Sam Allard / Scene
Cimperman, at the Justice Center, pre-arraignment (4/27/2018).
Former Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman will pay a $10,000 fine as part of a plea deal with the State of Ohio. The penalty amounts to about $385 for each of his 26 counts of "unlawful interest in a public contract," announced earlier this week by the state auditor.
As Ward 3 councilman, serving downtown, Tremont and Ohio City, Cimperman voted for multiple city contracts that went to LAND Studio, formerly ParkWorks, a nonprofit that works to activate public spaces with art and sustainable design. Cimperman's wife, Nora Romanoff, serves as Associate Director there.
Cimperman appeared before Cuyahoga County Judge Dick Ambrose Friday morning to be arraigned in a courtroom crowded with TV cameras. Stephanie Anderson, of the Ohio Auditor's Public Integrity Assurance Team, filed the charges Wednesday. She was present Friday and outlined the deal for Judge Ambrose.
Anderson said that as far as the state was concerned, the matter was "fully pre-tried" and all matters had been resolved. Cimperman would plead guilty to all 26 counts — all of them first-degree misdemeanors — and would pay $10,000 in total. (Each count is technically punishable by up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.)
Judge Ambrose said the case would be assigned to Judge Michael Russo, who can officially accept the plea deal. A pre-trial hearing in Russo's courtroom will be held at 9 a.m. on May 8.
In the meantime, top city officials have rushed to Cimperman's aid, lest his name be tarnished.
Both Mayor Frank Jackson and Council President Kevin Kelley issued statements calling Cimperman a friend and praising the work he accomplished in Ward 3. Kelley called him an "inspiration." Neither acknowledged the charges against him.
The board of directors for Global Cleveland, where Cimperman has served as Executive Director since shortly after his council resignation in early 2016, issued a statement saying they had "tremendous faith" in Joe, and that they'd voted unanimously to retain him as their leader. They noted unselfconsciously that they were aware of his ongoing ethics investigation when they hired him.
Paul Nick is the executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission. In a statement yesterday, he said, on the flip side, that “the public expects that its elected officials will not betray the public’s trust by misusing their positions to benefit family members.”
The language of Ohio's "unlawful interest" statute is explicit: "No public official," it says
, "shall knowingly authorize, or employ the authority or influence of the public official's office to secure authorization of any public contract in which the public official, a member of the public official's family
, or any of the public official's business associates has an interest."
As others have noted, Cimperman was not casting deciding votes on these contracts, and LAND Studio is a respected local organization that has performed good work. More relevantly, given the rapid-fire nature of City Council's "emergency" legislating, it's possible, in fact likely, that Cimperman cast his votes without even knowing what he was doing. (Cimperman, ever a schmoozer, would often be in conversation with other officials or guests during council meetings.)
But he broke the law 26 times over the course of many years. And even if he didn't do it on purpose, someone
ought to have known that this was a no-no. The failure to recuse himself (as he was required to do) was not a one-time bloop; it was an ongoing practice. It's a problem that Cimperman, his colleagues and other officials were either too heedless or too inept to recognize the ramifications. Current city councilmembers should take this as a strict reminder to apprise themselves of the laws governing elected officials.
Furthermore — I hope this goes without saying? — they should familiarize themselves with the legislation that they often cast votes for so inattentively.