Second Punch: Boehner's Luck 

Have Ohio's congressmen found a new way to line their pockets?

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-We Can't Believe You Made a Guy from Ohio Your Leader) rose to power in the wake of Tom DeLay's indictment for myriad crimes involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his Indian casino clients.

Yet Boehner's most recent financial disclosure form raises questions about his own relationship with tribal casinos.

According to the filing, Boehner made a pit stop at an Indian-owned casino in Northern Michigan and walked out with $2,700.

His spokesman claims it was pure luck. Boehner supposedly stopped in at the casino to use the bathroom. While waiting for an aide, he "decided put a couple of bucks in the slots" and hit the jackpot.

"This is gambling, that's what it was," says spokesman Don Seymour. "A guy stops by and wins money. People do it every day."

Sure, but most people don't have such close ties to the casino.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Boehner received $32,500 in campaign contributions from Indian tribes represented by Abramoff. And Boehner's PAC, the Freedom Project, received $31,500 from four Abramoff tribal clients, according to The Washington Post.

The casinos got a good return on its investment. Boehner is pushing for legislation to crack down on internet gambling, which rakes in half a billion dollars each year. The measure is supported by the American Gaming Association, the largest casino lobby, which clearly wants to stop overseas bookies from taking a chunk of the profits.

Seymour doesn't see the connection. "If you can make that leap here, you can make that leap with any congressman," he argues.

Indeed we can. The run of luck was suspiciously similar to that of another Ohio congressman, Bob Ney (R-Soon to be Making License Plates at a Federal Pen Near You).

In 2004, Ney reported winning $34,000 at a London casino. His spokesman claimed he put down $100 on a three-card draw game, let it ride on a long shot, and hit the jackpot.

Ney has since been implicated in the Abramoff scandal as well. He's accused of trading favors for gifts and vacations.

When pressed about the coincidence of Boehner winning thousands of dollars from a group for whom he carries water in Congress, Seymour went into robotic PR mode. He couldn't understand why anyone would think the jackpot appeared at all suspicious, nor would he explain why Boehner would choose to take his bathroom break at a casino rather than, say, McDonalds.

"It is what it is," Seymour says. "Any other conclusions you want to draw, you're welcome to."

He said it, not us.

A word from the Kremlin
Cleveland school officials released an audit last week of the district's $1.5 billion construction project. Punch hoped the 100-page report would explain where $335 million in taxpayer funds from the school levy went ("Missing: $1.5 billion," May 24). But it turns out officials were more interested in praising themselves.

The study was commissioned by former schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Given her history of fabricating data, scientists believe the report has a 97 percent margin of error.

The report begins with 15 "commendations" of the district's efforts --praising everything from its willingness to get residents involved to keeping costs down. But the dedicated ass-kissing quickly dissolves under the weight of . . . well . . . reality.

On page 4, the district scores points for establishing an "accountability" commission to keep tabs on construction finances. Two pages later, we learn that the commission no longer exists (it hasn't for more than a year).

The report also claims that all but one of the schools slated for the first phase of construction were finished "on time, to the desired levels of quality, and within budget guidelines." Yet the district itself has acknowledged that at last three schools--John Adams High, John Hay High, and A.J. Rickoff elementary -- opened late. And John Hay ran millions of dollars over budget.

Stay tuned for next week's audit, when administrators commend themselves for getting every student in the district pipefitting scholarships to Oxford.

Scene named Ohio's best alt
Scene has once again been named the best alternative newspaper in Ohio.

At its annual Excellence in Journalism Awards, the Press Club of Cleveland awarded this rag a pile of hardware, which we would gladly have traded for more drink tickets.

Among the individual winners:

· Walter Novak, 1st place, Studio Photography; 1st place and Honorable Mention, Portrait Photography; 2nd place, Photojournalism

· Jared Klaus, 1st place, Personality Profile; 1st place, Government/Politics Writing

· Denise Grollmus, 1st place, Public Service Reporting; 2nd place, Community/Local Coverage; 2nd place, Technology Writing

· Chris Maag, 2nd place, Public Service Reporting; 2nd place, Investigative Reporting

· Joe Tone, 1st place, Sports Reporting; Honorable Mention, Medical/Health Writing

· Pete Kotz, Honorable Mention, General News Columns; Honorable Mention, Business Columns

· Christine Howey, 1st place, Single Review/Criticism

· Elaine Cicora, 2nd place, Single Review/Criticism

· Rebecca Meiser, 1st place, Food Writing

· Joe Bluhm, 1st place, Single Illustration

· Thom Zahler, 1st place, Multiple Illustrations

· Meredith Pangrace, Honorable Mention, Cover Design

Tom Meyer hates Jews
In a totally unshocking development, Channel 19 Action News' Tom Meyer cleaned up at last week's Excellence in Journalism awards, presented by the Press Club of Cleveland. Meyer won second place in the TV public service category, and first place for investigative reporting.

But when his name was finally announced, and the thunderous applause rained down, The Investigator was nowhere to be found.

On the heels of Scene's really special and completely exclusive in-depth undercover investigation, Punch wanted to ask Meyer when he'd be checking into rehab. So we cleverly assumed the disguise of drunk award-winning reporters and staked out a table near the awards, ready to pepper Meyer with another bag of extra salty truth. But once again, Tom Meyer wasn't hungry.

At first, we thought that Meyer -- who's got 52 Emmys -- didn't think the Excellence awards were worthy of his presence. But then we realized the truth. That's right: Tom Meyer hates Jews.

Think about it: The table holding the plaques was right next to a table occupied by Cleveland Jewish News staffers. To pick up his awards, Meyer would have had to walk right past them.

Instead, he didn't show up at all. But once again, he did show his true colors.

What happens in Eastlake . . .
Never trust a lottery that doesn't sell scratch cards at BP.

Don Cerne learned the hard way that you can't win a lottery you never entered.

The 59-year-old Eastlake man had just lost his factory job when the letter from USA Mega arrived in late March: Cerne was the winner of $1.3 million, it read. Please call our agents immediately to activate your claim.

Never mind that Cerne had never even heard of USA Mega; with bills mounting and no income, he was overdue for good news.

He called the number for two weeks before reaching an agent named Suzanne, who cheerfully walked him through the details: Simply wire the $5,500 "transfer fee" -- cash only, please -- then deposit the $5,500 check provided in the original letter. "When all requirements are met," a mountain of riches would be his.

Cerne followed the instructions, only to learn three weeks later that USA Mega's check was phony and his money was long gone. (Coincidentally, cheerful Suzanne is no longer taking his calls. Phone messages left by Punch earned no love from her either.)

"We get calls on this every day, with different company names and different addresses and different ruses for having you send money," says Sue McConnell of the Cleveland Better Business Bureau. "They have no conscience and no soul."

And because they move so quickly -- switching locations and phone numbers -- they have no chance of being caught. USA Mega is believed to be based in Canada, though Cerne thought he was dealing with a Vegas company -- and he wired his money to Chicago.

"If I had just torn that check up," he says, "I wouldn't be paying back the bank for the next five years."

Consider it your lovely parting gift, Don. USA Mega thanks you for playing.

The Nine-Year War
Jack Eldridge can finally light a Cohiba on the mound of legal documents he's amassed over the past nine years. "For as well as an old fart can party, I'm gonna be doing it," says the 66-year-old.

Eldridge, along with six others, sued Summit County for wrongfully firing them in 1997. They claimed that corrupt officials terminated their jobs for trumped up reasons ["The Eight Year War," November 9, 2005].

John Keenan, an ex-official for the county, ordered the cuts in light of a supposed $1.5 million deficit. A year after the layoffs, Keenan was found guilty on 14 felony counts of bribery, conspiracy, and tax evasion. That's when it was discovered that there was no deficit, and the layoffs were a result of vendettas Kennan had against the workers.

Since then, the group has won five times in court, but the county perpetually appealed, hoping to avoid shelling out years in back pay and benefits.

But it turns out the county's delays only bloated the final payout, which is now worth over $2 million. The Ohio Supreme Court refused to hear Summit's final appeal and is forcing it to compensate the slighted workers. "They should have just gotten this over with when we first sued," Eldridge says. "They wouldn't have owed us so much."

Eldridge knows he won't be swimming in cash just yet. He and the six other workers must go through a final mitigation hearing -- i.e. the county's last chance to lower the payout. "I don't even care," Eldridge says. "I just feel so good today. What a weight off my shoulders to get my pension back."

The new rush hour
When it comes to rush hour, Cleveland is blessed to not really have one -- at least by the oppressive standards of most cities. But the fine minds at the RTA recently decided that afternoon rush now begins at 2:30, leaving its contractors in a state of extreme pissed-offedness.

Commercial Tile & Stone was contracted to install raised pavers to help blind people navigate the RTA's Shaker Square station. When the project began, the company assumed it would be working its normal hours, from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. But RTA would only allow work during its version of non-rush hour time -- 9 to 2:30 -- which is less than a 6-hour day.

Commercial Tile's Lucinda Noel is livid. The new hours were never mentioned in the bid documents, she says, and they're cutting into her bottom line. Thanks to the union contract -- and her own sense of fairness -- she still had to pay her men for an eight-hour day. RTA recently decided to give her men 45 more minutes a day, but she still comes up short. She figures the new and improved rush hour cost her about $12,000.

"They can't just change the rules in the middle of the game and not compensate us," Noel says.

The most aggravating part was RTA's explanation for the change. Spokesman Jerry Masek has no idea why rush hour now begins at 2:30; he just insists contractors should work around it.

DeWinopolis for Senator?
Mike DeWine made a Cleveland campaign stop recently, crashing the Greek Heritage Festival in Tremont. DeWine, you may remember, is our U.S. senator. Word is he's running again this year against U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Avon).

The DeWine camp definitely brought its A-game. As the senator glad-handed every gyro-eating Opolis he could find, the Mrs. happily handed out free copies of her new cookbook.

Punch also attended the festival, disguised as a guy looking for cheap pitchers of Bud. So when DeWine introduced himself -- like Tom Cruise, the senator's way shorter in person, and kind of creepy -- we gladly took the opportunity to steer him into saying something we could exploit in print, which would make our adventure work-related, which would allow us to expense the Bud.

"So, Senator, are you Greek?" we asked.

"I am tonight!" he responded with a finely tuned Capitol Hill chuckle.

DeWine's next appearance will be at a World Cup party near you, where he'll be rooting for which ever team you are.

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