeks.

“As the first county executive, I helped to dismantle a corrupt patronage regime that was choking our county government,” he said. “The people in this county had lost faith that county government could be effective, efficient, transparent, and honest. And we did restore that faith.”

Boldly, FitzGerald then turned his reformer’s eye on Kasich. Ohio has been “on a much different path” than Cuyahoga County since Kasich’s election, he argued. “The pay-to-play system in state government is as bad as it’s ever been, with the governor’s lobbyist friends making millions.”

FitzGerald doesn’t have a corruption scandal to run against this time, so he’s trying to compare Kasich and Columbus lobbyists with Dimora and the contractors he partied with. Can FitzGerald make this stick? It’ll be interesting to see him try.

From there, FitzGerald made the turn to politics in ordinary times and the standard Democratic critiques of the governor. “The budget was balanced by making one of the worst decisions possible: defunding our local schools,” he said.

He denounced Kasich’s cuts to the local government fund, saying they’d led to police and firefighter layoffs. He attacked the failed Republican election law, HB 194, calling it the “voter suppression law.” He cast Kasich’s complex plan to expand the sales tax’s reach as a tax increase on poorer families. And, in one of the speech’s biggest applause lines, he claimed Kasich “attacked working people” by signing the voter-rejected Senate Bill 5.

In contrast, FitzGerald offered changes he’s implemented here as county executive: expansions of early childhood education and sheriff’s patrols, the new $100 million county job creation fund, and the county’s just-approved college education accounts for local youth. (A heckler pointed out each kid gets only $100.) He balanced the county’s budget without raising taxes or cutting education, he said, implying that he could manage the state’s budget better than Kasich, even in tough times.

But FitzGerald’s positive agenda, as he outlined it yesterday, showed little of the innovation he’s brought to Cuyahoga County (and his web site’s “issues” page doesn’t add much). It’s mostly a collection of Democratic grievances from the past two years: “respect all workers, not demonize them,” support the right to vote “instead of suppressing it,” “partner with cities and townships instead of using them as an ATM.”

FitzGerald said he wants to create a jobs strategy based on local businesses and high-wage jobs, “not corporate giveaways.” That suggests he’s going to run against parts of Kasich’s jobs strategy and vow to do better. He also says he wants to invest in early childhood education.

Where will he get the money to spend more and restore cuts, without raising taxes? His website says he’ll find strategic cuts in the state budget, as he did in Cuyahoga County’s. But if state government isn’t as bloated as the county was under the Dimora-Russo regime, that may not be so easy.

Yesterday, FitzGerald showed his political talents and appeal as a candidate: his record of accomplishment in his short time as county executive, his trustworthy biography (he investigated corruption while with the FBI). But many reasons he gave for running for governor will rally loyal Democrats more than independent voters. He can’t win just by re-fighting the battles against SB5 and the election law.

With his issues that do have broad appeal -- funding schools, encouraging job growth -- FitzGerald’s challenge is to explain exactly how he’ll do better than Kasich and why he’s the guy to do it. But his record as executive is incomplete, his jobs and education initiatives still new.

He has a year and a half to make his case, of course. But so far, it’s not clear that the governor’s race is the right fit for him.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

100 Cleveland police officers may face discipline for November chase

The police cars flew by, one after another, a seemingly endless blur of blue and red lights. Watching the video in the Cleveland police command center today, city councilman Jeff Johnson whispered, “Wow,” under his breath and shook his head.

Today the Jackson Administration revealed its report on the Nov. 29 high-speed police chase and fatal shooting. Police commanders suggested that the chase will likely result in massive disciplinary action.  

Up to 100 police officers and six police supervisors may have violated the city’s vehicle pursuit policy while chasing driver Timothy Russell and passenger Malissa Williams into East Cleveland,  commander James Chura said today. The city allows only two police cars to pursue a fleeing suspect, unless supervisors give approval in unusual circumstances.

Up to 69 officers and five supervisors may have also violated the emergency driving policy, which says police cannot “unnecessarily endanger the public” while trying to capture a suspect. 

"If there's any vagueness in the general police order, the duty to protect the public comes first, rather than the law enforcement mission," Chura said.

Possible discipline, still to be determined by police chief Mike McGrath, ranges from a verbal reprimand to a 10-day or 30-day suspension to firing.  A review of the police use of deadly force against Russell and Williams will come later.

Reporters, city councilmen, and city staff watched a multimedia re-creation of the 63-car, 19-mile chase using GPS locators, police radio recordings and video camera footage.  The presentation revealed several new details about the chase beyond state Attorney General Mike DeWine’s February account.

-Supervisors in the 1st, 3rd and 5th police districts ordered all their officers to terminate pursuit. Some 3rd and 5th district police apparently ignored the order and pursued the suspects into East Cleveland.

-The 2nd district supervisors, some of whom were in the chase, apparently failed to take command. They didn’t enforce the police rule that only two cars should pursue a suspect except with a supervisor’s approval. “There were supervisors from the 2nd district that had very little communication among themselves or with the officers they were supervising,” McGrath said.

-Officers appear to have risked public safety in other ways during the chase. The chase not only reached a speed of 100 mph on I-90, but one officer’s speedometer hit 125. Earlier, one officer’s dashboard camera caught him driving on the wrong side of Clark Avenue with no lights on, speeding by an approaching car and pedestrians at 69 mph.

-A policeman’s warning that the passenger wasn’t armed was broadcast more widely than previously reported. The officer radioed that the passenger wasn’t holding a gun, as other officers had believed and reported. “He has a pair of black gloves on. He does not have a gun in his hand,” the officer broadcast on the 2nd district channel. “There’s a red pop can in his hands,” he added a minute later.

“Now stating he has a pop can in his hand,” the 3rd district dispatcher relayed. “It’s not a gun, it’s a pop can in his hand,” the 5th district dispatcher said.

No gun was found in Russell's car or along the chase route. So why did the officers at the scene of the shooting seven minutes later claim they thought the suspects were armed?

One possible reason: another radio report suggested that the passenger might be reaching down for a weapon. “They’re fumbling with something up in that front seat,” came a report, a minute after the pop can broadcast. “Looks like the passenger is possibly loading a weapon.”

McGrath said officers who violated policy will be “held accountable,” and he acknowledged the 200-plus police on duty that night who followed the rules. (Several officers from the 1st, 3rd, and 5th districts obeyed orders to quit the chase.)

“We recognize responsible decisions they made, particularly under the stressful circumstances of this incident,” the chief said.

A reporter asked McGrath if he agreed with police union president Jeffrey Follmer, who has called the Nov. 29 incident “the perfect chase.”

“What you saw on the screen is factual,” McGrath replied. “I wouldn’t call this a perfect chase, no.”

Today’s report, almost five months after the chase, again shows Mayor Frank Jackson’s response to crisis. He takes a slow, steady approach, in which he won’t let anyone rush him or prod him to respond quickly to events.

Even the fact that Jackson held his press briefing an hour and a half after Ed FitzGerald announced his candidacy for governor shows how little the mayor cares about the theater of news and politics. No way was he going to postpone his press briefing a day just so FitzGerald’s ambitions could dominate the headlines.

Three city councilmen attended the briefing. Jeff Johnson left just before it ended, but I spoke to Kevin Conwell and Zack Reed as they left.

“It’s very stunning and very telling,” Reed said. “But I’m glad that the truth is transparent, and that they continue to bring out the truth in a public light.”

“When you have so many cars, what is the end in mind?” asked Conwell, chair of council’s public safety committee. “Who’s going to be a supervisor when they get to the end of the line, to tell all the other police officers to stand down, and then we’ll have at least four to five active shooters, so that you don’t have 13 active shooters?”

No one was in charge of the chase, Conwell suggested. “Who’s going to be the head officer in control?” he asked. “We didn’t have that. And that’s what I’m disappointed about. And I’ll see the police chief about it.

“When we get to this end, who’s going to be controlling the end? Especially when you have 137 shots.”

Friday, April 5, 2013

McGinty revives corruption investigation with state charges against Calabrese

A weekend surprise: Tim McGinty, who promised to crack down on public corruption when he ran for Cuyahoga County prosecutor, is picking up some leads from the federal government’s six-year-old county corruption investigation. Just when you thought everyone had pleaded guilty, it looks like there's more to come.

Late today, a grand jury indicted attorney Anthony Calabrese III (pictured) on two counts of bribery and one charge of theft by deception. All three charges seem closely related to federal charges to which Calabrese has already pled guilty.

“Cuyahoga County Grand Jury Issues First Indictment for Corruption Related Offenses,” reads McGinty’s press release, which went out at 5:36 pm. And yes, that word “first” implies what you think it implies.

“There will be more indictments,” McGinty’s spokesperson, Maria Russo, said this evening. She wouldn’t elaborate.

Calabrese is charged with bribing Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo, indirectly, by directing J. Kevin Kelley to pay for their tickets to Las Vegas in 2008, in order to get Dimora and Russo to help restore funding to Alternatives Agency, a nonprofit Calabrese represented as a lawyer. In the theft by deception charge, Calabrese is accused of getting Alternatives Agency to pay Kelley and Anthony Sinagra as consultants, even though they did no work.

But Calabrese has already pled guilty to federal charges involving the trip to Vegas and the consulting payments to Kelley and Sinagra – bribery, bribery conspiracy and mail fraud conspiracy, to be exact.

So what’s going on?

Today’s charges could be part of a mop-up operation, where McGinty looks at whether leads from the FBI investigation point to violations of state law. He may be looking to file direct charges of bribery and theft where the feds could only make conspiracy, wire fraud or mail fraud charges.

McGinty may also be taking over late-breaking leads in the corruption probe. Federal law has a five-year statute of limitations on bribery and similar crimes, so the U.S. Attorney’s time to file new charges from the corruption probe is running out. (The FBI raided the county building, breaking up the corruption regime, on July 28, 2008.) But Ohio has a six-year statute of limitations, so McGinty has more time.

What might the new lead be?

I wonder if McGinty is probing Calabrese and Kelley’s relationship because he wants to know if they corrupted the county’s 2005 purchase of the Ameritrust complex. County executive Ed FitzGerald told me in January that he’s asked McGinty to probe Calabrese’s relationship to the Ameritrust deal.

At one point last year, federal prosecutors alleged that Calabrese promised to reward Kelley if he successfully lobbied Jimmy Dimora to vote to buy the Ameritrust property. Two months after the sale, the feds claimed, Kelley received $70,000 and a company with a tie to Calabrese received $99,000 from unidentified sources.

But the feds aren’t pursuing that lead anymore. They included it in a witness tampering charge against Calabrese, but dropped that charge in exchange for Calabrese’s guilty plea on 18 other counts.

Calabrese, unlike the other federal corruption defendants, didn’t agree to cooperate with investigators when he pled guilty. So the new charges could increase the pressure on Calabrese to make a deal with McGinty. (Calabrese also faces charges in an unrelated case: he's charged with trying to bribe rape victims to change their testimony at a sentencing.)

Calabrese is the last big lead in the corruption probe.  What more might he know?

Update, 4/14: The Plain Dealer runs a front-page followup today that's basically an 1,120-word question mark. It quotes a bunch of people puzzled over what the hell McGinty's doing. The story says McGinty "stunned federal officials" by charging Calabrese, but doesn't give details.

If McGinty really is just going to pile state charges on top of everyone's federal charges, that's really weird.  I still think McGinty may be trying to work his way up to probing the Ameritrust scandal. But Jim Jenkins, attorney for corruption defendant Daniel Gallagher, offers the PD another theory: McGinty may be trying to go after the corrupt officials' pensions.