Law & Hoarder

Lorain County puts a fox in charge of its courthouse.

Waterband CD release party Matchhouse in Twinsburg Friday, March 14
Jeff Manning showed a gift for turning government - contracts into personal paydays. - Jack  Kustron/
Jeff Manning showed a gift for turning government contracts into personal paydays.

When Lorain County Republicans picked the man to replace longtime County Prosecutor Greg White, they chose a winner.

For years, White was the party's shining star, the lone Republican who could win in the blue-collar county. So when he was named U.S. Attorney in Cleveland, the GOP looked to finish his term with someone bearing the same golden touch. After almost a decade as North Ridgeville's law director, Jeff Manning had won an Ohio House seat long held by Democrats -- and kept his grip on it for a second term, despite a strong challenger.

But Manning had something else going for him. Some might call it Teflon. Others, resourcefulness.

During his years as law director, Manning had a habit of inserting payments to himself within government contracts. In legal terms, it's called "an illegal interest in a public contract," the same violation White used to prosecute former Avon Lake Mayor Vince Urbin. Urbin got a jail term; Manning kept the cash.

Then, in Manning's first year after leaving office, North Ridgeville officials believe he broke Ohio's "revolving door" law, which bars ex-public officials from making money on projects they dealt with in office. White used that law to bust former North Ridgeville Service Director Tom Sweeney. Sweeney got a fine; Manning skated.

Manning says he's done nothing wrong. He's just a victim of political attacks, which certainly aren't uncommon in Lorain County.

Yet as the county's newly appointed prosecutor, he'll be handling Urbin's appeal before the Ohio Supreme Court. He'll be the guy stopping politicians on the take and fatcats on the make. "I have absolutely no patience for either white-collar crime or political corruption, and I will pursue it as vigorously, or more vigorously than White did," Manning told The Morning Journal.

His warning: The Jeff Mannings of the world best be careful. Jeff Manning is watching them.

Law director can be a powerful gig, at least within the context of suburban politics. Manning, however, never found it particularly lucrative.

In fact, the money part drove him crazy, as letters he wrote to North Ridgeville's police chief demonstrate. As he explained, his combined salary as law director and city prosecutor was just $55,000, with another $30,000 or so in billable hours.

Eighty-five grand might sound like a lot, Manning admitted. But the salary hadn't been adjusted in four years. Besides, he had to pay assistants out of that sum. He also had the costs of maintaining his private office and law library, "but nobody looks at that." Manning even included a handy chart for easy comparison, noting that police patrolmen work 40 hours a week and have high school educations; he went to law school and worked "unlimited" hours, all for less pay.

Scholar that he was, Manning quickly found a way around the job's earning limits. When he took office in 1990, the city required its law directors to help out the local school district. Manning's boss, Mayor Jeffry Armbruster, shepherded a new law changing that. It freed Manning to bill the schools $400 a month, according to records.

Yet Manning's ability to write city contracts benefiting himself proved far more questionable.

In 1994, North Ridgeville and the City of Lorain began discussing a plan to process Lorain's waste at North Ridgeville's treatment plant. Lorain would have to pay an estimated $3.4 million for plant upgrades.

It was up to Manning to hash out details, and though it was arguably part of his job, he wasn't about to do it for free. A provision he wrote into the contract, approved by city council, promised him 1 percent -- roughly $34,000 -- of the total project costs, regardless of how many hours he worked, according to city records. It was, in some respects, akin to a state senator negotiating a budget bill, then writing in a percentage for himself as payment for his troubles.

Manning's successor in the law director's office, Scott Serazin, later questioned the fee in a letter to the North Ridgeville Police. "A public official is not permitted to have an interest in any public contract," Serazin noted, quoting the city charter.

Manning dismisses the claims as partisan gamesmanship: "I think that's politics motivated by a Democratic administration, of which Scott Serazin was a part. If he had a problem, he should have brought it to the attention of the state auditors."

The deal eventually fell through; Manning never did get his 1 percent. But, as Serazin pointed out, Manning had found another source for extra cash: developers.

A big part of a law director's job is negotiating "developers' agreements" between prospective builders and the city. While North Ridgeville's charter is vague on the details, Serazin says he understood such work to be covered by his salary, as does the city's current law director, Eric Zagrans. Mayor Deanna Hill believes that's been the case with law directors before and after her administration.

Manning was the exception. He apparently saw the agreements as a means to fatten his paycheck, even though Ohio law bars public officials from benefiting from public contracts and forbids them from getting paid by the people they regulate.

"Those laws are there to make sure public officials are serving one master -- the public agency," says Jennifer Hardin of the Ohio Ethics Commission. "If they're getting compensation from another party, they have competing interests, and that may not result in the best interests of the city."

In his developers' agreements, Manning established an escrow account. The developer put money in; the city then wrote checks to Manning for evaluating the plans. Records show Manning was paid at least $8,300.

Manning claims that his salary was so low and his staff so tiny that he had no choice but to charge for the extra work. And as a good public servant, he didn't want to hand the bill to taxpayers. "I wanted to protect the city," he said. "That's a common practice around Ohio. If you don't have the resources to pay for it, but you want development, that's the way to do it."

Manning says he had the full approval of his boss, Mayor Armbruster. If they had read the agreements, council members would have known as well. And the practice isn't entirely unique: Avon Mayor Jim Smith says his city handles developers' agreements the same way.

But even Manning didn't seem to see a difference between getting paid through the escrow funds or by the developers directly. At one point, he accepted a $1,368 check from the Leeland Development Co. for his work on its plans, according to city records.

And that was nothing compared to the payment he got from developer Robert Schmitt. In 1995, Schmitt was planning to build 1,000 homes. They were big houses, and Schmitt needed to attract wealthy commuters. The problem: Calls from North Ridgeville to Cleveland were long distance, and charges ran 15 cents a minute.

North Ridgeville was already pushing Ohio's Public Utilities Commission to force phone companies to charge a flat fee. Schmitt told the city he wanted to hire an expert to help, he says.

Manning called him a few days later. "He said that because my issues and the city's were one and the same, he'd be glad to handle my end of it," Schmitt says. "I told him that was fine, but I still needed a specialist." So Manning wrote his own hiring into the developer's agreement with the city. Schmitt also hired former PUCO chairman Henry Eckhart.

Schmitt got what he wanted from the PUCO. When the bills came due, he owed Eckhart $130,000, he says. Manning, who'd handled the city's end of the case, submitted a bill for $19,000. Schmitt paid him directly.

Serazin thought this too was illegal. In his letter to police, he cited a state law that seems to bar a third party from paying a city official's salary. Moreover, the check should have stopped Manning from handling any of Schmitt's business with the city: The law clearly prohibits public officials from getting paid by people with dealings before their agency.

Prompted by Serazin's letter, the North Ridgeville Police launched an investigation. In September 1997, they filed their report on the Schmitt matter with County Prosecutor White. The conclusion: Manning may have broken as many as four laws.

White chose to pass. "There is no indication that Jeff Manning ever received a penny he did not earn or was not entitled to," he says, arguing that such clauses are common in developers' agreements. "The city won't foot the bill for expanding utility services for a developer. The mayor knew, and the auditor knew, that this was how he would be paid."

North Ridgeville Police Chief Rick Thomas, who handled the investigation, disagrees: "I felt it was something they should have looked at. That was my feeling then and now."

Jonathan Rosenbaum, who ran White's criminal division as chief assistant prosecutor, feels the same way. "In my opinion, what Jeff Manning did was legally and ethically prohibited. It does not matter whether he did the work or not. There are standards that must be upheld, and the Lorain County Prosecutor's Office did not uphold those standards when it came to this case."

Regardless, Manning had moved on to additional money pots. As city prosecutor, he had been briefed on North Ridgeville's ongoing problems with Ridgeview Shopping Center, a rambling, near-empty strip mall at the Elyria border. During Manning's tenure, Chief Building Official Guy Fursdon had ordered the place vacated until repairs were made, according to city records.

The city eventually backed off. But when Mayor Hill took office in 1996, she made Ridgeview a crusade. In April of that year, inspectors cited Ridgeview's owners in Elyria Municipal Court for four violations, then two more within a few months.

Manning, who'd left City Hall just four months before, showed up in court to defend the owners.

Hill was shocked: "For a year after you leave office, you're not supposed to participate in anything you dealt with as a public official."

Jonathan Coughlan, disciplinary counsel for the Ohio Supreme Court, says it's a firm rule for lawyers: "If you work on a particular case, you can't switch sides, ever."

White would prosecute Sweeney, Hill's service director, for a similar violation in September 2000. (Sweeney pleaded no contest and was fined $250.)

But when North Ridgeville tried to remove Manning from the case, he resisted, according to court files. First he argued that he hadn't participated in the case while law director, despite an affidavit from inspector Fursdon noting their discussions on Ridgeview's problems. (Manning says Fursdon had to be lying.) Then, after North Ridgeville submitted memos between Fursdon, Manning, and the owners, Manning changed his argument: A year had now passed since he left office. The point had become moot.

Elyria Municipal Judge John Howard agreed, according to court files. He never addressed North Ridgeville's arguments, simply noting that a year had passed, though that hadn't been true when the case started or the city first filed to remove Manning.

And that was that. The city settled the case after the developers agreed to fix the place up, Hill says. Manning went on to win a seat in the Ohio House.

In his reelection campaign last November, Manning blasted his opponent, high school teacher David Bruening, for suggesting that Manning would take over as prosecutor rather than complete his statehouse term. Two months later, he announced he was interested in White's seat after all.

Since White had two years left on his term, the decision was up to the party's 117 precinct representatives. They received a bevy of letters from police brass supporting White's top lieutenant, Rob Corts, as the "only" candidate worthy of the job.

Chief Thomas declines to say why he thought Manning unworthy of the job. "I'll just let the letter speak for itself," he says. Other cops, who must now work with Manning on every felony case they investigate, are equally reticent.

County Republican Chairman Robert Rousseau lobbied for Manning. He was electable, Rousseau asserted, and the Republicans needed to keep the seat.

But Rousseau also needed to keep his nose clean. He is chairman of the county Board of Elections, and he had recently drawn fire for an ethics violation of his own.

Rousseau had lobbied county commissioners to hire a technology firm -- without telling them he was on the firm's payroll. One of White's last actions was to turn the matter over to the Ohio Ethics Commission.

When the commission issues its finding, it will be Manning who deals with it. He is, after all, the new county prosecutor. White-collar criminals and corrupt public officials are already atremble.

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