Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason put forth an earnest effort to protect the reach of his office when the new county government recently challenged it. Mason's tenacity prevailed when the state attorney general ruled that he would continue to represent the county in civil matters.
It was not the ruling that drew jaundiced attention, but Mason's concern over it all. After drifting through a decade of corruption on his watch, the prosecutor finally appeared awake.
Around here, we obfuscate responsibility as much as possible because so much evil abounds. The one individual we pay to ensure the integrity of our government is Bill Mason. But over his 11 years in office, the man has seen little evil, heard less, and smelled none.
He let the prosecutor's office take on the odor of a used-car dealership. White-collar crime to Mason was a bad day at a Chinese laundry. People wondered whether he moved his lips when he read stories of the FBI investigation that spread like the plague.
It should have been Mason's office — not the federal government — that dealt with the corruption. Problem was, his office had become an extension of much that was wrong in the county. Newspaper stories licked like flames around him, but failed to implicate him in much more than patronage, political enrapture, nepotism, and universal unawareness.
And it didn't start with Mason. The office had gone silent under the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who mitigated charges against county Auditor Frank Russo, allowing the corruption to swell for another decade.
Tubbs Jones and Mason also yawned though an earlier scandal: the Nate Gray affair. Gray, now serving 15 years in prison, was the LeBron James of crime, his triple doubles on government wiretaps the stuff of legend. The Justice Department lit up like a pinball machine when it heard Nate's soft come-ons to the ladies he ensnared in his web.
The interesting thing is that the Gray case did not give a heads-up to Mason, nor to county Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and Russo, who were too busy devouring free dinners to sense the imminent danger. The Justice Department had a team in place experienced with corruption in Cleveland and seeking more work. Fat, dumb, and happy, Dimora and Russo were there for the taking.
If you think the feds embarrassed the Pakistani government with the bin Laden raid, imagine what they did to Mason. Worse yet, imagine what law enforcement thinks of the prosecutor's office now.
Had Mason done his job, his political career would have blossomed — and the Democratic Party likely would not have suffered the embarrassment of reform. Life would have been profoundly different here, especially for politicians.
Mason's inaction made everyone a suspect. He has allowed a cynicism to sink so deep into our bones that we're all left to wonder who paid the kickback on the Fourth of July fireworks.
But the prosecutor has a chance to redeem himself before stepping aside next year — a chance to unravel a mystery that looks certain to cost taxpayers $28 million or more.
It's the saga of the Ameritrust Building that the county purchased in 2005 for $21.8 million. Then it pumped in another $23 million, only to learn the place was unsuitable for government offices. This, after $3 million went to consultants who vouched for the plan.
Given the climate of corruption we've all been simmering in, voters deserve to know what happened, who made it happen, and why. If Mason is so anxious to represent the county in civil cases, he should sue the consultants for bad advice and replenish the county treasury.
That would mean involving former Commissioner Tim Hagan, who closed the Ameritrust deal just as he did the Medical Mart and Convention Center. If Ameritrust is looking ugly now, just wait till we get the numbers on the other two.
Mason owes us all a look into the matter. He also owes us an apology for a work ethic that never quite worked.
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