Gray Skies Ahead

Nate Gray's indictment on public corruption charges raises questions about our political leadership and makes an already dreary civic climate even more desperate.

The once elusive and irresistible business consultant Nate Gray is neither these days. He is an indictee, charged with public corruption in four states and facing so much prison time that he may be eligible for Social Security when he gets out — if the Internal Revenue Service does not collect it first.

Before the feds charged him with profiting regularly, regally and illegally, Nate Gray was the only growth industry in town. He could have been listed on the Weatherhead 100.

He also has authored the sorriest of stories in a town besieged by despairing tales of the impoverished, incompetent and dishonest.

According to the indictment, Gray and his cohorts are alleged to have enjoyed the benefits of buying and selling pieces of your government for more than a decade. Authorities admit it took 10 years to indict him.

Amazingly, although Gray must have thought he was operating with stealth, his reputation was whispered about for years among reporters, contractors and defense attorneys. As the government says, he was known as the go-to-guy for City Hall business.

He couldn't have had better advertising if he'd bought space in the Yellow Pages.

His charm and ability to navigate political and business channels were marvelous. So I always wanted to ask Gray a question: If he was so gifted at politics and government issues, why didn't he just run for public office like his dear friend Mike White?

Then, there is the other question that everybody really wants to ask: How much did former mayor White, now retired to alpaca farming, know about the real nature of his best man's consulting during his time as Cleveland's mayor?

To be fair, you also have to ask where the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office has been on this one for the past decade while the Feds were making their case.

Not only was Gray's name used freely around town to describe the economic transition of the city from manufacturing to manipulation, so were the names of those with whom he allegedly engaged in business. Some were even pointed out at the bar at Johnny's on West Sixth Street, smiling and drinking and beaming with success.

That is why readers should take lightly the comments of lawyers, businessmen, public-relations consultants and columnists who exclaim in newspapers that they had no idea that Gray may be something other than a legitimate business consultant. One law firm said it hired him as a "diversity consultant."

Some even expressed shock that a person as nice as Gray should be connected to such a shabby business.

Corruption is never an easy case to make, either for prosecutors or enterprising reporters. Over the years, both were frustrated as they dug into, but couldn't prove, persistent rumors of City Hall payoffs.

In fact, the issue caused friction in the morning newspaper's front office as Mayor White and some of his supporters in the business community complained bitterly that reporters were unfairly and insensitively probing his administration.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys patiently watched Gray from their usual predatory perches as the U.S. Attorney played cat-and-rat with a string of potential defendants trading get-out-of-jail cards for more names.

Such clients are easy pay for a lawyer. All you do is work out a plea with the government in exchange for information that will lead to even more indictments. And if the client draws a bit of time, offer the name of a good prison consultant who advises on the latest trends and fashions in penitentiary living. Justice is served. In addition, more indictments mean more prosperity in the legal community.

A few months before his federal indictment, word circulated that Gray was shopping for price among the legal defense community. This was not a good sign. Price should be no object for a man fighting for his freedom.

Lawyers say that money is probably not Gray's problem.

They suspect he was preparing to take the fall instead of cooperating with federal agents and naming other participants in his alleged spectrum of schemes.

Public corruption is an old business. By most accounts, Cleveland has endured its share, most of which has never appeared in print. Yet, the stories emerge over the years like dead bodies floating up from the sea.

There was the $50,000 bribe that the city's premier department store paid a county official in 1959 to kill the proposed subway between Public Square and University Circle. My favorite is the East Side councilman in the 1960s who solicited a $5,000 bribe from a nonprofit that sought a zoning variance to expand its work with the handicapped.

And then there is the legendary story about the City Council president who wanted $50,000 from an East Side manufacturing company seeking to expand its factory. Instead of paying, management went to the union, explained that many jobs were at risk and convinced labor officials to wage a successful political campaign against the public servant.

Some point to Chicago and New York and say that a certain amount of corruption is necessary for a big city's efficient operation.

But the Gray allegations are a disaster for this city and its people because they come at a time when there is little confidence in the future.

The brunt of these bad times is falling on politicians and government officials. The citizens here are among the most highly taxed in the nation. Government on almost every level is bloated and committed to early retirement, endless sick days and double-dipping.

We have more governments in Cuyahoga County than Europe has nations. Some days, you wake up and read the paper and wonder whether the elected leadership understands that we need to restore jobs, population and the city school system.

They speak of the glories of parks, culture and the arts while the city is sinking. That was the talk in Nero's Rome during the big fire.

Now the Gray allegations present another painful entry in the litany of woes before us. Gray makes us question the honesty of our political system. The League of Women Voters may wonder, but at Johnny's they know.

We don't need electronic voting machines to elect public officials here. We would be better served by IQ tests and lie detectors.

This year, another school levy is being proposed. A tax to build a new convention center may follow. The Gray scandal will make some voters ask why they should vote for these issues when their tax dollars are diverted through payoffs, influence peddling or simple outright theft. You'd think that, one day, the city and county electorate would finally get it. Folks, smile when you see what you have bought with your tax bill.

Take lawyer Ricardo Teamor, for example, who has also been indicted in the scandal. As a former board member of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, Teamor argued that minority contractors were not being served by the community. He'd make an angry speech every time the Port Authority considered awarding a contract.

Of course, not only did Teamor's law firm make millions during the White administration for its work with the city and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, but he also owned a construction company that did business with the city water department.

In a confirmation of his hypocrisy, the FBI named Teamor fugitive of the week in January when federal agents failed to locate him after charging him with helping Gray bribe Cleveland City councilman Joseph Jones.

Teamor was enjoying a vacation in London at the time.

The word around City Hall is that it's a shame that Jones was indicted, too. After two terms in council, he was just grasping the meaning of the term "tax abatement."

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