The Perception Question

This month marks a year in office for Mayor Frank Jackson.
But should his involvement in and silence about recent public missteps, including the CMHA land deal in his former ward, have us concerned about his administration’s image?
Politics is about perception.

Take U.S. Senator George Voinovich, for example. Until recently, he had carefully created the wholesome image of a public official who balanced the budget, ate apple pie and stood staunchly against vices such as gambling.

Then it was revealed that as Ohio governor, Voinovich bet on a new Bureau of Workers’ Compensation program that cost taxpayers $1.5 billion, enriched his political contributors, corrupted the Republican Party, all but swept the GOP out of statewide office and resulted in the conviction of its key fund-raiser, Tom Noe.

For the voter, it was the classic case of stark reality trumping political perception.

Another politician whose easy-going image is due for an ambush makeover is Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora.

He presided over the purchase of polluted land for the new Juvenile Court on East 93rd Street. In the deal, a subsidiary of Forest City Enterprises paid the county $383,571 for the land and then sold it back for $2.7 million. The county’s appraiser was told the company had spent more than $2 million cleaning up the property. Yet the county later had to pay an additional $10 million for cleanup.

When reporters recently asked Dimora why such a huge expenditure of public money was spent on land suspected of containing cancer-causing chemicals, he had no comment.

These days, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson appears to have no feel for political perception either. He either does not care how he is perceived, or he is so deep in denial over the city’s condition that he can no longer reason, or maybe worse.

It was puzzling when Jackson refused to release a report that Mayor Jane Campbell ordered, regarding the composition of minority companies doing business with the city. This came in the wake of the Nate Gray scandal, in which numerous companies were found to have kicked back monies for government contracts.

Campbell’s request was framed in a politically beneficial way in order to attract more black votes: She asked whether these minority companies were fronts for white businessmen. Regardless, it was the right thing to do, seeing that the Gray trials had exposed a culture of corruption in City Hall during the Mike White administration. Certainly, Campbell’s was the only local government reaction to the criminal revelations.

The official who should have reacted with alacrity was Cuyahoga County prosecutor Bill Mason, who let the U.S. Attorney’s Office take the case while he stood aside.

The federal prosecution of Nate Gray left behind countless unanswered questions that led to rampant speculation. It was clear from published reports about government documents that the target of the investigation was Mike White himself. It was also revealed that Gray had a list of clients, most of whom sought government business. And while Gray is in jail, many of those companies are still operating.

In recent years, the biggest local opportunity for government contracts has been the Cleveland Municipal School District, where a $1.5 billion construction project had been launched with state money and a local bond issue. Little has been written about the construction project.

Gray wielded such clout in the White administration that he was part of a group of six to eight community leaders who met with Barbara Byrd-Bennett before she was hired as schools CEO. (Byrd-Bennett acknowledges the meeting, but says Gray never spoke with her about district business after she was hired.)

Federal investigators looked into whether Gray was trying to use bribes in 2001 to secure wireless technology contracts with the Cleveland schools, according to published reports. But information about that part of the probe has not been made available in any detail.

That is why the county prosecutor should be anxious to match Gray’s clients with those companies investigated in the Campbell report.

On the face of it, Jackson’s refusal to release the report last February made no sense. His administration argued that it was only a preliminary report and that the investigation was ongoing — but now almost a year has gone by with no new information and no prosecutions.

Any thoughtful politician would want to distance himself from a scandal that had haunted City Hall.

Here is where Jackson’s lack of disclosure begins to build a troubling perception.

Jackson has always been a supporter of Mike White. He met with White to seek his blessing in his campaign for mayor.
He has retained various former White officials.

Plus, Jackson’s brother, Nick, who worked in several positions in the White administration, is deputy chief of business operations for the school system; it was his job to monitor the construction progress and report to a bond accountability committee created to act as a watchdog to the project.

In a recent article on Nick Jackson in Scene, the alternative weekly, reporter Lisa Rab quoted sources as saying that he failed in his duties to report construction progress to the bond commission, leaving the vast project under questionable monitoring.

Under these circumstances, the Campbell report takes on new importance. Reporters could not only compare it to the Nate Gray client list, but also compare it to companies involved in the schools’ construction project.

Meanwhile, in what at first appeared to be an unrelated story, The Plain Dealer revealed in October that developer Todd Davis had received $4.7 million in public money to clean up a vacant piece of land on the East Side. He received the public funds, the PD reported, because he promised to build an industrial park that would bring 100 jobs to the area.

Instead, Davis sold the land to the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority for $4.2 million and no new jobs, reaping a profit of $3.6 million. (A spokesman for Davis questioned the manner in which the PD reported these facts.)

Ironically, part of the appraisal of Davis’ land was based on the questionable Forest City land deal approved by the county commissioners.

Frank Jackson, as City Council president, co-sponsored the legislation allowing Davis to sell the land, which is in his ward, to CMHA. At first, Jackson refused to discuss the matter. Then, a few days later, he criticized the deal and said he had been too busy with his campaign for mayor to pay attention to the legislation. It was an incredible set of responses. A few days later, Davis disputed Jackson’s story, further damaging the mayor’s credibility.

It is a tradition at City Hall that nothing occurs in a ward without a councilman’s approval. The CHMA legislation went through all the proper hearings and approvals, a lengthy and transparent process.

Alarmingly, both Davis and CMHA have been tangentially linked to Nate Gray. Davis’ company paid Gray a finder’s fee for a project in North Randall in 2001, a spokesman for Davis acknowledges. And in 2003, federal investigators probed whether Gray had any business dealings with CMHA, listing the housing authority on a subpoena demanding business records from Gray’s company. Attorney Ricardo Teamor, who confessed to being Gray’s partner in some of his local schemes, served for years as CMHA’s counsel.

A CMHA official says no contract between the organization and Gray could be found, though it would continue to search. The spokesman for Davis says Gray had no involvement in the CMHA deal. Davis maintains he did nothing wrong and has asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate the deal.

The unreleased report on city contractors, the loosely run billion-dollar school construction program, the CMHA land deal and Mayor Jackson’s ties to each create a perception that the city cannot afford.

A suburban mayor considering Mayor Jackson’s proposal to take over the maintenance of the water system in return for not poaching on businesses operating in Cleveland has to wonder whether the deal will provide even more work for contractors linked in the past to questionable practices.

After all, the city of Cleveland Division of Water dealt with some of Nate Gray’s clients and was listed in the FBI’s 2003 subpoena.

These days suburban taxpayers are picking up more and more of the cost to support a poor city with no leadership.
There is no apparent accountability for their tax money. No one has yet to figure out the total cost of Cleveland Browns Stadium, nearly a decade after it was built. Cleveland has already been cited as the poorest city in America and one of the most dangerous. It may very well be perceived as among the most corrupt. 
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