At 31 years old, Bill Mason was already a rising star in local legal circles, an assistant county prosecutor known for his aggressiveness in the courtroom. but he still had a thing or two to learn about politics.
In 1991, Mason's boss, County Prosecutor John T. Corrigan, was bowing out after 34 years. His son Michael and former judge Stephanie Tubbs-Jones were vying for an appointment to the unfinished term. Mason traveled the West Side to rally support for the younger Corrigan. He visited Democratic committee members at their homes, with an entourage of Irish-American compatriots, and asked them to sign written promises to lend their support.
Tubbs-Jones was backed by Benny Bonanno, the Cleveland clerk of courts. Mason had known Bonanno for years; Bonanno had wrestled with Mason's older brother in high school, and he'd given an 18-year-old Bill Mason his first taste of politics as a campaign volunteer. But in '91, it was every man for himself. Bonanno had years of experience cultivating Democratic ward leaders and knew that once you had their support for endorsements and appointments, the precinct committee members would follow. He outmaneuvered Mason, and Tubbs-Jones won the job.
"It was a classic battle," says Bonanno, who still considers himself a friend to Mason. "It was great. It's one people still talk about. And that's how Billy learned how the system works. He's the kind of guy who doesn't sulk. He learns from defeat."
Indeed, it seems to have been a defining moment in Mason's political trajectory. Since then he has built not just a career - rising from Parma City Council member to Parma law director to county prosecutor - but a network of supporters and allies. He is now widely considered as influential as county party boss Jimmy Dimora, perhaps more so since Dimora became a target of a federal investigation in July.
Up for reelection on November 4, the 49-year-old Mason will face a respected Republican opponent in Annette Butler, a former federal prosecutor. But Cuyahoga County is still a Democratic stronghold. Mason ignored an invitation to debate Butler until after a recent Scene article called him on the dodge, and he has not had to dig deep into his half-million-dollar campaign war chest.
It's been a long road from 1991, when Mason was schooled by the machine, to today, when the still-ascending party animal is the proud sponsor of a Parma kids football team whose jerseys bear the name "Mason's Mean Machine."
Bill Mason sits on the county's Justice System Reform governing board and chairs the initiative's most influential committee, the Agency Council, which is charged with recommending solutions to the "highest-priority justice system problems." "Highest priority" has so far been determined by Mason, observed a recent JSR status report.
At a board meeting last month, Mason made brief opening remarks. "In the long term, this will be a legacy for everyone in this room," he told the group, a collection of heavy-hitters including County Commissioner Tim Hagan and Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath. "It will amount to monumental change."
In 2004, Mason helped usher in a reform-minded era for the county's criminal-justice system. A detailed study, commissioned by the county at Mason's behest, was completed in May 2005 by the Justice Management Institute, a non-profit whose mission is to help local governments improve the administration of justice. The report identified a slew of problems with Cuyahoga County's criminal-justice system and made 36 recommendations. As a result, the county created the Justice System Reform boards and councils.
The most significant reforms to date are related to felony case processing. Mason's office has been working closely with local courts and police departments in Cleveland, Lakewood, Shaker Heights and Parma to speed up justice. Felony defendants from those municipalities are transferred immediately to county court, where county prosecutors file the charges and prepare cases. Police use e-mail and fax to transmit crime reports within 48 hours. Called "Expedited Case Management," this pilot project has seen defendants' first court hearings occur within five days of arrest, versus five or six weeks. This, in turn, has led to lower average stays in jail.
Mason trumpets these accomplishments on his reelection website: "The reform is using technology to make the criminal-justice system more efficient, thereby reducing costs and ultimately saving taxpayer dollars." Yet these developments, however laudable, tell only part of the story. Some observers - judges, lawyers, community leaders - also notice what Mason has either failed or declined to address. Still others describe him as a relentless self-promoter who can seem more concerned with his image and advancement than with justice.
Mason's wife, in a 1999 Plain Dealer profile, said, "He has a sickness. It's called politics. It drives him." This drive has earned Mason a power that makes him both respected and feared. Many who were contacted for this article declined to be interviewed and were blunt in stating that they worried about retribution from Mason. Apparently, Mason doesn't mind having that reputation. At least two prominent members of the legal community were contacted by Mason and chastised because the prosecutor thought they'd spoken to reporters for this story.
For all his self-possession, however, Mason refused to be interviewed, offering the surprisingly weak excuse that Scene was speaking to criminal defense attorneys with "agendas" - a sign of Scene's "animus." Imagine the Browns' Derek Anderson refusing to speak to sports reporters who also interviewed opposing defensive players. No amount of assurance, relayed through Mason's spokesman, that Scene's goal was to be thorough would change his mind.
"I don't have to do it," Mason said when approached by Scene reporters after a public meeting. "When I know that it's a hit piece, I'm not going to participate."
Barrel-chested with a rugged, rectangular face, county Prosecutor William David Mason looks the part. Add a fedora and he could pass for a gumshoe out of an old noir movie.
Bill Mason was the 10th of 16 children of a construction worker and nurse. They made their home in Parma, a working-class suburb of mostly Irish and Polish immigrants. Mason wrestled at both Parma High School and Kent State University, where he roomed with future Cuyahoga County Recorder Patrick O'Malley. He graduated college in 1982.
After Kent, Mason went on to the University of Toledo's College of Law then transferred to Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. He clerked for the Ravenna public defender's office and a Cleveland law firm. An early résumé found in his personnel file indicates that, as of September 1985, he was working as an assistant prosecutor in Lakewood, but he did not graduate from law school until '86.
After graduating, Mason joined Kitchen, Messner and Deery, a private practice just setting up in Cleveland. He left in 1987 to become an assistant prosecutor under John T. Corrigan. Mason started working child support cases in juvenile court, in typical fashion for new APAs. By early 1990, according to personnel records, he was listed as a "good candidate for major trial [unit]" - the coveted tier of elite attorneys who handle the most complex and monstrous crimes.
Supervisor evaluations describe him as meticulous and hardworking. One, from June 1988, reads, "Bill handles his workload independently and is not afraid to 'take charge' of a situation." From 1989: "Bill … is looked upon by the other prosecutors as a leader and one who can be asked for advice." In 1992, Mason left the county prosecutor's office after winning a seat on Parma's City Council and started his own law practice. By this time, he'd already been working to help friends and associates win precinct committee posts. The following year, in 1993, precinct leaders appointed him Parma's law director.
Mason also cultivated allies, like old college friend O'Malley and Thomas Coyne, then mayor of Brook Park. They called themselves D-2000, or D2K, and their goal was to help each other win county offices by the year 2000. Throughout the '90s, D2K met regularly to discuss which candidates they wanted to endorse. They backed judges and suburban mayors, helping many get elected. And they continued to focus on the cogs in the machinery of county politics - Democratic ward leaders and precinct committee people.
D2K's work paid off. In 1997, O'Malley was appointed county recorder. In 1998, D2K helped overthrow incumbent State Rep. Ronald Mottl by backing Dean DePiero, a young law clerk who'd worked with Mason when he was Parma's law director. (DePiero is now Parma's mayor.) That same year, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones' resignation from the prosecutor's office became a foregone conclusion, and Mason set his sights on her unfinished term. It would be a lengthy appointment, two whole years before the next election. All Mason had to do was convince ward leaders that he was the man for the job. During the campaign, Mason bragged of "owning" at least 40 ward leaders (of about 60 at the time), according to The Plain Dealer.
Other challengers included Steve Dever, an assistant prosecutor under Tubbs-Jones and a Rocky River ward leader. At a candidates' forum, Dever proposed a community-based prosecution unit that would be the first of its kind in the state. The plan called for prosecutors to be shifted from downtown offices into neighborhoods, where they would look for crime trends, attend to community concerns and build trust.
Mason proposed giving victims personal-identification numbers so that they could better track their cases. It wasn't an original idea - 60 Ohio counties already had similar systems. Mason also shrewdly embraced Dever's community-based prosecution strategy and announced that, if elected, he'd put Dever in charge of it.
Dever eventually dropped out of the race and Mason easily beat out the remaining candidates, riding the support of his committee members to become county prosecutor in January 1999. Six months later, he opened the first community-based prosecution office in East Cleveland. He has since expanded the program to five of Cleveland's police districts. Dever, meanwhile, moved quickly up the ranks and is today Mason's chief trial attorney.
Several county judges mention Mason's community-based prosecution programs as accomplishments, along with two others: Early Intervention and Diversion. Early Intervention was created in the late 1980s and is today very much under the control of the prosecutor's office, according to judges. It deals mostly with first-time offenders who plead guilty to drug felonies. If they enter a supervised program and stay clean for 12 months, charges are dropped and their cases dismissed. In 2007, according to Mason's office, 272 people were admitted into the program. No data was provided on how many made it all the way through.
Diversion is for non-drug and non-violent offenses, like theft or scalping. If defendants make restitution, Mason reduces the original felony charges. The goal, as Mason notes on the prosecutor's official website, is to return defendants to the community without a felony record and ease the burdens on the courts and jail.
The internet was still largely uncharted territory, legally, in 2000, when Mason established the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force with the help of U.S. Department of Justice grants. Today, the internet task force is the largest of its kind in the nation, boasting the capture and prosecution of 550 online sexual predators. In 2006, Mason won the U.S. DOJ's first National Internet Crimes Against Children Leadership Award. Mason has also aggressively pursued dead-beat parents. His reelection website claims that in the last nine years, "prosecutions have resulted in collections of over $8.7 million owed to kids."
Getting tough with social pariahs like deadbeat parents and child molesters, while laudable, is a political no-brainer. Pointing that out might seem cynical, if there weren't more blatant examples of Mason's penchant for seeking attention.
As far back as 2002, Mason was being asked - in one case by leaders of the African-American community - to bring his office's power to bear on predatory lending in Cleveland. He seems to have done little until late 2006, when he hired an economic crimes prosecutor and three investigators. The first indictments came down in 2007, when the foreclosure crisis had become one of the biggest stories in the country. That year, Mason joined the state-funded Cuyahoga County Mortgage Fraud Task Force, alongside the Ohio Attorney General and the FBI. He also started holding press conferences and ensured that his actions made headlines in the local newspapers, TV stations and radio broadcasts.
A former colleague still chafes at the way Mason inserted himself into the high-profile redux of the biggest criminal case in county history. In 1954, Bay Village resident Marilyn Sheppard was beaten to death. Her husband, Sam Sheppard, a local osteopath, was the main suspect and convicted later that same year. He appealed and, 10 years later, was found not guilty in a second trial. In 2000, his son sued Cuyahoga County for the wrongful imprisonment of his father.
Mason's top trial attorney, Dever, took the case. Working with Dever was Dean Boland, a young assistant prosecutor and computer whiz who could create new graphics and imagery to wow a jury. Boland says he was the one who figured out, for the first time, what Marilyn Sheppard had been beaten with - a bedside lamp that detectives had failed to notice was missing. Because of his hard work, Dever agreed to let Boland try the case with him. Then Mason abruptly changed the plan.
"Two weeks before the trial, [Mason] decides he wants to try it himself," recalls Boland. "He did the opening and I got relegated to cross-examining one witness."
The grandstanding continued after they won. Boland remembers being at a press conference, seated at a table with Mason and Dever. Mason did all the talking. "And he never thanks anyone else, never mentions our names," says Boland. "That's not political. That's personal. You can imagine how that affected morale in the office."
When Mason found out that Boland was planning to write a book about the case, he called the assistant prosecutor to his office. "I can't believe the disloyalty," scolded Mason, according to Boland. Mason insisted that writing a book could hurt their case on appeal, and he demanded that Boland bring him everything he had on the Sheppard case.
"I was sent back to doing crack cases," says Boland, "and that was the end of that." In 2003, Kent State University Press published Mason's account of the trial.
Boland left the prosecutor's office shortly thereafter and has become one of the nation's leading expert witnesses in digital child-pornography cases. In Ohio and many other states, the prosecution must prove that images are not digitally altered photographs of adults. (Federal prosecutors hinted at this law as one reason they didn't pursue a child-porn-related charge for Pat O'Malley.
Boland's testimony has led to the dismissal of many cases. Mason told The Plain Dealer in 2004 that Boland had "gone to the Dark Side." A few months later, federal agents raided Boland's home and confiscated his computers. Boland believes he was being intimidated by federal prosecutors who feared losing more cases. He has never been indicted for any crime.
Discovery is the sharing of information between parties before a trial. The U.S. Supreme Court declared in the 1960s that defendants are entitled to all exculpatory material but allowed states to write the fine print. Ohio law dictates that prosecutors are to hand over to defense attorneys defendants' statements and any test results that might be used at trial. While the names and addresses of witnesses are to be provided, what they said - witness statements - don't have to be turned over until after the witness testifies at trial.
For decades, Cuyahoga County has leaned even further toward a prosecutorial advantage, resulting in one of the most restrictive discovery policies in the state. While virtually every county nearby engages in some form of "open discovery" - often turning over the complete prosecutor's file - prosecutors here sit with defense attorneys and read to them from the file, while the defense counsel takes notes. This defies the advice of the American Bar Association, which since 1994 has called for "full and free," or "open" discovery.
Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Judge Stuart Friedman has long heard complaints about the county's practice from judges, defense lawyers and even some prosecutors. One common lament is that the delay in witness statements amounts to "trial by ambush." Another is trust. How can defense lawyers be certain that prosecutors didn't omit something crucial to the defense?
Many judges, Friedman says, complain that too many cases with insufficient evidence end up in court, and too many guilty verdicts are sent back or overturned by appeals courts on grounds of evidence withheld or limited discovery.
So, in 2004, Friedman took charge of a judicial committee - with representatives from the county prosecutor, public defender and outside criminal defense bar - to look into the matter. Shortly afterward, Friedman had an action plan.
He was almost immediately stalled by Mason, who approached the judges with another idea. He said he was spearheading a top-to-bottom study of the entire criminal-justice system. Why not wait for its findings first? Friedman and the rest of the county judges agreed.
The restrictive discovery process was among the top concerns noted in "Felony Case Processing Study: Final Report and Recommendations" (the same report that kicked off the Justice System Review process) in May 2005. Open discovery, the report's authors said, would speed up case resolution and ensure a fairer justice system. Friedman was encouraged. "It was the judges' expectation," he says, "that open discovery would be dealt with. But months, years went by and we realized that nothing was being done."
Up until late last year, Mason's second in command, first assistant prosecutor Michael O'Malley (Pat O'Malley's brother), was reciting the most common argument against open discovery: safety. "Can you imagine how much worse it could be for our victims and witnesses if we gave everybody all the details in our files? It's frightening," O'Malley told The Plain Dealer. He failed to mention that, according to Ohio law, judges already have the authority to let prosecutors deny the defense any information that could be used to intimidate or hurt witnesses.
Mona Lynch is a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine. Earlier this year, she studied aspects of Cuyahoga County's criminal-justice system as part of the ACLU's national project on racial disparities in drug arrests. At Scene's request, Lynch also read the 2005 report. She found Mason and JSR's inattention to open discovery surprising.
"It would have been very low cost to implement," says Lynch, "and perhaps provided some cost savings as well. There are important justice and efficiency reasons to have open discovery."
In September, a new committee headed by Judge Friedman proposed another course: Within one week of the first pretrial conference, prosecutors would give defense counsel a "discovery packet" containing all police reports, statements and criminal records of defendants, witnesses names and addresses, and any lab and hospital reports. Prosecutors could decide to redact any information in any of these documents they deemed sensitive. Defense attorneys could still ask a judge to unmask it, after showing "good cause."
That's still not enough prosecutorial advantage for Mason.
A few weeks ago, Mason told Plain Dealer columnist Regina Brett - who's been flogging the prosecutor over open discovery - that he's "not against open discovery" and is working with the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association on a statewide proposition.
For starters, all documents would be made available only electronically. No hard copies. And open discovery, Mason told Brett, would be off the table in cases involving a documented history of threats - or if prosecutors just believe there's a potential for harm (potentially closing the book for defendants accused of domestic violence). Then, Mason said, defense lawyers would have to go to a separate appellate court judge to request open discovery - a possibly prohibitive hurdle.
Defense attorneys would have to engage in equal and reciprocal discovery, Mason told Brett. Under current law, the defense must provide names and addresses of witnesses, any test results performed and documents to be introduced at trial. Mason's added reciprocal discovery burden could be at odds with the constitutional right to not incriminate oneself.
The negative publicity has at least made Mason broach the issue. But why has he waited this long, and why is he not signing on to the county judges' proposal? Judge Friedman shrugs. "Again, I don't know why he has not been on board in doing this himself, which he could have. I'm not trying to find fault. He probably has his reasons. … [But] looking back, I think every day we don't have this discovery in place is a day that's wasted."
In 2000, Human Rights Watch documented just how disproportionately the so-called war on drugs targets African Americans. At that time in Ohio, blacks made up 11 percent of the general population but 70 percent of the prison population. Most were locked up on drug-related charges.
In early 2002, the Rev. Marvin McMickle got to see why. The pastor of Antioch Baptist Church and civil-rights activist spent four months serving as foreman of a Cuyahoga County grand jury, the body that issues felony indictments. He left a troubled man. A majority of the defendants accused of low-level drug felonies were black Clevelanders - and most were addicts, not dealers.
"The grand jury process had an apartheid feel to it," McMickle wrote to Common Pleas Judge Richard McMonagle in February 2002. "I am not condoning drug use, drug possession or drug trafficking," McMickle added, but clearly there was an "established pattern of quick indictment of persons on petty drug offenses. … I believe some review is needed with regard to the amount of possession that requires arrest."
That spring, McMickle and other Cleveland black leaders summoned Bill Mason to a meeting. Plenty of things were ravaging their communities, but one seemed to be within Mason's control. The local NAACP and the United Pastors in Mission, a coalition of inner-city churches, were concerned with the high numbers of felony charges filed for possessing paraphernalia, like syringes, steel wool or crack pipes, with traces of illicit drugs. McMickle and the other pastors wanted to make sure Mason was seeing the entire picture.
"If you get a [fifth-degree] felony at age 20," McMickle told Scene this July, "then 20 years later you're still a felon and maybe you're having a hard time taking care of your family, right? That just perpetuates this cycle." McMickle and the pastors wanted to know: Would Mason tackle the random police sweeps and subsequent charging decisions that were putting so many black Clevelanders on the path of felony convictions?
According to a 2002 Plain Dealer article, Mason promised back then to look for ways to reduce the number of minor drug-possession arrests (dubbed "crack-pipe cases") being charged as felonies. He would go into the community and meet with police officers and municipal judges who were sending these cases to his office and try to find a systematic solution to the pastors' and NAACP's concerns.
It's hard to find evidence that he did any of this.
The number of Cleveland's felony drug-possession arrests has remained steady - 5,500 a year since 2003, nearly 70 percent of the county's total - according to statistics compiled by local and federal agencies.
Mason, in his defense, has said that local police departments and municipal prosecutors send cases to his office already charged as felonies; all he can do is oblige. Yet Ohio law gives county prosecutors the right to alter charges coming from municipalities or dismiss a case entirely. With felony indictments in the county totaling about 16,000 a year, Judge Richard McMonagle believes that, indeed, many low-level drug cases should be misdemeanors from day one.Instead, there's a logjam. Former county judge Peggy Foley Jones, who served until 2005, says Mason's office seldom reduces charges before trial. "That's what's clogging up the system," she says. "You try a crack pipe case for two days." While many such cases are settled during trial, the snowball of court time and costs has already been set in motion.
A reduction in these types of felony cases could hugely impact the administration of the county's criminal-justice system. Grand jury-related costs alone are staggering. Five grand juries (the fifth was added in May 2007) are assembled per week to get through the thousands of felony indictments every year. For the last several years, annual grand jury costs for jurors, court personnel and prosecutors have totaled nearly $1.5 million.
Grand jury foremen reports indicate that the five juries combined hear up to 100 cases a day, sometimes with only minutes to decide the merits. "The volume of cases is unbelievable," says University Heights Mayor Beryl Rothschild, who completed a stint as grand jury forewoman this summer. "I hope justice is being done under these conditions."
Few in the black community believe it is.
Citizens for a Safe and Fair Cleveland was formed in early 2007 to focus on the impact of law enforcement, judicial equity and community relations. James Hardiman, CSFC'S co-chairman and first vice president of the Cleveland NAACP, has called low-level drug arrests charged as felonies "a crisis in our community."
Earlier this year, CSFC partnered with the ACLU, which was already looking at racial disparities in sentencing and drug arrests nationwide. The ACLU has focused on Cuyahoga County, with research conducted by Mona Lynch, the criminology professor from UC, Irvine. Lynch's conclusions were released in July and titled, "Selective Enforcement of Drug Laws in Cuyahoga County." Lynch scrutinized grand jury reports and demographic data to document what many had long suspected: There is a racial - or at least a geographic - disparity in how the county prosecutes drug cases. Cleveland drug suspects are more likely to be charged with felonies in county courts, while suburban counterparts usually face only misdemeanors in municipal courts.
Hardiman asked for meetings with local law enforcement officials to discuss these findings. He and other members of CSFC met earlier this year with representatives from both the county prosecutor's office and city of Cleveland. "[Mason's] people told us, 'We prosecute the felonies as felonies if that's how they come to us,'" Hardiman recalled. They were receptive to suggestions but "pointed the finger at the city." City officials told Hardiman they could consider low-level drug arrests as misdemeanors. But Hardiman says that to date neither Mason nor Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has pursued the matter.
Between 2006 and 2007, Mason sought the death penalty 31 times. Judges or juries rejected him every time. Two defendants were found not guilty, and the rest were sentenced to decades or life in prison. Judges recall only one death sentence in recent memory, from a 2005 indictment.
Mark Stanton is a successful defense attorney in private practice. He was also an assistant prosecutor from 1978 to 1983, under Corrigan. Stanton says that if Mason had pursued just felony aggravated murder charges or - as a plea offer - removed the death penalty stipulation, "many of these defendants might have pleaded to sentences that would have kept them in jail for life," rather than using scarce public resources trying to stay off death row. Each death penalty trial takes weeks longer and costs Cuyahoga County taxpayers about $50,000.
Judge Timothy McMonagle left the county Common Pleas Court in 1995 and returned in 2005. He's noticed a sharp tick upward in the number of death penalty trials under Mason. (The county court administrator's office only started tracking death penalty trials and outcomes in 2006. The number of total trials, however, has increased every year since Mason took office, from just over 500 in 1999 to more than 800 last year.) Many death penalty cases are pleaded out before trial, says McMonagle. But many others are settled during trial, "so far down the line that it would be better bringing them in" as felony murder cases. (The court was unable to provide records of plea agreements before or during a death-penalty trial.)
"The prosecutor should charge [defendants] for what they deserve," says Tim McMonagle. Then, if a defendant asks for an unacceptably low plea, prosecutors should go to trial in full confidence of their original charges. Mason's office, like his predecessors', has a committee to review death-penalty charges. Tim McMonagle says he has no idea what Mason's criteria are, however. "I've never seen his policies on this." At a recent public forum, Mason said he absolutely sees the death penalty as a "deterrent." Asked to cite scientific studies to support this view, Mason said, "When bad guys are out there committing these crimes and they are making the decision whether they're going to shoot or not, they think about [the death penalty]. And I've heard them say that, from some of the police officers investigating."
A review of Mason's staff roster reveals that 49 employees serve as Democratic precinct committee members; five of them are also ward leaders. And Mason busies himself with races across the county, for city councils, mayors and judges, according to campaign finance reports that show him giving abundantly to campaigns. He is not shy about wielding his political power.
In 2006, for example, Mason openly opposed Common Pleas Court Judge Ann Mannen's reelection bid, calling her lazy and soft on criminals. "Anybody else but Mannen is going to be better," he told The Plain Dealer.
Peggy Foley Jones, a Republican, served on the bench for 14 years until losing to Peter Corrigan, a candidate backed by Mason in the 2004 election. (Of the five separate bar associations that make up the Judicial Candidates Rating Coalition, three ranked Jones as "excellent" and two reviewed her as "good" in 2004. All five rated Corrigan "good.") Jones says that many sitting judges find at least an appearance of impropriety in Mason's political behavior. "Mason is in a powerful position in the county Democratic party," she says. "He [influences] who gets endorsements, who gets to run. So that affects judges' thoughts, even if it's just a perception."
Judge Jones recalls how, during the 2004 election, Peter Corrigan showed up at a parade with dozens of assistant prosecutors from Mason's office. "That made me very uncomfortable, especially when these assistant prosecutors would then appear before me in court." (Last week, Mason was accompanied by about a dozen assistant prosecutors wearing green "Mason" T-shirts at the Columbus Day Parade in Little Italy. When asked what kind of message that sends, Mason smiled and said, "Positive.")
Late last year, Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Keough filed to run for one of two county Probate Court seats. Keough told The Plain Dealer that Mason had already lobbied Democratic ward leaders to endorse Thomas O'Donnell for the same seat. After Keough filed, three more women suddenly entered the race, all on the same January day. Keough accused Mason of planting at least two of the women - one of whom was an assistant prosecutor in his office - in an attempt to split the vote based on sex.
According to The Plain Dealer, their petitions of candidacy had been circulated by four people, three of whom were closely connected to Mason. Mason sounded faintly sexist when denying Keough's allegations. "It's like she's lost her mind…" he told The Plain Dealer. "It's like she's snapped." The assistant prosecutor won the March primary.
Former assistant prosecutor Dean Boland put things more directly. If judges or attorneys speak out against Mason's opponents or support the challenger, they're "blacklisted," says Boland. "If a judge doesn't tow the line or if that judge is running against one of Mason's employees in the next election and won't back out, then suddenly, any case in that court will go to trial," says Boland. "If he doesn't like a defense attorney, he won't let his prosecutors make plea deals with them. And when word gets out that that defense attorney can't get his client a deal, he stops making money."
"Mason is at the heart of county Democratic politics," says Chris Link, the executive director of Cleveland's ACLU. "That isn't a good thing because you then don't really have an independent prosecutor. It's very difficult to be critical of people in your own party."
On July 28, nearly 200 agents from the FBI and IRS raided the homes and offices of Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and County Auditor Frank Russo (both Democrats), as well as area construction companies. Three U-Haul trucks were used to cart away documents and other evidence. Agents descended upon the county at 9 a.m. Until then, almost nobody else in Cuyahoga County had any knowledge of the impending raid. Not even Mason. FBI spokesman Scott Wilson told Scene at the time that the county prosecutor was given no advance notice.
Mason's office represents county government officials. In this capacity, Mason's staffers help negotiate contracts and provide legal counsel. Mason is also the county's chief law-enforcement officer, one who often works with state and federal authorities on other investigations. So federal prosecutors could have asked Mason to help procure the documents in question. They could have first served grand jury subpoenas and asked Mason to get Dimora and Russo to comply.
That didn't happen, possibly because the feds were afraid Mason wouldn't be able to control Dimora and Russo's cooperation and that evidence would be destroyed, according to Geoffrey Mearns, a former federal prosecutor who investigated organized crime and public corruption in New York and is now the dean of Cleveland State University's law school.
A few days after Scene first reported this apparent slight, Mason told The Plain Dealer he hadn't been contacted because of conflicts of interest. Even if he had been warned, Mason said, he couldn't have helped because he represents the county and its officials. Mearns too concedes that Mason might cross an ethical line if he goes after suspected criminal activity by elected officials he's lawyered for on the civil side. Should a county prosecutor learn of corruption in higher office, says Mearns, the best route for someone like Mason would be to refer the matter to the state attorney general or FBI.
It's unclear how often Mason has done so, if at all. His seeming reluctance is most plain in the case of Pat O'Malley, the now-disgraced county recorder and Mason's old college buddy and fellow "D2K" schemer. In January, O'Malley was accused of offering an enticement to a political opponent to drop out of the race. The FBI is investigating the matter, but not because Mason first looked into it and passed it on.
More recently, a federal judge sentenced O'Malley to 15 months in prison for internet trafficking of obscene materials. O'Malley also has a history of brawls and his two ex-wives have accused him of domestic violence. Mason, who touts his prosecutions of sex offenders and domestic abusers, didn't alert law-enforcement agencies outside his office.
Mason has brought forward 93 "public-corruption" cases. The majority involve low-level public employees accused of theft, drug possession, rape and other crimes having little or nothing to do with corruption in the typical sense - bribery, contract steering or otherwise using one's position improperly.
After news reports revealed his refusal to debate his opponent at the City Club - he hadn't even responded - Mason finally agreed, and he and Annette Butler met there on Monday. Butler, the unknown Republican, was accompanied by her family. Mason's entourage filled five tables, paid for by his campaign, according to a City Club source. First Assistant Michael O'Malley sat with Chief Trial Attorney Steve Dever. Official spokesman Ryan Miday was there. Dean DePiero dined at a separate table he'd purchased.
During the debate, Mason hardly acknowledged his opponent across the dais or her attacks. He seemed distant, as if going through the motions, aside from when he bristled at a question regarding public corruption. Butler seemed nervous at first but settled down and laid out her views of the county prosecutor's role.
She brought up recent media coverage of racial disparity in crack-pipe cases, and two questions from the audience dealt with the issue. Oddly, Mason's response seemed to suggest that the problem was news to him. "I find it disconcerting to all of us involved in the justice system. I will say this: I will go out and I will ask for funding to look at this issue very strongly, to have it analyzed."
He neglected to mention the studies that have already confirmed the disparity or the fact that local community leaders brought it to his attention six years ago.
Also see Feeding the Machine: A Quick Look at Who Gives To, and Who Benefits From, Bill Mason's Campaign Treasury; and Reform and Consent: When a Judge Tried to Address Drug Case Disparity, Mason Went Ballistic
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.