Monday, September 13, 2010

Cuyahoga County Corruption

OurTown and OurCounty are going through a corruption scandal virtually identical to the one in Cuyahoga County, Ohio and I felt it instructive to share with you the coverage from (Moses Cleveland statue, above, from Public Square in Cleveland) the website of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and recap some of the larger themes of this blawg.  This post is prompted by the charging of the Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo (who's visage graces every scale and gas pump in that large metropolitan county) as well as the imminent federal prosecution of his political partner a Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora following an endless investigation and revelations of massive corruption that dripped out in the news like Chinese water torture for the citizens of that region of Ohio.

First let me congratulate the Plain Dealer and its terrifc journalists and editors for coverage over the last two years, it's been brilliant and insightful.  ( BL: A few years ago, the Plain Dealer and its reporters: James McCarty and David Briggs did pioneering work on exposing the Catholic Child Sex abuse scandal, nationally, at the same time the Boston Globe received a Pulitzer prize for their coverage. I add this by way of disclosure since I supplied historical detail and information to both investigations.)

At the same time, the Plain Dealer is historically one of the villains of the story that its now exposing, and currrently the paper is not acknowledging its historical role and involvement in enabling and encouraging exactly the corruption uncovered by its current reporters and editors.  It doesn't take too much deep reading in the Plain Dealer archive to see where the publication endorsed and promoted many of the people: the Commissioners, the Sheriff, the Auditor, and the Judges who are now swept into federal and state justice systems on bribery and other felony crimes.  The Plain Dealer was run at one time by a succession of patriarchal types (Thomas Vail (pic) and Alex Machaskee) who were more interested in wielding power with the their corporate buddies and who viewed the regional government of Cuyahoga County as serving their interests.  Retiring republican U.S. Senator George Voinovich is one product of that culture, although I am not suggesting that Voinovich himself was ever involved in any of the sordid stuff that has come to a head in this scandal.  Nonetheless the Plain Dealer was complicit in turning a blind eye or encouraging for DECADES, a course of dealing and doing business in a way that benefited the elites at the cost of the citizens.  Since Cleveland has long been a one-newspaper town, the influence of the Plain Dealer was out sized and unfortunately malevolent for many decades.

But the Plain Dealer under editor Susan Goldberg and before her, Dough Clifton is a different publication, although it would be nice to see the current journalists look at the role of the paper in the unfolding drama.

As I said many times on Bad Lawyer, public-minded young professionals in OurTown and apparently in Cleveland, coming fresh out of school and looking to do public service had very little chance for public sector employment unless they knew somebody, possessed a certain familiar ethnic name, or played a very corrupt game.  In Cuyahoga County in recent years, this operation was run by a fat Italian named Jimmy Dimora (pic, above) who is a Cuyahoga County Commissioner for a few more hours, and his buddy, Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo (pic, below right).  At one point these two shared power in a triumvirate with an bantam weight little wife-beater and child porn hound, Pat O'Malley.  These guys corrupted nearly everything and everybody (including many lawyers, judges, and other professionals) they touched and they cost the tax payers directly and indirectly millions and millions of dollars.  These so-called public servants converted--under the nose of the Cuyahoga County Sheriff Gerald McFaul, and Prosecutor Bill Mason (both of whom have been discussed on Bad Lawyer)--a contracting and taxing authority that was little more than racket for self-seeking.  They were aided and abetted by nearly every other elected official in the county.  The people of Cuyahoga County finally became so outraged with the shenanigans of these thieves and their enablers in an election, last year, the voters discarded county government as it then existed and cleaned the slate of everyone.
Largely because of the Plain Dealer, the FBI, the IRS, and federal prosecutors one by one each of these crooks is being uncovered and exposed.  You can read the story at the link I provided, above, but I wanted to make a couple of further points about the roots of the corruption as it relates to lawyers and judges. 

From my reading of the scandal, as it unfolded, federal law enforcement was looking at some very curious things relating to how contracts were awarded in Cuyahoga County.  As long as I've been aware of OurTown politics and public sector corruption, this is where the action is.  When I was no more than a law student and law clerk, I remember talking to a junior politician in a downtown racket club warning him that he should be very careful about being involved in the awarding of "cable contract franchises" which was then very much in the news.  Politicians, everywhere were being prosecuted for taking bribes associated with the awarding of those contracts.  Since time immemorial, politicians fall prey to easy money--don't we all? 

But the catalyst in Cuyahoga County, came in the guise of the county recorder, Pat O'Malley, a former City of Cleveland councilman.  O'Malley, then a recent law school graduate, and fantastically unstable character was involved in a divorce proceeding.  In 2004 his soon to be ex-wife turned over his computer hard drives which allegedly contained child and violent porn to federal prosecutors. 

I'm relatively certain that from that moment on, as historians look back at what came flying apart the arrest of O'Malley will prove to be the critical moment.  O'Malley (pic, left) was one of the big three or four power centers in Cuyahoga County.   As an aside, O'Malley has completed his prison sentence; and, recently, the Legal Profession blawg noted that the Ohio Supreme Court suspended O'Malley law license for two years subject to his completion of federal probation.  He may resume practicing law someday soon.  Of course, I am not saying that O'Malley's prosecution caused the corruption, and I'm not saying that O'Malley's prosecution resulted in the uncovering of the crimes resulting the fall of Cuyahoga County (they were already under investigation,) what I am saying is that the angry ex-wife's turning over hard drives--accelerated the investigation of the crimes which led to the actual collapse of Cuyahoga County government, this year. 

Also uncovered in the investigation by the Plain Dealer and the feds was the wholesale corruption of the Cuyahoga County justice system.  The Bad Lawyer previously discussed the fall of disgraced elderly politician and famously corrupt, Sheriff Gerald McFaul; but, what remains to be discussed are the Judges swept up in the scandal and the prospects of Bill Mason (pic, right), the boy-prosecutor who wanted to be president.  The prosecutor ran the Cuyahoga County Democratic party with Russo, Dimora and O'Malley.  Thus far nothing suggests that Mason did anything overtly prosecutable, but there can be no doubt that Mason failed to do his job.  The Plain Dealer documented Mason's illegal receipt and subsequent refund of political contributions from his employees.  Mason, however is Rovian, in the sense that when called out on any deviation he immediately turns it into a public relations virtue by making it look like he's been the reformist all along.  So when called on the receipt of campaign funds from employees of the county Mason refunded the money, and claimed to be shocked, like Claude Rains discovering gambling at Rick's in Casablanca.  Mason trumpets "reform" while involved in everything that happened.  His political allies are going to the federal penitentiary forever for crimes against the Cuyahoga County, on Mason's watch.   More will be revealed, I guess.

Caught in the scandal are at least three Judges, Common Pleas Judges: Brigit McCafferty, Steven Terry and Frank Russo's brother Anthony.  Simply stated each of these judges accepted help or money from Russo in exchange for rulings, influence, or hiring of Russo or Dimora employment prospects.  The FBI has two of the judges on surveillance audio according to media reports, and as I said, we know only a little at this point, but the coverage hints at widespread corruption.  One of the questions I have is whether any of this will impact positively the selection of Judges which are elected in Ohio, usually based on no more than the qualification of a familiar sounding Irish or Italian name.  One of the oddities of the current Cuyahoga bench which has 34 (?) full-time judges, was the election of a Judge Nancy Russo, who I've been told was working as an insurance company investigator and not as a lawyer and yet managed to beat a well-regarded (by lawyers who claim to know these things) sitting judge.  Judge Russo acquired her last name through a terminated prior marriage to a Russo unrelated to any of the Russos involved in the current scandals.    Having said all of that, I understand that Judge Nancy Russo has been a credible addition to the bench serving competently for a number of years.  The point is, she was elected on the basis of the possession of a last name now completely corrupted in the eyes of Cuyahoga County voters--maybe she'll changer her name.

For me, reading this coverage causes no end of sadness.  As a virtual avatar for OurTown and OurCounty, I think about the lives and careers and potential lost to greed and self-seeking alone.  I think about the careers which were thwarted or damaged because these crooks took power and parceled it out to incompetents and thieves.  I think about the damage to a beautiful city and region by the political malpractice and arrogance of these so-called public servants.  And I am infuriated that the elites enabled and ignored what was happening.  I know my friend and fellow-blogger, Gayle has bemoaned the political and civic injuries of Detroit--may we ultimately pray for light from darkness as these regions transform in the wake of their man made disasters.  These are municipal tragedies on a grand scale, can there be a new beginning?


  1. Excellent, excellent coverage by the PeeDee, but you are right BL, the Cleveland newspapers in the 1970-1985 and maybe a little later bears enormous responsibility for helping these people rise to power, use the levers of power to their own personal advantage. The courthouse coverage was terrible, almost as if the PeeDee didn't think it mattered who was a judge or prosecutor. On the otherhand if it weren't for Gomez, McCarty and others who knows if any of this would have been uncovered in our lifetimes.

  2. How many Cuyahoga County judges are going down? And these robed-ones get paid over $100,000 a year and spin off cases that get tried to retired judges that double dip. What a sweetheart thing it must be to be a judge.

    friend Derek

  3. B.L. i still mason escapes

    frank very soon will find a new home and be queen for a "DECADE"

    presently the new sherriff reid has appointed friends -associates to evaluate property values for sherriff sales and these individuals have no legitamite reason to being doing so given their experience

    the pope

  4. That Russo picture scares me even more than the image of Orly Taitz you posted a few months back. Sheesh! The camera doesn't lie.

  5. BL,a very well done summary of corruption permeating a county, don't see how that prosecutor is skating? This guy Mason, is the one that followed Congresswoman Stephanie Jones who died a year or two ago?

  6. Firing and/or jailing officials is one thing, building something better in their wake can be quite another. Depressed areas are likely to face this kind of situation for a multitude of reasons, although I'm sure help can be made available. Hell is the act of searching for honest counsel.

  7. I know for a fact, Judge Nancy M Russo got her last name from her father... Russo is her birth name.

  8. Great work over the years guys. Let me tell you I shook hands with Pat O'malley once and you can feel some kind of weird evil in there. This is not a normal or a nice person. Apparently his latest gig is tryign to shake down business people by using hookers to set them up.

  9. Watch this new head judge: John J. Russo
    His is one that got away. A very bad judge

  10. This Judge totally stepped on my civil rights and rubbed it in to boot.even to the point
    Of ordering me to not even talk about the
    Case.The Ohio Bar said that he is a Judge
    and can do as he wants.

  11. Is this active? I have very good information to give a diligent reporter at the PD