Kid Stuff

Personal corruption takes a backseat to a pair of big-ticket swindles

The continuing revelations of our county government's mismanagement are even more repulsive when you consider the way conditions here have prompted our own children to flee at the first opportunity.

We tend to focus on theft in office as the crime, but what is clear amid these seemingly endless accounts of deceit is the total disregard by public officials for their community, both intellectually and morally. Boston and Chicago may have a history of corrupt politics, but their vibrancy and progress go a long way in helping you forget it.

Here, we've empowered incompetent people who were blessed with a singular vision: to help themselves. If we spent as much time examining the qualities of the people we elect as we do worshiping the players on a lousy football team, we would enjoy better fortunes and a brighter future.

Former county Auditor Frank Russo is perhaps the most noted architect of the manipulation. The accounts of his cooperation in turning against others he had lured into kickback schemes lends even our long-awaited justice an unsavory flavor all its own. One contractor involved in the case told me that there was relentless pressure to cheat. "You have employees with families and not enough work around here to support them," he said. "You know the other guy is kicking back to get the job. They have you by the balls."

Now the feds have more than 50 of those players behind bars. But two of the most costly and dubious projects put forth by the county in recent years raise even greater questions about our leaders' motivations than all of the personal schemes and scams uncovered to date.

They are the purchase of the $40 million Ameritrust Tower and the cost of the land and construction of the $189 million juvenile justice center at East 93rd and Quincy Avenue. No conclusive answers exist regarding either of these public works. It may be that inquiries by federal officials have yielded no evidence of criminal activity. But there is too much ugliness surrounding the genesis of both projects for the rest of us to ignore.

For years, there has been little doubt that the county needed a new place to do its business, and in 2005 the commissioners hired a real estate firm to offer advice on selecting a new site.

Naturally, the process was shrouded in secrecy from the start; losing bidders complained that the lack of transparency was an affront to the public, and the commissioners couldn't have cared less. When the firm finally recommended the derelict Ameritrust Tower, it was rewarded with $3 million for its effort. But the county's money bought only a fixer-upper.

By the time asbestos was removed, the building had set the county back $40 million. As if on cue, the place was then deemed unsuitable to host county offices at all. The result was an empty building and a first-rate fiasco, even by our lofty local standards.

Meanwhile across town, cost overruns are staggering at the new juvenile justice center. Yet nobody has called into question the simple purchase of the land, which was reportedly overpriced and is certainly suspiciously inconvenient, situated as it is miles away from the city's mainstream of business activity.

As the new county government examines its payroll, use of county cars, and bonus arrangements at MetroHealth, Ameritrust Tower and the juvenile center loom large too. It's time Ed FitzGerald and the county council got to the bottom of what took place and why taxpayers were bilked. Both projects made no sense from the start, but we've yet to sort out whether their architects were driven more by corruption or stupidity.

Given what we have learned these past two years, don't bet against plenty of both — and more chirping from Frank Russo.

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