After the Burglary

While Cleveland recoils from the Dimora-Russo charges, a deeper scandal emerges: skulking county employees blotting out home values with correction fluid.

In my more than 40 years of reporting and editing in Cleveland, no story left me more disgusted than the recent revelation that some 2,200 property tax records were secretly altered, cutting $145 million in value from Cuyahoga County's real estate books. It was as if the entire community was burglarized.

To me, this is the lowest moment in Greater Cleveland's history, an insult to every citizen, an embarrassment of national proportion. It far outweighs the 21 charges filed days later against former county auditor Frank Russo, who disgraced just about everything around him, or the tawdry sex-for-favors charges filed against county commissioner Jimmy Dimora.

The appraisal scandal suggests that corruption has rooted its way deep into the county bureaucracy. Using vats of white correction fluid, county employees blotted out the original property valuations on tax records in the auditor's office and hastily scribbled in new numbers, granting tax cuts to individual homeowners.

The amount of actual dollars lost in the Board of Revision scandal — nearly $4 million a year in revenue, according to a tax expert — is greater than the losses from the kickbacks, scams and other payoffs the FBI has been chasing. This comes as the county projects a $19 million budget deficit in 2011 and even more in 2012. It also comes as the county issues a request for proposals to find the cheapest way to feed the needy.

I cringed when commissioners Tim Hagan and Peter Lawson Jones reacted with surprised outrage. Oblivious to the sea of corruption washing about them for years, these two emerge from time to time like the chorus in a Greek tragedy to bemoan the fates that the gods have rendered upon their kingdom.

In a taunting gesture, an unknown perpetrator left a bottle of correction fluid on a table for investigators to find — a symbol of the arrogance that still reigns among some at the county administration building. Such defiance suggests that the new government we are electing this month might be overwhelmed by the task of routing this dishonest culture.

Reflect a moment: How did we get here? How did government fraud become an industry, a systemic spread of unlawful behavior that far outreaches that of organized crime in its Cleveland heyday? How did this happen?

Every big city has its share of corruption, but I believe it to be different in Cleveland. Unlike Chicago or Boston, our city never had a unifying soul. Cleveland mirrored Balkanized Europe more than the American melting pot: It was a pastiche of neighborhoods and ethnic groups. The public voted heritage or skin: Italian or Polish or German or black. Only occasionally would it unite around the strongest candidate or focus on the town as a whole.

Still, for many years, a vibrant media and a strong legal community kept government under control, limiting it to isolated scandals involving the sheriff or some profligate council member. Then the legal community lost interest as its major clients moved elsewhere. The media, which once covered City Hall daily and scrutinized public officials' unpaid utility bills, came to see politicians as boring compared to the newest restaurant or a wide receiver's tattoos.

So government, mostly free of probing reporting, acted with increased arrogance. The county's leadership, the least scrutinized, became especially obnoxious and secretive, developing into a tawdry political machine.

By passing Issue 6, voters demanded the machine's dismantling. But that will take leaders with character, perseverance and perspective. They will have to make many unpleasant decisions about budgets and personnel, examine the entire payroll for qualifications and competence, and set up a new, transparent hiring process. We've had backroom government for years, so transparency is going to be painful. It takes patience to deal with a skeptical public. Yet if our new leaders do not restore public confidence in government, no other real progress will be achieved.

Regardless of any ethical preaching, if there is no enforcement of the laws, any system will eventually fail. That is why the prosecutor's office may be, at the outset, more important than the county executive.

This fall, The Plain Dealer questioned the role of the county prosecutor amid the tumult and scandal. Bill Mason, who remains in office through 2012, argued that no one approached him with information on wrongdoing. But his office has long been so politicized that his predecessor, the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones, allowed Russo to plead guilty to a misdemeanor in 1998 when she could have charged him with felony theft in office, perhaps ending his career and saving millions in public dollars. After the federal indictments, Mason's office appears political and pathetic in its inactivity. It is supposed to be a check on government, not a protector of party politics.

The local Democratic Party has been a manipulating force for bad government. The officials who have pleaded guilty to federal crimes could not have followed their corruptive course without lower-level bureaucrats turning a blind eye. Even now, many county employees will no doubt play a key role in electing the new government because they occupy key positions in the party organization. The seriously tainted party will undoubtedly win many seats in the new county council.

The good news is that voters have a choice for county executive: six candidates, all pledging decency and democracy. This campaign is among the best-covered in memory, so voters can easily study the candidates. Good politicians explain how their record will carry into the future. The rest run on a future that may never materialize.

Citizens must not abandon the new government to its own whims. We have paid for our past indifference with bad and costly decisions, such as the purchase of the nearly worthless Ameritrust Tower.

We are a city suffering. We are struggling economically, our image as one of the worst cities in America haunts us, youth look elsewhere for a future, the public trust has been violated, and we are desperate for leadership. We realize time is running out.

The new way we govern ourselves offers promise. But if it fails, and we find burglars rummaging in our house again, prayer may be all we'll have left.

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