Cleveland Safety Advisor Resigns Citing "Politically-Motivated Character Assassination Campaign" (Updated)

Phillip McHugh's involvement in a federal civil rights lawsuit drew opposition from city council and local advocates

click to enlarge Phillip McHugh, Bibb's safety advisor until Thursday morning. - LinkedIn
Phillip McHugh, Bibb's safety advisor until Thursday morning.
Following weeks of debate over the hire of Phillip McHugh, the mayor's safety advisor announced he was stepping down on Thursday morning.

McHugh, Mayor Bibb's former roommate at American University and subject of a 2015 civil rights lawsuit in which he was not found liable, went through a trial by fire after Bibb hired him in late April. In a one-page resignation letter, McHugh detailed his decision to forego his position as a result of a political hit job.

“While it has been an honor to serve the City of Cleveland for this brief time," McHugh wrote, "the politically motivated character assassination campaign initiated against me by certain disingenuous members of the City Council and media has made it nearly impossible to focus on the work and to serve the City effectively.”

Though McHugh's hire seemed premeditated by City Hall—McHugh had apparently helped edit his own job description, according to reporting by Fox 8—mounting criticism built after details of a 2015 lawsuit surfaced, one during McHugh's time as a detective for District of Columbia Police.

Correction: An original version of this article incorrectly stated that the lawsuit involved a warrantless search, centered on falsified evidence and that excessive force was used in the case. The judge found no evidence of excessive force and dismissed the claim of falsified evidence in summary judgment. Additionally, as a clarification, McHugh was himself dismissed as a party in the lawsuit by a judge before Washington D.C. reached a settlement with the plaintiffs.

Shortly after McHugh's hire in April, local officials and advocates stood up to protest what they saw as a naive election by Bibb, especially given that the city's police force remains under a Consent Decree with the Department of Justice.

In a recent council meeting, as reported, Ward 5 Councilman Richard Starr dubbed McHugh a "liar" and ascribed his actions with the Sherrods as echoing episodes of police brutality locally in Glenville and Cudell.

"Phillip McHugh needs to go, and he needs to go immediately," Starr said.

Bibb himself, in a followup letter to McHugh's resignation, tried to express a rock-and-a-hard-place feeling towards the hire for which he was responsible.

"I understand that the hiring of Phil has evoked pain within our community," Bibb wrote. "I have heard your concerns and acknowledge that situations like these are hard—as a leader, as a resident, and as a Black man."

"I believe in the power of effective leadership and diverse perspectives to address the most pressing, complex issues facing our community," he added. "First and foremost of these is public safety.  I know that if we cannot get this right, nothing else matters."

It's unclear how McHugh's replacement will be handled, or if any interim position will be installed in the meantime.

McHugh remained adamant in his letter that he was fit for the job and had always engaged in a lawful manner.

"I refuse to allow certain disingenuous media outlets and members of City Council to use me as a political punching bag to hurt you and to distract us from doing the vital work needed in their communities. I wish I could have had a fair opportunity to work with you and your administration to serve the citizens of Cleveland," he wrote.

In a statement, Councilman Richard Starr said: ""Transparency is at the heart of Phillip McHugh’s resignation... It’s unacceptable that the senior advisor’s civil rights violations were only discovered after his hiring in our city... Despite some seeing this situation as a political game, it’s essential to understand that all actions taken are in the best interest of our residents. It’s important to reiterate that the objections to Phillip McHugh’s hiring were not about the Cleveland City Council or an attempt at political gamesmanship. Instead, they were about doing what’s best for Cleveland’s residents. As leaders, we must do everything we can to improve and preserve the trust in public safety. Hiring Mr. McHugh eroded some of the trust and gains we’ve made."
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Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a staff writer at Scene. For the past seven years, he's covered Cleveland as a freelance journalist, and has contributed to TIME, NPR, the Pacific Standard and the Cleveland Magazine. He's the winner of two Press Club awards.
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