If you believe a secret affidavit authored by the FBI, the City of Cleveland was open for business during the reign of former Mayor Mike White. And that business was extortion.
The affidavit -- sealed by a federal judge but obtained by Scene -- was written in 2002 by FBI Agent Christine Oliver as part of a wiretap request targeting multiple people. Its 64 pages are loaded with damning allegations against White, contending there's "probable cause" to believe the mayor headed an extortion ring, whereby businesses were forced to pay bribes in exchange for city, school, and airport contracts. It also contains confessions of bribery by Cleveland businessmen.
The FBI asserts White orchestrated the ring with a few close friends, including Nate Gray, Ricardo Teamor, Ralph Sheldon Tyler, and Mohammed Saedi. According to the affidavit, White's underlings would guarantee contracts in exchange for bribes, then kick a percentage back to the mayor.
"The investigation has identified Nathaniel Gray as a 'bag man' for business persons and public officials, including former Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White," wrote Agent Oliver.
Noted one confidential source: It is "well known in the construction community that, if you do not make the necessary payment to Gray, you are not awarded the contract."
Agent Oliver's affidavit quotes only one source saying White was at meetings where payoffs were discussed. Yet the volume of evidence, if true, suggests that Gray -- who never held a city position, but was the best man at two of White's weddings -- could not have operated without the mayor's involvement.
Take the case of a man listed only as Confidential Source 1 (CS-1), described as the owner of a "well-established, minority-owned construction company." The informant did not wish to be identified, the FBI notes, because he feared that it would cost him city business and "may jeopardize the safety of his family."
He admitted to paying Gray approximately $200,000 in bribes for city and airport contracts from 1990 to '96. "Gray told CS-1 that the money CS-1 has paid him will eventually be given to White," Agent Oliver wrote.
The informant added that White was present at meetings during which the informant discussed payoffs with Gray. "CS-1 advised that, at the end of those meetings, White would shake CS-1's hand, which indicated to CS-1 that the contract being negotiated would be awarded to CS-1," says the affidavit. "Following each meeting, the contract in question was awarded to CS-1's company."
The confidential source confessed to bribing Gray in various ways -- sometimes with cash, sometimes by paying bogus consulting fees, and sometimes through "ghost contractors." For one airport contract, the source said, he paid Al Houston Construction $50,000 as a subcontractor, though Houston performed no work.
According to the affidavit, Gray told the source that Ricardo Teamor -- who has served as the attorney for the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and the Port Authority -- instructed him on how to arrange bribes so they would appear to be legitimate payments.
(Houston, who is named in the affidavit as a target of the FBI's investigation, could not be reached for comment. The FBI notes that he listed one of his business addresses as a building in Shaker Heights -- the same address as one of Gray's companies.)
Obviously Gray, who owns a parking lot company and other businesses, had no way to award contracts on his own, since he didn't work for the city. But White did. And Gray's friendship with the mayor gave him access throughout Cleveland government. Unlike most city residents, here was a man who could get his calls returned.
The FBI found it interesting that, from 1996 to 2001, Gray made a whopping 985 calls to scores of city phone numbers. And as soon as White became mayor, Gray mysteriously began depositing large sums of cash.
The FBI's examination of Gray's business accounts found that he made $73,114 in cash deposits in 1988, the year before White was elected. But during White's first year in office, Gray's cash deposits soared to a staggering $1.4 million. Over the next 11 years, they would range from $575,000 to as high as $2.3 million annually. And these figures account only for deposits of more than $10,000, which banks are required to record.
That's because you had to pay if you wanted to play in Cleveland, said Confidential Source 1. He told the FBI, "It is common knowledge amongst companies which have applied for City of Cleveland contracts that they have to pay money to Nathaniel Gray for having those contracts awarded to them," Agent Oliver wrote.
The informant "specifically revealed that Terry Donley, owner of Donley's Inc., told him that he paid Gray for a construction contract at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport garage," the affidavit says.
Donley, of Chagrin Falls, was a major contributor to White's election campaigns, and had won $38.7 million in contracts for the Gateway project. The affidavit notes that there was insufficient corroboration to make Donley a target of the FBI's probe, though the agency planned to investigate him further.
Donley vehemently denies paying kickbacks. "There was never a bribe from Donley's to Nate Gray," he tells Scene. "That's totally wrong. Neither myself or a member of Donley's has ever bribed anyone in our corporate history, which goes back to 1941. But that doesn't mean we haven't been asked. When you're doing business in this industry, there are people who like the easy way."
He adds, however, that "we have never been asked by any city official."
Ralph Sheldon Tyler may have a hard time making the same claim. A prominent engineer and friend of White, Tyler has "received a number of city contracts and has paid Gray for them," the confidential source told the FBI. Tyler is one of the city's larger contractors, having won work for Browns Stadium, Cleveland Public Library, the airport, and the Water Department, among others.
In December, federal prosecutors accused him of funneling cash to Gray in the bribery case of former East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor, who was eventually convicted. Tyler has denied the accusation; he did not respond to Scene's interview requests.
Craig Jones, former owner of All-American Detective Agency, also told the FBI he bribed Gray in exchange for an airport security contract. He admitted to paying $2,000 before receiving the contract, then paid an additional $1 for every hour a guard worked. Gray eventually jacked the payments to $3 an hour.
"Gray also told Jones that the money Jones had to pay Gray 'would be helping the mayor,'" according to the FBI affidavit.
Those claims are supported by Wayne Williams, the owner of a mortgage company who worked on White's first mayoral campaign. He too told the FBI that it was "common knowledge" that businesses had to bribe Gray for city contracts. Williams described Gray as White's "bag man," noting that "White will only give contracts to individuals in his favor who will pay Gray on his behalf."
The extortion scheme allegedly wasn't limited to airport and city contracts. The affidavit suggests it was stunningly easy to buy Cleveland school work. A company didn't even have to demonstrate it could handle the job. Nor did it ever have to solicit school officials.
Take the case of Stephen Draviam, a Cleveland consultant who worked for two Chicago companies that provided internet and wireless services to schools. According to the affidavit, Draviam approached someone identified only as Confidential Source 2 in 2001, saying he was "willing to pay the necessary kickbacks" in order to obtain a school contract.
Ironically, the mayor's office took control of Cleveland schools after the school board was deemed too corrupt and incompetent to manage the district.
The informant set up a meeting with Gray through Mohammed Saedi of Solon, who was then president of United Wireless. The four men soon met at the Beachwood restaurant Moxie -- a meeting monitored by the FBI.
Gray told Draviam that "the next school year contract is theirs as long as they make the 'right people happy,'" according to the affidavit. Gray also bragged that he could get similar contracts in Detroit schools.
"Detroit is mine," he said at one point. The "contract is yours if you want it."
Gray would later boast that he had the District of Columbia schools in his pocket as well.
Perhaps indicative of Gray's power in Cleveland, he told Draviam not to call school officials. And when Draviam said his clients would come to Cleveland to give a presentation, Gray told him not to bother. What really mattered were the kickbacks Draviam was willing to pay.
Over the subsequent months, the four men frequently discussed various bribes, ranging from 6.5 to 10 percent of the contract per school -- depending upon how many of the city's 120 schools Gray could include in the deal. The FBI estimated that Gray's cut would be about $6,500 per school. But unbeknownst to the men involved, Confidential Source 2 was taping many of their phone calls.
In one recorded call, Saedi told the informant that he and Gray would have to share their cut with a third person, who is never named. "There's another person involved that we have to take care of . . .," he said.
Eventually, Draviam, Gray, and the informant flew to Chicago to meet with company officials. They were accompanied by lawyer Ricardo Teamor, a close friend of White, who has since pleaded guilty in another bribery case. The informant described Teamor as "very slick" and obviously "the brains behind the operation," according to the affidavit. During the trip, Teamor seemed to be probing the Chicago businessmen and the informant to see whether they could be trusted.
The deal was eventually set up to make the bribe appear as a "commission" paid to United Wireless, which was run by Saedi. But somewhere along the line, Saedi grew to distrust Draviam, complaining that his work was slow and sloppy. "I don't have time for this fucking bullshit . . .," Saedi says in one recorded call.
However, it was Draviam who should have been worried about his new partners. "Saedi told CS-2 that it is common for Gray and Teamor to try and cut people out of contract deals," the affidavit says.
In the end, the scheme was never executed. "CS-2 advised that Saedi and Gray must have decided to cut Draviam and CS-2 out of the contract and do the deal directly," Agent Oliver wrote.
When contacted last week, Draviam admitted to his friendship with Saedi, and that "maybe I did go to Moxie's restaurant." But he said he never had any dealings with Cleveland officials. "I don't remember anything specific with the Cleveland schools."
He then abruptly cut off the conversation, saying he would call back. He never did.
Saedi also asserts his innocence. When asked to tell his side of the story last week, he responded, "I don't have any side of the story. Nobody has talked to me. I just don't know what's going on. I don't think I'm gonna be any help to you."
Gray and Teamor did not respond to interview requests.
Culture of corruption
It's clear that corruption permeated the ranks of White's administration and spread to his closest friends. As White officials took new jobs in other cities, they apparently took the corruption with them.
Earlier this month, a jury deadlocked on a bribes-for-public-contracts case against Gray, Cleveland Councilman Joe Jones, and New Orleans businessman Gilbert Jackson. Like all things Cleveland, it was a trial both strange and mysterious.
The most comical moment came when Jones' lawyer argued that no one would want to bribe his client, since Jones is widely regarded as a City Hall lightweight who isn't taken seriously. Call it the Moron Defense.
And though one juror told The Plain Dealer that the jury voted 11-1 to convict Gray on the most serious of the 41 charges he faced, the lone holdout, Tangie Holloway, just happened to be a childhood friend of Cleveland Councilman Zach Reed, who just happened to be a friend of Gray.
It was justice, Cleveland-style. The case will be retried in August.
Teamor has already pleaded guilty to bribery charges. In April, he admitted to bribing Jones, hoping the councilman would help him get contracts that were being stripped away from him by White's enemies on City Council. His plea includes admissions to bribing Gray in exchange for contracts. He has agreed to testify against others caught in the sweeping investigation.
Then there's White's former parks director, Oliver Spellman. When he became chief of staff for the mayor of Houston, he took a little bit of Cleveland with him. In December, he pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in exchange for steering Houston contracts to Gray.
Prosecutors have also accused Julius Ciaccia of accepting bribes from Gray in exchange for city contracts. He served as Cleveland's water commissioner under White, and now serves as utilities director for Mayor Jane Campbell. Though Ciaccia has not been charged, prosecutors played tapes during Gray's trial in which Gray boasts of having Ciaccia in his pocket.
Based on the FBI's affidavit, it appears that two other officials are under federal scrutiny: LaVonne Sheffield, White's former chief of staff, and Louis Erste, former chief of staff to Cleveland schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.
According to the affidavit, Gray bragged of being able to lock up school contracts in Detroit and the District of Columbia, and that his contacts in both districts were former Clevelanders. The FBI notes that when Sheffield left Cleveland in 2000, she was hired as chief of staff for the Detroit schools. When Erste left, he became chief operating officer of the D.C. schools.
The affidavit doesn't accuse them of wrongdoing, but the feds are clearly interested in the coincidence. Neither Sheffield nor Erste responded to interview requests.
Three years after the FBI document was written, Mike White has yet to be charged with a crime.
Cleveland FBI spokesman Robert Hawk declined comment on the agency's investigation. U.S. Attorney Greg White would say only that "we're going to follow the investigation wherever it goes."
Mike White, who rarely acknowledges media inquiries, did not respond to interview requests faxed and e-mailed to his Newcomerstown home. His only publicly listed line rings directly to a fax machine.
With so few people talking, it's hard to tell where the investigation stands. But there are two reasonable theories.
The first is that the feds have already ruled out the former mayor as a suspect. Though damning, the affidavit offers little direct evidence that Mike White committed a crime. And, naturally, informants and co-conspirators may not make the best witnesses against him.
This theory, however, is also the most implausible. Neither Gray, nor Teamor, nor Tyler, nor Saedi had the authority to grant contracts from an array of city departments. Only White did.
And with city contracts apparently being sold like hot dogs on Public Square, it's almost impossible to believe White was too dumb to notice. He may have been crazy, but he was also known as a shrewd and controlling boss -- and all of this was happening on his turf.
The more likely thesis is that the feds are waiting to ammo up. According to the affidavit, only one person who admitted to bribery ever dealt directly with White. The deals were set up by Gray, Teamor, and Saedi; White was kept insulated.
But the feds have already turned Teamor, and he likely has a lot to say. The lawyer was a close confidant of White, and FBI records show that he, White, Gray, and Tyler frequently traveled together outside of Cleveland. The motive, says one confidential source, was to discuss deals "so as to avoid being detected."
The FBI was also following Gray, who would pull his car off the road for no apparent reason, wait a length of time, then drive on, presumably to make it harder for agents to tail him without being noticed.
Gray, of course, remains the key. By all accounts, he was the principal bag man. If you believe Cleveland was up for sale, he was the guy funneling perhaps millions of dollars to White. And with so many people confessing to bribing him, it's hard to believe he'll be a free man for long.
If Gray is convicted next month, he'll be looking at serious time. This is not the kind of guy who does prison well. He's spent nearly two decades living the life of limousines, Ritz-Carltons, and fine dinners with the biggest players in Cleveland and beyond. If you live this life, it's hard to go back -- especially to a small cement cell and bologna sandwiches. But his time can be sliced if he rats out White. And the morals of a bag man are always negotiable.
This seems the feds' most likely bet: Wait to convict Gray, then roll him on White. It's how the U.S. Attorney's Office has built its case thus far -- slowly getting guilty pleas from the smaller fish, then using their testimony to hunt larger game.
If the feds succeed, it may finally send Cleveland's legendary corruption into retreat.
At least until the next Mike White comes along.
Additional research by Jared Klaus.
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