Bribery Warehouse

The FBI uncovered corruption in the schools. District officials did nothing.

Cleveland Schools
The FBI found evidence that contracts were being sold like Girl Scout cookies. The district never even bothered to investigate.  (Pictured: Barbara Byrd-Bennett, former Cleveland schools CEO.) - Walter  Novak
The FBI found evidence that contracts were being sold like Girl Scout cookies. The district never even bothered to investigate. (Pictured: Barbara Byrd-Bennett, former Cleveland schools CEO.)
Nate Gray and three other men were at a Beachwood restaurant. The conversation was as damning as it gets.

A front man for a Chicago wireless company had approached Gray about buying his way into the Cleveland school district. If Gray could deliver a $9.7 million contract, the man was prepared to kick back $780,000. But unbeknownst to them, an FBI informant was also at the meeting.

To Gray, the deal was a no-brainer. He bragged that Cleveland was "locked up," according to a confidential FBI affidavit. "Gray also told them that the next school year contract is theirs, as long as they make the 'right people happy.'"

The wireless rep offered to bring company execs to Cleveland. Don't bother, Gray told him.

After all, it didn't matter whether the company could do the work or not. This was the Cleveland school district they were talking about. Nothing had really worked there for decades. What mattered was that the right wallets got fed.

Discussions would continue over the next four months, many of them recorded by the FBI. But in the spirit of Cleveland's bumbling government, the men couldn't even run a kickback scheme properly. The Chicago firm couldn't get its paperwork right. Meanwhile, the company learned that Gray and lawyer Ricardo Teamor, who was also in on the discussions, had a history of icing others out of their scams.

The deal fell apart under the weight of distrust.

Still, the FBI had gathered poignant proof that school contracts were being sold like Girl Scout cookies. You don't rig a $9.7 million deal without some very big people knowing.

So when news of the scheme broke last summer ["City for Sale," July 20], one might have expected a nominally functioning organization to investigate. School leaders are constantly pleading for your money and your trust. Precious resources were being stolen. Administrators might have been curious about whether employees were still looting the place.

Yet eight months later, neither the district, nor the mayor's office that oversees it, has done a thing.

"I am not aware of any investigation involving the schools," says Councilman Zach Reed.

"They may have done something," says Mayor Frank Jackson's press secretary, Mike House, "but I haven't heard anything."

"I have no idea about that," says Grady Burrows, vice chairman of the Board of Education.

That's because there is no investigation. And that's because school officials don't really care if your money is stolen and your children are screwed.

If you're looking for why people struggle to "Believe in Cleveland," start here. The school district has long been a laboratory of mismanagement. Recent adventures: Fake busing numbers. Fake attendance numbers. Bungled investments. CEOs seeking fatter and fatter contracts, while at the same time laying off teachers.

And you wonder why nobody trusts these people with their kids?

The poor have no choice -- except for the even worse-performing charter schools. The middle class simply pays the Catholic School Tax, working two jobs to come up with the $10,000 to $20,000 a year it takes to yank their kids out of public schools. All of which leaves Cleveland with some of the most abundant, affordable housing in America -- and few interested in buying.

There's no tighter noose around our neck than the school district. But city leaders seem unwilling to understand this. They're even less willing to do anything about it.

The best illustration came in the last levy, when CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was reporting her shimmering numbers of success. The civic elite wondered aloud how anyone could possibly vote against it.

But residents weren't so gullible. Prevailing belief is that if a city leader is speaking, she must be lying. Councilman Mike Dolan says it best: "I don't think they trust the leadership at all. They think it's the same old game: Get in, get yours, and get out."

And they were right. Byrd-Bennett had a gift for numbers that would make Andy Fastow proud.

The levy was hammered.

So when news broke last summer that the city's premier shakedown artist was selling school contracts, district officials had a chance to show they actually cared. To show that they wouldn't allow your money to be stolen. To show that they wouldn't let your kids be saddled with subpar equipment. To show that if thieves were still operating, they would be whacked.

But this would take work, which was far too much to ask. They were utterly unwilling to do anything to win your trust.

And as recovering drunks like to say, they had enablers.

The Campbell administration could have investigated. The mayor knew more than anyone how the schools were keeping Cleveland down. She sent her kids to Shaker.

But she was silent. So was City Council.

County Prosecutor Bill Mason could have jumped in. He's a tough-on-crime guy, known to put big years on the punks slinging rock. Yet when it comes to investigating corruption in his own party, he's as tough as a French mime.

The Democratic Party could have stood up. It controls virtually every office in Cuyahoga County. But its leaders rarely show an interest in the public good. There's nothing in it for them. In a one-party system, they never have to pay at the polls.

In the next few months, a new levy will arrive on the ballot. All the above will line up once again, pleading for your trust, urging you to "Believe in Cleveland," insinuating that if you don't give more money, you're too cheap to care for your kids.

And they still won't understand why you'll say no.

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