When Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason received a complaint accusing two Republican mayors of hiring relatives at a sewage-treatment plant, he was quick to act.
Last November, Mason announced an investigation of Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough and Rocky River Mayor William Knoble for possible nepotism. In April, Mayor Knoble pleaded guilty to hiring his son and his brother at the Rocky River Wastewater Treatment Plant. Clough, who sits on the plant's oversight committee and has five relatives working there, has yet to be charged.
But while Mason has shown a rabid willingness to bang on other people for hiring relatives, he's been strangely tolerant of the practice in his own backyard. Indeed, observers find it odd that a man who once employed his own niece as his spokeswoman is suddenly getting tough on nepotism.
Public officials are technically barred from doling out jobs to family members, but it's rarely prosecuted. In Cuyahoga County, it's gone on for decades, woven into the fabric of life as much as losing sports teams.
Mason has a long history of nepotism himself. Back in 1991, just after being elected a Parma councilman, Mason secured a choice job for his brother, Michael, as city tax commissioner; he is now making $66,742 in that position. And up until 2004, Mason's niece, Kim Kowalski, handled his PR, pulling in $36,912 a year.
But Mason doesn't hire only his own kin; he also rewards friends and loyal patrons of his political machine. His employees include Dominic Sforzo, who used to host Democratic fund-raisers at his Old Brooklyn restaurant and now works as a supervisor making $41,200, and Mason's former law partner, Reno Oradini, who earns $84,239 as lawyer for the elections board.
Mason declined an interview, but defended his hiring practices in a statement issued through his spokeswoman. "The law says that you cannot hire sons or daughters or brothers and sisters or any relative living within your house," Jamie Dalton says. "Other than that, you're free to employ anyone you want to."
Getting a job in the beer gut of county government isn't a bad gig. The pay is generous and the health benefits are unparalleled -- and you get to buy into the plush public-employee retirement system. Best of all, you can leave at exactly five every day and exhibit the work ethic of the shopping-cart wrangler at Marc's.
Most county employees, including those in the offices of the recorder and auditor, aren't even required to pass a civil-service exam to get hired.
With titles like "operator," "technician," and "assistant," it's hard to tell who does what just by looking at the staff lists. In the county recorder's office alone, there are 88 employees, making it by far the biggest office of its kind in the state. By contrast, Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, has less than a third as many workers. Mahoning County has a mere eight.
"It's patronage. You can hire and fire at will," says state Representative Jim Trakas (R-Independence). "No qualifications? It doesn't matter."
Auditor Frank Russo's office staff reads like a who's who of local politicans. He employs Cuyahoga County Sheriff Gerald McFaul's daughter, Colleen; Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora's nephew, Michael; and East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer's son, Chase. All serve as office assistants, making salaries upward of $20,000.
Russo has been particularly generous to County Recorder Pat O'Malley, who was Mason's college roommate. Russo twice hired O'Malley's college-aged son, Brian, as a summer intern at $10 an hour. And when O'Malley separated from his wife and moved in with his office assistant, Marion Rivera, Russo quietly shuffled her over to the auditor's office at a salary of $26,263.
O'Malley isn't just a beneficiary of the machine; he also offers full employment for other politicians' kin. The recorder employs Brooklyn Mayor Ken Patton's son, Chris, as an office clerk at $30,000; state Representative Kenny Yuko's daughter, Angela, as a part-time clerk at $6,552; and Bedford Clerk of Courts Tom Day's brother, Brian, as supervisor of record management at $52,703 a year. (Neither Russo nor O'Malley responded to several phone calls requesting comment.)
"If [Mason]'s really looking for employees where there's this type of issue, all he has to do is look in county government," says Trakas.
This makes the decision to target Mayor Clough seem less high-minded than Mason would have people believe. The timing is also odd: Three of Clough's relatives have been working at the plant since the '80s.
"I always told my family members, if they wanted to use me as a reference, they could use me as a reference, and I never felt there was anything wrong with it, as long as it wasn't in my city," says Clough.
All of which has Clough speculating on Mason's motives. Adding to suspicion is the fact that Mason announced his investigation just days before the election, when Clough was locked in a tight race with Democratic challenger Joe O'Malley (no relation to Pat), who raked in over $100,000 in campaign contributions, much of it from friends in county government.
"I imagine it's gotta be political," Clough says. "Because I don't think it has anything to do with the law."
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