Most Interesting People 2012: Nailah Byrd

Nailah Byrd

Cuyahoga County inspector general, 39

Nailah Byrd asked for Frank Russo's former office, but she didn't expect what she found there: a damaged wall that had been completely covered by a giant mirror.

The symbolism was perfect. Byrd was walking into the center of the former Cuyahoga County auditor's self-absorbed personality cult, a patronage and bribery machine, a law unto itself. Byrd, the county's first inspector general, is tasked with bringing the opposite to county government: sunlight and transparency, open windows instead of mirrors.

"I think it sends a great message that we're no longer doing business as usual," Byrd says. "We're going to have our chief ethics investigator sitting where Frank Russo sat."

Byrd, a former prosecutor and native New Yorker, is the taxpayer's watchdog at the county building, the enforcer of a new ethics ordinance and an independent investigator of alleged wrongdoing in the government.

If her face looks familiar, it's because Byrd looks a lot like her mother, former Cleveland schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. But Byrd has a different demeanor than her mother's take-charge New Yorker vibe; her crisp, animated voice reflects an excited optimism.

"I like the fact that I really feel like I'm making a difference. I like the fact that I'm part of a change in government," she says.

Byrd started her career as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, working in situations that felt lifted from Law & Order: going out on a homicide call, cross-examining a sex offender in court, going to a women's shelter to convince a domestic violence victim to testify. She loved the job but decided to leave New York after her experience on 9/11.

Byrd was late for a meeting at the World Trade Center with witnesses in a financial-crime case when she saw that the crowd around her on the street was starting to run. She saw one of the smoking twin towers. It looked like it would tilt over. She ran the other way.

"It really made me take stock of my life," she says. "I'm an only child. My mother and I are and were extremely close. I was ready for a change, to see a different part of the world." So she and her now-husband moved here in January 2002. Byrd worked for Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, National City Bank and the U.S. Attorney's office before county executive Ed FitzGerald appointed her inspector general in February.

At first, county employees were friendly to her but nervous. "When I first started, you hear the whispering as you walk down the hallway," she says, and her voice itself drops to a whisper. "Is she the inspector general? What is she going to do? Why is she here?" Still, she says, "I think most are receptive and happy that I am here."

In fact, employees have been a key source of tips to Byrd's office, reporting possible misuses of county resources and time, conflicts of interest and questions about how other employees got their jobs. Tips also come from a whistle-blower hotline and a "report a concern" form on her office's website. Byrd and her staff of five investigate and report results to FitzGerald, department heads and other authorities. In September, a high-ranking clerk of courts employee was fired after Byrd's office investigated an accusation of stealing.

Byrd says her mother, now a consultant for school districts throughout the country, has given her simple advice for dealing with her high-profile position: "Just do good work, and do what's right, and you'll be fine."

Most Interesting ... Government Scandals

Byrd shares three with us.

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