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GHOSTS OF SCANDALS PAST 

Corruption has haunted Cleveland for generations

The fascinating thing about public corruption is that it can take on a life of its own, far beyond the initial criminal act, and cling like mildew to a community, its image and its future.

The story last month that the lights at police headquarters in the Justice Center have been on since 1976 because there are no electrical shut-off switches adds to the lore that makes the town's national reputation as the mistake on the lake. No one has any idea how many millions have been lost because of the error which has been overlooked by five mayors, countless safety directors, the municipal light plant and Tim Hagan.

My guess is the poorly constructed building was the result of systematic corruption that has plagued us for years and continues as the media chronicles the present 18-month federal investigation into Cuyahoga County government.

The Justice Center's construction occurred under the late Mayor Ralph J. Perk, whose administration was infamous for scandals and incompetence. The mayor's interior decorators stole city-hall art and were convicted of murdering an old lady. They killed a racehorse too. One of his chief aides lied on his résumé — he never won the Medal of Honor or graduated from Harvard. And it was Perk who paved the way to that act of infamy called default.

The Justice Center was the largest public project of its time and was ripe with cost overruns and rumors of corruption. I remember sitting in the old Pewter Mug on Public Square while politicians and businessmen handicapped the payoffs and the recipients. No major investigation was launched, but street talk spoke of sums of money so large that retirement from public office was a possibility. There is no doubt that the failure to install light switches was a byproduct of corrupt and incompetent management.

Frankly, officials should wonder whether the Justice Center could withstand an earthquake today.

In the early 1950s, voters approved the construction of a subway from Public Square to University Circle. In those days, downtown was crowded with shoppers and workers, a truly exciting and active urban setting. The idea of joining it to University Circle and its cultural and uptown restaurants and entertainment so appealed to voters that they passed a bond issue to link the two areas.

It was an exciting and forward-looking project. The problem was that the downtown department stores, particularly Halle's and Higbee's, were locked in a competition, and Higbee's officials feared that shoppers from the wealthy East Side suburbs would get off at Playhouse Square and patronize Halle's.

According to the late Donald T. Grogan, whose family had extensive downtown holdings, and correspondence that I read from Halle's then-legal counsel, a county commissioner approached the stores and offered to kill the project for $50,000. The bribe was paid by Higbee's, and the subway was killed. While the story was known in some business circles, no one was ever prosecuted.

A century ago, Euclid Avenue was a broad, tree-lined boulevard, world famous with its elegant homes. But the recently completed $200 million Euclid Avenue Corridor project has left the street almost antiseptic. Between the bourgeoning Cleveland State University and the amazing reach of Cleveland Clinic, the ride takes you past brown fields, abandoned buildings, and glimpses here and there of the glory that was yesterday. There is nothing along the way that makes you want to stop the car and get out.

It's hard to see what kind of return on investment this massive public expense is going to generate. Had the subway been built when the town was dynamic and diverse in its commerce, the fortunes of the city may have taken a different course. The cost of that bribe was the future. The big department stores are gone, the vitality of East 105th has long since faded and Public Square is often a ghostly vista.

My favorite Cleveland corruption story was the bribe demand that backfired.

Jack P. Russell was the president of Cleveland City Council in the '50s and into the '60s. He was one of the most powerful men in town, a corrupt politician in the great tradition of the classic cigar-smoking, blowhard ward boss. Russell once lectured on civics at Harvard University.

A major east-side manufacturer wanted to expand its plant and needed a zoning change. A participant in what would take place told me that Russell was asking the company for $50,000 to pass the legislation. But the company president, angered at the shakedown, was not about to pay. Instead, he went to a union leader and said that there were a number of jobs at stake if the company was unable to expand. Rather than give Russell the money, he gave it to the union with the instructions to use it to defeat Russell as council president.

It is unclear how the money was used. I suspect it was distributed among the councilmen to buy their votes, but the result was that Russell was defeated, ushering in a new era of politics in Cleveland.

Over time, a bloated government gone bad allowed a different kind of corruption to flourish. Mayor Mike White's administration will forever be remembered as among the most corrupt of city governments here. The mayor's best friend, Nate Gray, launched a 10-year criminal enterprise based on kickbacks, bribes and other legerdemain, which earned him 17 years in federal prison in 2005. In some quarters, Gray is an urban legend of sorts, for being a stand-up guy and serving his whole sentence rather than making a deal with the feds and turning in accomplices.

Today's county scandal, which is reported as regularly as the weather and promoted by The Plain Dealer for maximum effect on the public, has everyone asking when and where will it all end. It dwarfs the White scandal in scope but not in audacity. It is estimated that more than two dozen people will go to jail when the federal probe ends sometime this spring. Included in that group are expected to be several major political figures as well as a cadre of successful contractors and businessmen.

Government corruption erupted with such fervor over the past two decades that for some it became a way of life. Many caught in the web of federal investigators were indignant over allegations of criminal activity, complaining they were only doing what others did. This attitude flourished in the diminishing economic environment and was compounded by the failure of the late former county prosecutor Stephanie Tubbs Jones and the present prosecutor Bill Mason to take corruption as seriously as drugs.

But this time, the government is successfully selling suspended jail time in exchange for cooperation, which is one reason why it is taking so long. It is probably the largest federal investigation in history here.

Just a suggestion for the future: It might be wise for the U.S. attorney's office to be on hand before the construction of the medical mart and the convention center begins. That way they can read their rights to the usual suspects before the inevitable scam.

news@clevescene.com

More by Michael D. Roberts

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