Office Politics

John T. Corrigan wasn't perfect, but he would've raged at his successors' failure to stop corruption. Voters should demand more from the candidates on March 6.

It is strange that the statue of the late Cuyahoga County Prosecutor John T. Corrigan in the park across from the Justice Center has yet to come alive with wrath. The failure of Corrigan's former office to prosecute government corruption over the past two decades is enough to make the bronze cry out in anger. I wouldn't want to be there for the diatribe.

John T.'s idea of justice, as much from the gut as by the book, made him a controversial figure in his time. But despite his faults, Corrigan would have been enraged at what has passed for government here since his retirement in 1991. Chances are, with Corrigan in office, corruption never would have become the epidemic it did.

Watching the candidates for county prosecutor in the March 6 primary, I don't sense enough outrage over what has transpired. Most of them avoid focusing on corruption. It should be the key issue in the race, even more than the administration of the office or pledges to abolish politics from it.

County prosecutors Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who died in 2008, and Bill Mason showed little effort in protecting citizens from the errant public officials who danced through City Hall and the county building in a festival of fraud. The prosecutor's office should have played a role in making public officials fearful of wrongdoing.

Instead, history shows the office enabled it. Prosecutors abandoned responsibility, complaining they did not have the resources to investigate crimes of public corruption. The truth is, they never tried, because it would have been a threat to the local Democratic Party, which had become little more than a job shop.

The top candidates to replace Mason — James McDonnell, Tim McGinty, Subodh Chandra and Bob Triozzi — all have commendable records of public service. They all talk of their concern for public safety and claim they'll purge politics from the office.

Chandra is actively campaigning on a promise to establish a public integrity section in the office to watch for abuse by government officials. McDonnell has said that the office simply does not have the resources to maintain such vigilance. McGinty and Triozzi, while abhorring the corruption, don't offer any dramatic plans to combat it.

Of the four, McGinty is the best known. He served under Corrigan in the prosecutor's office before becoming a judge. McDonnell has campaigned the longest. Chandra has experience and has framed the corruption issue well. Triozzi is the most temperate of the four, stressing integrity and fairness.

Because the scandal reached the highest levels of the Democratic Party, most of the candidates seem to be trying not to come down too hard on their own. The party itself showed its uncertainty by failing to endorse a candidate. As usual, no real opposition from the Republicans has surfaced.

It's the first prosecutor's race with no incumbent since 1956, the year Corrigan was elected. A World War II veteran who lost an eye in the Battle of the Bulge, Corrigan had a stern, narrow view of law and order. Despite Cleveland's 216 years of history, we have few statues dedicated to public officials. The fact there is one of Corrigan in Huntington Park speaks to his service.

Corrigan prosecuted city councilmen and county judges. He even sent his former law partner to jail. In 1978, he charged city council president George Forbes with accepting bribes from a traveling carnival. The city's establishment backed Forbes, who was found not guilty. The trial left Corrigan bitter; he felt it was a miscarriage of justice.

Despite the statue, Corrigan was not loved by all. Even today, some in the minority community consider him a racist for his aggressive prosecution of black activists after the Hough and Glenville race riots.

When Corrigan retired in 1991, the Democratic Party selected Stephanie Tubbs Jones to finish his term. Tubbs Jones was a rising political star and the county's first black prosecutor. She owed her appointment in part to party leaders who were trying to address the racial complaints about the office.

Tubbs Jones became prosecutor during Mayor Mike White's first term and remained in the job until elected to Congress in 1998. During that time, frequent newspaper articles hinted that all was not well at City Hall. Her office appeared clueless. But federal officials could read and investigated. They found that during the White administration, the mayor's best friend, Nate Gray, banked more than $13 million, most of it unreported to the IRS. Years later, federal prosecutors charged Gray with bribing public officials. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

When county auditor Frank Russo was caught using employees for campaign purposes in 1998, Tubbs Jones allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. A felony conviction in the case would have forced Russo from office. Instead, he remained auditor for another 12 years, until he pleaded guilty to 21 counts of bribery and fraud, having made a mockery of public office.

Mason, appointed by the party to replace Tubbs Jones and elected to three terms, brought the office to new lows. He's the subject of an unresolved ethics probe over $90,000 in printing work given to a company co-owned by a business partner. He received thousands of dollars in campaign funds from several figures now charged or convicted in the biggest public corruption case in Cuyahoga County's history. He stood on the sidelines during that investigation. Newspaper articles openly questioned how Mason could not have known about Russo's corruption of the county's political system. Federal prosecutors did not tell Mason they were working on the case until the FBI raided the county building. He leaves office with a marginal reputation.

So later this year, a new prosecutor, probably a Democrat, supported by the same party faithful who brought you Dimora, Russo and company, will take over an office smeared by politics, held in disdain by federal authorities and diminished in the public's eyes. What I fear is how Cuyahoga County's self-serving political culture will influence the winner. And we worry whether the Cleveland Browns can be fixed.

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