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Bribe Club 

Houston officials seem honest and forthcoming. What's up with that?

The first rule of Bribe Club: Do not talk about Bribe Club.

The second rule of Bribe Club: Do not hold press conferences about Bribe Club.

Some Texans caught up in the interstate Nate Gray scandal don't seem to understand these basic rules.

For those of you yet to be bribed by Gray, here's the recap: The Cleveland parking-lot magnate/consultant is at the center of a nationwide corruption case. Thus far, the feds have hit East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor, Cleveland Councilman Joe Jones, and ex-Cleveland parks director Oliver Spellman, who was chief of staff under former Houston Mayor Lee Brown.

But weirdly enough, Houston seems to believe that public records are actually public. So the city released copies of a federal subpoena seeking info on Spellman, and Mayor Bill White held a press conference. White's spokesman, Frank Michel, said the city was merely practicing a foreign concept called "good government."

This was met by befuddlement in Cleveland, where we prefer to practice the Libyan style of government. U.S. prosecutors here weren't the least bit happy. They sent a letter to White squawking about the public announcements, contending that he was compromising their investigation.

At which point the mayor's office released the letter complaining about the leak. "Ohio prosecutors angry with mayor," read the headline in the Houston Chronicle.

Michel used a novel approach to defend Houston's actions, employing ideas alien to Northeast Ohio. "Our interest is to get to the bottom of any wrongdoing and to be as transparent as we possibly can with the citizens and try to keep their confidence in the city," he said.

What? Confidence in the city? Speak American, Boris.

To prove his point, Michel faxed Punch the documents the same day.

Our only question: Who does Punch have to pay off to get that kind of service in Cleveland?

Bribe club: the sequel
Federal investigations were also the height of fashion in Columbus this year. Without a personalized Justice Department subpoena, you couldn't get near the best tables in the Statehouse cafeteria.

But when Speaker Larry Householder and Treasurer Joe Deters were forced to resign amid campaign-finance scandals, legislators vowed to enact reforms, lest they find themselves holding caucus meetings at a secure location in Lucasville.

The result, Senate Bill 1, bans a form of money-laundering popularized by Householder, who banked donations in obscure accounts, then divvied it up among cronies. But the bright side is that large contributors will now be able to bribe candidates directly, without having to deal with pesky indictments.

The bill quadruples the maximum people can give to politicians, from $2,500 to $10,000. And since rich guys routinely donate through spouses, children, cousins, and assorted hangers-on, one person could easily direct $100,000 to a single state rep. "This is designed to help a very small number of very wealthy people," says John Ryan, head of the Cleveland AFL-CIO.

Sadly, the bill also allows corporations to give directly to parties, which could prompt severe layoffs in the bagman industry.

"This is jaw-droppingly stupid," says Catherine Turcer, lobbyist for Ohio Citizen Action, a government watchdog group. "It doesn't address any of the problems we've had that caused the need for reform. In fact, it just makes it worse."

The Scott Peterson model
Ohio Secretary of State Uncle Tom Blackwell is calling for a Taxpayer Bill of Rights. If it's enacted, a tax hike would require a two-thirds majority in the state legislature or, in the case of local levies, a public vote.

The measure would also peg the increases to population growth, guaranteeing that no one in Ohio could ever raise taxes again.

Blackwell's plan is based on similar laws in other states, like Colorado. But that's like holding up Scott Peterson as a model for parenting.

In Colorado, the legislature has been forced to cut Medicaid services for legal immigrants and eliminate health care for those notorious freeloaders, pregnant women.

Next year, with the state facing another $265 million in cuts, Colorado will still have to dole out $400 million in tax refunds. Legislators plan to sell all state computers at a garage sale to make up the difference. Workers will henceforth conduct business on the backs of matchbooks scrounged from Denver bars.

Yet Blackwell's idea may have an unintended upside. Colorado Republicans have so screwed the mountain paradise that in November voters gave both houses of the state legislature to Democrats -- for the first time in 46 years.

While Democrats in Ohio would be too incompetent to capitalize on Blackwell's blunder, it may allow us to finally secede to Pennsylvania. That's something we can all rally around.

Green Christmas
The hottest ticket in town this holiday season: The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad's Polar Express kiddy train ride.

Ducats for the insanely popular event -- sold months in advance through a lottery for $17.50 each -- were fetching serious cheese on eBay this month. A seller in Maple Heights got $227.50 for a pair. Someone in Akron got $520 for four. That's $130 each.

The breakdown, for those of you scoring at home:

Two-hour train ride in the dark: $60.

Undramatic reading of a story your kids have already heard: $25.

One minute of face time with the Claus: $45.

Realizing you can scam some other poor sap next year: priceless.

Round ballers
In only its second season at the Gund, the Cavalier Girls dance team has become a highlight of the Jim Paxson era. By February, there'll be some eye candy for the ladies too: The club plans to unveil "Beefcake on the Lake," an all-male dance team.

"The caveat to it is that it's not necessarily men who are good dancers," offers Cavs marketing VP Tracy Marek. And not necessarily good-looking, either. "It's about men who know how to have fun and maybe can be a bit more Chris Farleyesque than Baryshnikov."

The only requirements outlined on a flier for January auditions: "extraordinary personalities and waistlines."

So far there are no rules against fraternizing with players, as there are for the Cavalier Girls. "We've been more concerned that our men make it to the buffet," Marek says.

Prance in the woods
Though Ohio stopped homos from committing wedded bliss, there is no time to rest, lest we become a really polluted version of San Francisco.

That's why park rangers "posing" as gays arrested 14 men on public indecency charges during a three-day sting at Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville.

Gay activists say the raids are discriminatory and probably illegal, owing to a little thing called "entrapment." To make the arrests, rangers don Diesels and stroll the park. When they spot a hiker in $200 shoes, they flirt their asses off. If, for the first time in said ranger's adult life, his pick-up line actually works and the target exposes himself -- bam! -- he reads the cruiser his rights.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources denies targeting gays. There are simply fewer complaints of breeder frolicking, says spokeswoman Jane Beathard.

Nor is it entrapment, she adds. The officers are careful never to ask their targets to commit a crime. And to be safe, the department videotapes or records arrests. These are used as evidence -- and, Punch suspects, so rangers can watch their performances over and over again. You know, for training.

Angioplasty, anyone?
Morgan Spurlock's documentary Super Size Me chronicled his month-long McDonald's-only diet, which inflated his gut and turned his liver to paté. So consider him quite a fan of the Cleveland Clinic's Dr. Toby Cosgrove.

The good doctor has been on a mission to boot McDonald's from the clinic premises. After all, its presence looks suspiciously as if the clinic is trying to create new business for angioplasty surgeons. Mickey D's says it ain't budgin'.

Spurlock has been following the skirmish closely.

"I think [the Cleveland Clinic] is setting the precedent for hospitals nationwide," Spurlock tells Punch. "I really applaud Dr. Cosgrove for standing up to them. I'm a big fan of his now. It will affect [McDonald's] and set a nationwide precedent that needs to happen.

"I mean, what is the basic precept of the Hippocratic oath? It's 'First, do no harm' . . . And finally, here are some doctors who are honoring that."

Draining a case
Case Western Reserve, the school that gave us the "Keg Wrap" thermonuclear beer cooler, has now pioneered the antidote to that blessed invention: Recovery House.

The university-owned duplex houses substance-abusing students at a safe distance from the various enjoyable elements of campus life. The house recently completed its first semester of sober reflection. The tally so far: No keggers, no bongs, no arrests -- just five students trying to leave behind the weapons-grade partying of their high-school years.

"We have a fairly well-represented list of substances we're trying to fight against, and this house is doing a good job," says Dr. Jes Sellers, a Case counselor and co-founder of Recovery House. "We're not without struggles for sobriety and relapse, but we're going to continue to run this."

Porker parade
The line of roughly 600 people stretched from inside Harpo's in Brook Park and looped around the shopping center. They arrived to audition for NBC's reality hit, The Biggest Loser, in which fat people lose weight for the entertainment of viewers nationwide.

Contestants came from as far away as Phoenix, but there were also homers from Brook Park. "Which means," one woman explains, "that if the directors want to see me again, I could, like, run back over" -- except that "on principle, I do not run."

Friends have told Shari Nagy, a chunky-haired woman from Columbus, that she "could be a real hottie" if she lost some weight. As she awaits her audition, she makes repeated trips to the grocery store next door to buy "sandwiches and such."

Inside the bar, Kelly Koren, a cheerful 28-year-old, explains to directors that in high school she was a svelte cheerleader, but her weight started expanding due to a "tragic mopping accident," whereby she tore her ACL and was incapacitated for months. "It was all downhill after that."

A few women confess that they've spent the past few hours sizing up their competition. One concludes that her "weight is right in the middle of the pack. But it doesn't really matter, because one of the girls on the last season was only 175 pounds."

"A hundred seventy-five?" responds Natalie Myers. "That's like the weight of one of my legs."

Others complain about NBC being cheap. "You'd think with a line of fat people, they'd at least offer up donuts," one woman laments. "This is torture."

But others came prepared. Shalese Henderson, a geologist from Georgia, tells casting directors that she is "too fabulous to be this big," then offers them a Krispy Kreme at the end of the interview.

Randy Bernstein, a muscular, expensively dressed L.A. director, wrinkles his nose at the offending pastry. "You know you're auditioning for a show about weight loss," he scolds.

"But we haven't started shooting yet," Henderson shrugs, and bites into the donut.

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