Clevelanders have become jaded toward our private and public officials' moral and ethical deviations, to say nothing of their outright criminality. We shrug and smirk with a callous cynicism and accept this behavior as the norm.
Nobody does this better than I do. After decades of covering the city, I thought my degree of cynicism boundless. And then Jacqueline K. Middleton, the former president and CEO of the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland, a woman making a six-figure salary, was charged by federal authorities in a kickback scheme.
I was dumbstruck by this revelation for several reasons. For one, Middleton administered the Head Start program in 16 centers throughout the city and suburbs. The federal education program prepares young children from low-income families for school.
Education is the single most important issue in the inner city, and this incident cast a stigma on the dedication toward that improvement, reducing it to little more than lip service. The frauds perpetrated by people such as Nate Gray, Frank Russo and Jimmy Dimora dealt with money. Middleton's behavior influenced the future of children.
Despite her lucrative salary, Middleton devised a kickback scheme with contractors who provided services to the nonprofit she headed — including classroom renovations — in return for more than $23,000 in cash, home renovations and other items of value.
Worse than the theft, to which she pleaded guilty this September, is that Middleton operated the organization for a decade after she was criticized for spending lavishly on trips and expenses. For much of that time, the program she was charged with administering was failing to enroll enough children to take advantage of the allotted federal funds. Meanwhile, her board of directors — some of the best names in the community — looked on.
In 2005, Middleton alarmed public officials with her spending habits and high salary. At one point, before the federal government intervened, she was making $243,929 in salary and benefits — $100,000 more than the average Head Start leader in Ohio and $88,000 more than the average for elsewhere in the country. She once cut the salaries of her teachers and administrators when the agency faced a budget crunch, partially caused by her overspending. She also spent $50,000 of public money at a conference in Las Vegas, where she entertained 13 employees.
So in 2005, then-county commissioner Tim Hagan did something unusual. He called for Middleton's resignation. So did then-mayor Jane Campbell and The Plain Dealer. Middleton refused. She was well connected in the close-knit black political community, which became her enabler. Amid government scrutiny of Middleton's spending in 2005, the late U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones called a press conference to defend and praise her.
Hagan took a new tack and appointed George Forbes, the scion of local black politics, as chairman of the nonprofit. The idea was that Forbes would monitor Middleton.
For decades, a tight triumvirate had led Cleveland's black political community, often putting race ahead of other considerations, such as in their opposition to Cuyahoga County reform. The late Arnold Pinkney, former U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes and Forbes, who served for years as the City Council president, emerged from the civil rights era of the 1960s and consolidated power among themselves. They have been criticized for not sharing it with younger generations.
Middleton's actions were a severe blow to these aging political leaders. Education is a sensitive and painful issue in the black community. It was a major focus of the civil rights movement here and unleashed bitterness and confrontation over busing and the city's stark divisions. I witnessed the turmoil of that era, and I view the Middleton case as a repudiation of that community's sacrifice. It is fuel for malingering racism. It also raises a legitimate question about the responsibility of black political leadership.
The Council for Economic Opportunities, founded in 1964 to administer President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty programs in Cleveland, is responsible to the federal government and the community as a whole. But the composition of its board of directors shows that Cleveland's black political leadership has long taken a special interest in it. With oversight power comes accountability.
Forbes and the organization's board finally forced Middleton to resign in April, but only after news of the federal investigation of Middleton broke. One afternoon in May, I had lunch with Forbes. I told him of my feelings and said that the incident shamed the black political community.
He was silent for a moment, and then said that nobody knew it better than he did. Middleton had lied to him about the nature of the federal investigation.
This August, after Middleton's indictment, Forbes refused to provide newspaper reporters with information showing the progress of the Head Start program. Figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that the program here was regressing: For 13 consecutive months in late 2013 and 2014, it failed to meet its enrollment goals.
The real question is why Middleton was allowed to maintain this position for so long. Plain Dealer editorials called for her dismissal 10 times. Middleton, 69, is not a college graduate and managed a program that averaged a $50 million annual budget. She hired friends and relatives and paid them six-figure salaries. One woman, employed as the vice president of information technology, was a French major in college. Middleton hired the woman's husband as well.
Because Middleton was allowed to stay for years, the incident underscores a need for new leadership in the black community.
Many blacks have prospered and moved into the middle class since those tempestuous days of the 1960s. But much of the black suburban middle class is alienated from the city's political leadership and therefore plays little role in fashioning a vision for an urban future. In my conversations with black political leaders over the years, including Forbes, I have often heard laments that many blacks educated in the wake of the civil rights movement have not returned to their old neighborhoods to assume leadership roles.
Meanwhile, the black political establishment is dedicated to the status quo as a means to preserving power. The solidarity and nepotism involved in this system is what kept Middleton in office. Her lack of responsibility unmasked and betrayed that system.
I asked U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, who is on the House subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, whether she might pursue an inquiry as to why the government agency tolerated a decade of Middleton's leadership.
"It is apparent that transparency and open communication [must] be improved," Fudge says. "It is absolutely critical going forward." She notes that steps are underway to reform the organization. Forbes has set up a search committee to find new leadership.
Frank Jackson has cast himself as the education mayor, urging city residents to pass another tax for his school reform. But when I queried City Hall on Head Start, there was no response. If the education mayor can't or won't speak out about the Middleton scandal, his silence is deafening.