Where the Grass Is Greener 

Avon Lake's lawn-mower man faces a bribery investigation.

Duane Hurley always had a steady supply of free teenaged labor. That's because in Avon Lake, bored teens were bound to find alcohol, just as bored cops were bound to track down house parties. And when the teens got their underage drinking tickets, they were introduced to Hurley.

The city's "constructive community efforts supervisor" -- yes, that's his title -- puts misdemeanor convicts to work whacking weeds, gathering garbage, and mowing lawns to fulfill their community service. For teens yearning for summer freedom, Hurley is all that stands in the way. But according to some, there is an easy way around the problem.

"It's kind of understood," claims one young man who toiled under Hurley. "If you don't want to do community service, pay Duane."

Hurley is now the target of an investigation into allegations that he solicited bribes from his charges -- many of them high school kids. It is only the most recent scandal to jolt this otherwise serene west shore community.

Hurley is the last city worker to keep an office in the stately manor that sits one block from City Hall on the bluffs overlooking Lake Erie. Mayor Richard Hausrod's reign ended after he was caught plundering his own charity and exchanging public favors for private gains. Next came Mayor Vince Urbin, who was charged with bribery and theft in office, only to be found guilty of tampering with evidence. Even the manor's parking lot seems cursed -- it's been the site of two suicides and one murder. Current mayor Rob Berner moved his office to City Hall, and so far his administration has been free of corpses and corruption.

There seems little reason to suspect Hurley would succumb to the same temptations. With his down-home drawl and dusty work boots, he is far from slick. And for a city accustomed to looking for corruption in high places, the guy in charge of the lawn mowers seemed one of the few worthy of trust, especially since he was a star witness in the case against Urban. Hurley has spent 15 years working for the city, and council gave him a raise this year, bumping his salary to $42,000.

But some of those who knew Hurley as their community-service overseer quickly learned the importance of courting his favor. They allege that Hurley arrived at work with an empty stomach and let his charges know that, if they greeted him with doughnuts in the morning, they stood a good chance of being released early and credited for a full day. "Then, once he gets comfortable asking for stuff, it turns into every day -- like 'Hey, go buy me lunch,'" alleges one former worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Lunches then become dinners. "Yeah, I paid him off," claims another worker. "But I didn't give him cash. I took him out for supper, and he'd just cut some hours off my time."

Past workers say Hurley would send them shopping on his behalf, expecting them to use their own money. "Duane loved these model cars, and he'd just send you on errands to Toys R Us to buy these cars, then he'd cut more time off," asserts the worker.

Defying him meant inheriting the most odious tasks, says another worker. "The way it would go in community service is, if Duane didn't like you, you'd be on the roadside, picking up trash by the railroad tracks," he says. "He'd just leave your ass out there all day. But if you were one of his boys, you'd just ride around in the truck with him all day."

Avon Lake Municipal Judge John Mackin tends to hand out sentences heavy on community service. A second-time underage drinker might get close to 300 hours, which is a full-time job for most of the summer. Hurley zeroes in on those with the lengthiest sentences, charges a former worker: "He says, 'If you pay me, I'll make this go away.'"

"Duane knew which kids had rich families; he knew which kids were crooked enough to not waste their time doing community service, when they could just pay him," the worker adds. "I used my graduation money to pay him off."

For a kid who could make a few thousand at a summer job -- or who had the money to purchase freedom -- getting rid of community service for a few hundred dollars was a bargain.

"I thought he was doing me a huge favor," says the worker, who admits that bribing a city official appealed to his sense of drama. "When you're stupid as a kid, you think it's cool -- like the Mafia paying people off."

As long as the teens saw their community service disappear, they didn't tell the cops. But one source alleges police opened a file on Hurley after he accepted cash from a high school student, only to turn the student in for not fulfilling his sentence.

The same kid is said to have spoken to Hurley while wearing a wire, but Avon Lake police cannot confirm that. Sergeant Jack Hall would only say that he had received tips about Hurley accepting bribes. "At this time, I can't go into that, because it is under investigation and being forwarded to the prosecutor's office," says Hall.

Mayor Berner isn't touching the topic either: "Obviously I cannot comment on an ongoing investigation."

"We just got background information that he was being investigated based on his job," says Councilman K.C. Zuber. Hurley is on unpaid leave and could not be reached at his office. He did not respond to an interview request left at his North Ridgeville home.

Yet Hausrod, who appointed Hurley, says extortion doesn't fit with Hurley's character. "That's a surprise to me," he says. "I never saw dishonesty at all in Duane."

Critical to the probe will be testimony from those who toiled under Hurley. But getting twentysomethings to own up to bribing a public official will be no small task. Ten recent community service workers contacted for this story refused to discuss the matter with Scene.

Says a former worker: "I'm older. I don't really give a shit about this podunk town. So why bother? But that's how he's gotten away with it all this time."

More by Thomas Francis


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