Beck's Last Stand

The cop-union boss is retiring. He's gunning to take the mayor and city council with him.

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After a year of fruitless talks, city negotiators brought their final police contract offer to the table. They couldn't have antagonized union chief Bob Beck more if they'd shivved him in the neck.

The deal offered no raise in the first year, a $500 bonus in the second, and a paltry 3 percent in the third. Adding insult to injury, it eliminated three jobs in the union office -- including Beck's.

Beck studied the proposal for all of a minute, then strode into the hallway, where he could be heard muttering, "This is bullshit."

Moments later, he stuck his head back in the conference room. "We're done," he announced.

City negotiators were left to gather their papers. The meeting took five minutes.

"We kicked them out of here," Beck says later that day, managing a rare smile. "They refused to come off zeroes for our heroes."

With his toothless mouth and grizzly beard, Beck resembles a hockey goon turned mountain man. For almost 15 years, his has been the face of the Cleveland police. Whether barking at the mayor through a bullhorn or slinging sound bites on the TV news, he's never been one to choose his battles.

"Bob is a no-nonsense guy," says retired patrolman John Gannon. "I look at a lot of these politicians on TV, and I think, 'Would I want to be in a foxhole with him?' With Bob Beck, I could honestly say, 'Yeah.'"

As a kid, Beck was a petty criminal who found salvation on the other side of the law. As a street cop, he ate a bullet for breakfast and was named Officer of the Year. As president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, he's been the cops' cornerman -- the first to leap to their defense, no matter how damning the evidence.

At times it seems as if Beck's transmission has only one gear: hard-charging.

"It's refreshing as a deck hand to be sitting back and watching the six o'clock news and to see Bobby Beck speaking up," says union Vice President John Kinkaid.

Of course, City Hall has a slightly different view. Officials there see Beck as a foot-dragging obstructionist who'd rather go down swinging than win through compromise. In their eyes, bargaining with Beck is like reasoning with a wolverine. "We had nuclear confrontations," says Bob Duvin, the lead negotiator under former Mayor Mike White. "Every single meeting after the first was an ugly, mean, fierce collision -- man-to-man, personal, many ending with him walking out."

"Bob Beck does not believe in giving anything up," adds former Police Chief and Safety Director Bill Denihan. "All he wants is to walk away with his pockets full."

Beck plans to retire at the end of the year. Unfortunately for City Hall, his last lap falls in an election year, and that means one last round of revenge. He wants to defeat Mayor Jane Campbell and amend the city charter to kill off two-thirds of City Council seats -- payback for the layoff of 250 cops.

But Beck won't strictly be playing offense. He's at the center of a mushrooming scandal involving his stewardship of the Ohio Police & Fire Pension Board, and state investigators may be returning fire of their own.

A wiser man would be content to keep his head down and go quietly. Yet Beck has never been one to leave unspent ammo in his chamber.

"Today, people like Bob are unusual," says retired Police Chief Ed Kovacic. "You're supposed to be a sissy. You're supposed to back down. Well, Bob believes that if you're right, you fight. It's typical that Bob Beck is going to fight to the end."

The only question is: Who will be left standing?

Beck didn't learn his scorched-earth style at the Weatherhead School of Management. "He was a tough guy on the street as a cop," says Duvin. "And he carried that swagger, that sour physical attitude, with him into labor negotiations."

His early education was in juvenile delinquency. He grew up in West Park, the son of a man who straightened car frames for a living. At 16, Beck was arrested for auto theft after taking a ride in a stolen car. He was sentenced to eight months of probation.

"It was probably the best thing that happened to me back then," he says.

He befriended the cop who arrested him and several other neighborhood officers. They showed him there was honor in wearing a badge. Beck followed in their footsteps, joining the force in 1969.

It was a dangerous time to dress in blue. A year earlier, 3 officers were killed and 10 were wounded in a shootout with black nationalists. The confrontation sparked the Glenville riots and was the genesis of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association.

Back then, Beck patrolled the third district, a rowdy near-East Side beat nicknamed "the Roarin' Third." Rare was the week that ended without bruised knuckles, recalls Gannon. "Everybody is either retired or dead that was on that shift. Bob's the last man standing."

In 1978, Beck dared death over an early-morning breakfast. He and his partner had finished their shift and stopped at a downtown greasy spoon called Lip's. Beck got into an argument with a 42-year-old truck driver named James Stewart.

The origin of the skirmish is in dispute. Stewart would claim in a lawsuit, later dismissed, that Beck walked in, rubbed the back of his head, then hurled racial slurs at him. Beck denies it, saying he intervened when Stewart bullied a waitress.

Whatever the case, Stewart's friend pulled a gun and opened fire. Beck was shot in the left shoulder. It was a wake-up call.

"I wore that Superman cape that they give you when you come out of the police academy," he says. "Nothing can hurt me. I got this shield that'll protect me. Then you go through the next phase. Not only are you mortal, but you're more vulnerable than you might think you are."

The incident didn't make Beck timid, however. At 1:30 a.m. on St. Patrick's Day, 1985, he was on his way home from work when something caught his eye. A beefy man was creeping up behind two young women walking to their car.

Beck charged into action. He found the man pressing a knife to one woman's throat, demanding her car keys. Drawing his gun, Beck convinced the man to drop the weapon, then wrestled him into handcuffs. He was named Officer of the Year.

"I don't know why the city made such a big deal out of it," he says, sounding genuinely baffled. "That's what I did every day, with my job."

Beck joined the union's executive board in 1987. He learned the nuts and bolts of contracts and how to mount a legal defense for officers accused of wrongdoing. But the union was in disarray, crippled by internal squabbling. So in 1990, Beck challenged then-President Karl Bort, a genial man who was no match for Beck's pit-fighting skills.

"Bob always had the reputation of being a worker, a cop's cop," says union lawyer Pat D'Angelo. "It was always the sentiment that if Bob wanted to run for the presidency, he'd win it hands down."

Beck lived up to that prediction, trouncing Bort by a 2-to-1 margin. Kinkaid, who won the vice presidency that year, recalls going to a trophy shop with Beck soon after they were elected.

"I remember looking at the wall, and there was a plaque that said, 'Risk: If you're going to walk on thin ice, you might as well dance,'" he says. "And that was kind of his mind-set for the years to come."

The plaque still hangs in Beck's office, behind the Zone Car Lounge, a cop bar on West 58th. But another decoration serves as better testament to Beck's tenure. It's a framed cover of Scene that shows Mayor White's picture on a wanted poster over the words "If you have any information on how to reason with this person, contact Bob Beck . . ."

Every warrior needs a nemesis, and White was Beck's. From day one, they fought like an old married couple, accumulating all the unpleasant baggage. Beck famously owned a punching bag featuring White's face.

"It was my opinion and remains my opinion that he fought the wrong battle," says former Police Chief Martin Flask of Beck. "Instead of publicly debating issues with the political leadership in 10-second sound bites, he should have gone directly to the people of Cleveland."

But Beck's years as a beat cop left him unsuited for public relations. He was colorblind -- the only hue he saw was blue.

Take his response to a 1993 incident involving Michael Pipkins, a 23-year-old black man who died from a headlock while resisting arrest by two white officers.

It was a politically charged situation, coming just a few years after the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots. Black activists rallied at City Hall, hinting darkly of an "explosion" if White didn't rein in the police.

If the city was a powder keg, Beck wasn't about to let it stop him from lighting a victory cigar. After a city prosecutor declined to file charges, he boasted at a union meeting that the threat of a police strike had cowed the administration into backing down.

When The Plain Dealer reported the comments the next day, Beck was widely condemned. He backpedaled, claiming he'd been misquoted. Unfortunately, several hundred witnesses could attest to the story's accuracy.

It would prove a recurring motif. "If you can't defend, then attack. That's Bob Beck's motto," says Denihan.

To Beck, there's no such thing as a bad cop. He defends them all, indiscriminately.

He couldn't have picked a worse cop to fight for than Patrolwoman Deborah Simmons. In 1996, she claimed that the mayor's chief of staff, LaVonne Sheffield-Turner, had been in a car crash that left a little girl hospitalized. Simmons also accused Sheffield-Turner of throwing out traffic tickets and threatening to have her demoted.

From the start, the story seemed fishy. No one in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood had seen lights or heard sirens. The hospital had no record of an injured child, or of the doctor who supposedly treated the girl. EMS had no report of an ambulance being dispatched. And Sheffield-Turner's Ford Explorer showed no signs of damage.

None of this stopped Beck from accusing the mayor's office of a cover-up. When Simmons finally admitted to fabricating the tale, Beck offered no apologies.

"Beck played a prominent role in trying to destroy the credibility of people when it was not warranted," Denihan says. "I think he loses credibility not only for himself, but for other police officers."

Right or wrong, Beck's blindness stems from deeply rooted conviction. He's incapable of pulling back from battle.

Toward the end of White's administration, the mayor accused the police of harboring bigots. White called for an investigation after hearing that cops in two districts were wearing racist buttons and hanging redneck fliers on precinct walls. The charges were never substantiated.

At the same time, the Ku Klux Klan was planning a march through Cleveland. Rubbing salt into fresh wounds, White decreed that KKK members would be allowed to use the police parking garage as a dressing room.

Beck asked Chief Ed Kovacic to write a letter supporting his efforts to keep the Klan off police turf. Kovacic vividly remembers Beck's impassioned plea.

"He has no right to bring that scum into our home," Beck said of White. "He has no right to let them put on those uniforms and walk past our badge case. The officers whose badges are in that case died fighting every evil those scum represent."

"And he looked up, and this tough guy was crying," Kovacic recalls. "He looked at me and he said, 'You understand, chief, don't you?' And I said yes, because I did. But I tell you, I never could have said it as well as Bob did."

Jane Campbell promised a fresh start for Beck's testy relations with City Hall. The union threw its support behind her, even as firefighters endorsed rival Raymond Pierce.

Campbell paid police back in kind. In 2002, she offered a generous three-year contract, with pay raises totaling $1.47 million. She also gave the union input into the selection of the new chief, ultimately tapping Edward Lohn, who was popular with the rank and file.

"To Mayor Campbell's credit, I believe she reached out to Beck . . . in an effort to extend the olive branch," says John Delano, the city's negotiator.

Yet Campbell was playing with money she didn't have. Whatever bridges she built were dynamited a year later. To suture a $61-million hole in the budget, Campbell announced massive layoffs for city employees, including hundreds of cops.

"I was looking for a break. Everyone said, 'We survived. We're still here. The tyrant's gone,'" Beck says of White. "Now we have a woman who did what Mike White never did: laid off 250 police officers. I think everyone was in shock -- and everyone still is."

Beck, however, ignores his own culpability.

Campbell did her best to spread the hurt. Unions were offered the chance to save jobs by accepting concessions. Firefighters and paramedics took the bait, saving 80 and 21 jobs, respectively.

But Bob Beck was never one to play nice with management. Chief Flask often sent proposals to Beck for his feedback. Time and again, Beck declined to respond, preferring to gripe after the fact by filing grievances.

"He viewed policy and procedure as a management right," Flask says. "Psychologically, he couldn't step over that barrier. He's a union man through and through."

Beck emerged from the layoff negotiations talking like a lawyer. "The city has given us its last, best, and final offer, and we are duty-bound to bring it back to the membership for their consideration and vote," he said when asked if the union would take the deal. Translation: Not if I can help it.

Cops voted it down in a landslide -- and blew off the chance to save 90 jobs.

"In this game that we call politics, it's all about compromise, and he hasn't shown a lot of compromising over the past few years," says Zachary Reed, who chairs City Council's Public Safety committee.

Reed knows of Beck's intransigence firsthand. Council recently took up the issue of whether officers over 65 should be forced to retire. Reed solicited Beck's advice.

"But he never responded to the telephone calls," Reed says. "That was a dialogue in the best interests of his people, and we couldn't even have a dialogue on that."

Reed contrasts that with the approach of Bob Fisher, the firefighters' union chief. "He really tries to give us some good ideas on how to work with the firefighters. I've never had that conversation with Bob Beck."

Rather than accept defeat, Beck heaved a Hail Mary. He proposed hiking the city income tax to hire back laid-off cops. Police set out to gather 5,000 signatures to get on the ballot.

It couldn't have come at a worse time. The Plain Dealer ran an exposé documenting police overtime abuse, and politicos had already lined up behind a school levy. Beck's proposal didn't just muddy the waters; it dumped an anvil into the life raft.

Worse, the union's effort was sabotaged by a comedy of errors. Of the six people who sponsored the petition, two were disqualified for technicalities -- one made a typo in his house number; another's change of address wasn't registered by the board of elections. They were small mistakes, to be sure, but in the hand-to-hand combat of public initiatives, they are the kind that get you blown up. City Council seized the opening and spiked the proposal.

Beck appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. But the union's lawyer was late in filing paperwork. The case was dismissed.

Beck blames the debacle on City Council. He's now seeking an initiative that would cut the council's size from 21 to as few as 7. "We got 21 hypocrites, and we need less than that," he says.

But the fact is, Beck shot himself in the foot. In a town where unions play kingmaker, it's stunning that he could be so sloppy with election laws.

The rank-and-file keeps the faith. "They know he's true-blue," says D'Angelo. "There's never any doubt about his integrity."

Until recently, that is.

Since 1997, Beck has served as a trustee on the nine-member Ohio Police & Fire Pension Board, which oversees a $9.4 billion fund for the state's 55,000 active and retired safety officers and their survivors.

In 2003, the Dayton Daily News took a hard look at the trustees' expenses and found a travel budget befitting CBS's Amazing Race. From 1998 to July 2003, the board burned through $612,451, jet-setting to conferences in places like Key West, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas.

"I don't begrudge them for educating themselves while they're trustees of the board," says Nick DiMarco, president of the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio. "What did strike a chord with me was seeing that when they were attending some of these seminars, they were staying a couple miles away in a four-star hotel."

Among trustees, Beck owned the second biggest tab, at more than $108,000. His expenditures include a five-day stay at the $330-a-night Arizona Biltmore and a $740 dinner at the Hyde Park Grille in Columbus. In 2001 alone, he spent almost $30,000.

Beck defends his expenses, saying that he accrued half in travel to Columbus for board meetings. The out-of-state trips provided valuable lessons on complex disability and retirement programs.

"I didn't pick where the seminars were held," Beck says. "I can't say it's not nice to be in a nice place. Sure it is. But that's not the driving factor here, and I've never lost sight of that."

His words haven't quieted the criticism. Some view the bills as a textbook example of union officers raiding the till. They further note that travel costs reached their apex while Beck was chairman.

"I have nothing against Bob personally, but his job as chairman is to watchdog the money, and obviously, that didn't happen," says Gary Monto, president of the Police and Fire Retirees of Ohio. "He's responsible for what happened on his watch."

The FOP called for the three biggest spenders to resign. Dayton firefighter David Harker bowed out the next day. Dayton detective Thomas Bennett followed suit within the year. But true to form, Beck stubbornly clung to his post.

With the board showing no intention of policing itself, politicians turned on their sirens. The legislature passed a law disqualifying from office any trustee who averaged more than $10,000 in annual travel expenses from 2000-2002. The bill's author, Rep. Jeff Jacobson (R-Butler Township), says he arrived at that figure by taking what most people considered a reasonable expense and doubling it.

Beck wasn't even close to limboing under that bar. His average for those three years was $22,750. So Beck made an end run. On the day Governor Bob Taft was to sign the bill, the pension board quietly selected Beck as its chairman for another year. The vote had been scheduled for a week later, but Beck moved it up.

"It was clear to me that there were two problems with Mr. Beck," says Jacobson. "No. 1, he was egregious in his abuse of the system, and No. 2, he was the most egregious in his thumbing his nose at the policy-makers and lawmakers of this state. It was clear he had no shame."

Beck may have circumvented the rule, but he's not off the hook. Governor Taft ordered the Ohio Ethics Commission to investigate the board. The commission's findings, released in May, uncovered what Taft called a "culture of impropriety."

Four of the eight largest companies that provided investment services to the fund had wined and dined trustees to the tune of more than $200,000 from 1998 to 2003. The freebies included golf outings in Scotland, tickets to the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona, and thousand-dollar dinners for trustees, their friends, and their families.

It appeared to be money well spent: The companies received $33 million in business from the fund during that period.

Trustees' names have been blacked out in the report, but some of the freebies took place in Beck's backyard. One company treated a trustee to a $209 meal at Johnny's Downtown. Another ponied up $7,334 for two holiday parties held at Johnny's.

"It is not clear why two successive Police & Fire Pension Fund holiday parties would occur in Cleveland, when the fund is physically located in Columbus," the report notes.

Beck denies any wrongdoing, but won't go into specifics. "I can't speak to you about those allegations," he says. "But I can tell you I've been to Johnny's Downtown different times, but I don't believe any time that's involved in this investigation."

One trustee has already heard the gavel. In November, retired Detective Bennett pleaded guilty to grand theft for collecting mileage reimbursements while driving a car provided by Dayton police. He also pleaded guilty to an ethics violation for taking gifts from investment companies.

Bennett is scheduled to be sentenced this month and faces up to a year and a half in jail. But there are signs that he's angling for leniency by rolling over. Before his plea, he provided an extensive statement to the ethics commission. It has not yet been made public.

The commission refuses to say whether Beck is a target. The union chief says that he provided investigators with six years of receipts, but no one has questioned him. Either way, he lives in the shadow of suspicion.

"People who know me, truly know me, know that I would never steal from the people I've sworn to help," Beck says. "And I think, at the end of the day, I'll be OK here. But the problem is, it's dragged on for so long; no matter what happens here, they put a stain on my career, and I'm not happy about that."

Beck has talked about retiring before, most notably at the end of White's reign. "His main thing was 'I want to survive that bastard Mike White,' and he did that," says D'Angelo. "So we were all thinking that he would quit last time."

This time, he seems serious. His tenure on the pension board will end this year, because the new law disqualifies him from service. He's accrued a sizable pension, and he wants to see more of his grandchildren -- an attempt to make up for missing out on his own kids' childhoods.

But the biggest factor is his health. At 58, Beck suffers from diabetes, which is beginning to take its toll. His close friends say that he's prone to sweating profusely and losing his equilibrium.

"Doctors have advised me that if I want to cut down on the problems diabetes causes, I should cut down on the stress level," he says. "Whether I like it or not, that's the driving force behind my thoughts of retirement."

At retirement parties for other officers, Beck always gives the same speech: "When someone becomes a police officer, they give their life to the city, and when they retire, they take it back."

Now Beck seems ready to take back his. But only after one last battle.

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