Rags to Rip-offs?

Accusations of inside deals and shoddy work seem to dog Ferris Kleem.

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Parishioners at Berea Baptist Church knew something was wrong when they saw the line of cement trucks rumbling down the block. Church leaders had asked Ferris Kleem to build them a parking lot. It seemed a natural choice. His company, Blaze Construction, was the largest contractor in town, and Kleem was a buddy of Ronald Scott, leader of the church's board.

But Blaze began to bungle the job almost as soon as it began. The parking lot is long and skinny, with barely enough space for one cement truck to maneuver. The trucks should have arrived over a number of days, to keep the summer heat from spoiling the mix. Instead, Blaze ordered them all for the same time. That left six trucks waiting at the curb for hours, with ton after ton of wet slush baking in the August sun.

Blaze poured the concrete anyway. Even before the work was finished, the lot started to crack. "You'd have to be a blind man not to know that was a bad mix," says church member Mary Phelps.

Despite the problems, the congregation stayed hopeful. Members had saved for years to buy the house across the street, demolish it, and pay Blaze $42,800 to pave the lot. The project was proof that their small, mostly African-American church was growing. "We were real excited about it," Phelps says. "It meant our older members wouldn't have to park in the street anymore."

On September 3, 1993, weeks after Blaze completed the job, Kleem signed a contract promising to fix the faulty work -- but only if the church paid him first. Trustee Ronald Scott signed the contract, and Kleem was paid. Over the next four years, Kleem dodged the church's phone calls, according to a subsequent lawsuit. No small feat, considering that his office sits just around the corner. Finally, in 1997, Cuyahoga County Judge Carolyn Friedland ordered Blaze to refund the church's money. Only then did Kleem send workers to fix the lot.

One would think that Ronald Scott, the church leader whom Kleem betrayed, might still be angry. But to hear him tell it, Scott barely remembers the incident at all. "You'll have to talk to somebody else. I don't really know much about all that," he says. "Ferris and I are friends."

Kleem, 44, says the job was a form of charity. Any other company would have charged $90,000, he claims. "I did it because I'm their neighbor. And they're just poor. They couldn't do it if I didn't help them."

What about the unreturned phone calls, the lawsuit? "Mr. Scott and I had an agreement to just use the parking lot until I get a little more money, then I'll go back and fix it," Kleem says.

Phelps remembers it differently. "He broke his promise," she says. "I wouldn't hire him to build my patio."

The lot was a small project, completed over a decade ago. But the same questions that surrounded that job have dogged Kleem throughout his 20-year rise from a small contractor with a wheelbarrow to the owner of three multimillion-dollar construction companies. He's been accused of shoddy, sometimes dangerous work; poor planning, which leads to cost overruns and missed deadlines; and close friendships with powerful leaders, which help Kleem win contracts that tear communities apart with allegations of collusion and insider deals.

His detractors accuse him of running a shadowy political machine that quietly dominates the city halls of Cleveland's southwestern suburbs. His supporters say Kleem, who arrived in this country as a destitute teenager, is a maligned American success story. The truth, it seems, lies somewhere in between.

Ferris Elias Kleem was born in Lebanon in 1959. He was the eldest of three sons in a prosperous Catholic family. Civil war broke out in 1975, and attacks on civilians quickly escalated. Kleem's father arranged for Ferris and his brother, Tony, to fly to America and live with John Kleem, a distant uncle who lived in Berea. The brothers arrived when Tony was 14 and Ferris 16.

Ferris was an outgoing, confident kid at Berea High. His ability to befriend people crucial to his future was uncanny. His best friend was Bob Coury, whose family owned construction companies and helped Kleem get started.

Another friend was Phil Trupo. His father, Stan, would become mayor of Berea. "I love the guy," Kleem says of Stan Trupo. "He's like a father figure to me."

Kleem also didn't waste time before making enemies. He was driving two of his cousins to work in his Ford Pinto, one morning in 1979, when he rammed another car on Bagley Road. At the wheel of that car was his distant cousin, Helena Kleem. Another cousin, Elizabeth, was riding in the passenger seat. Elizabeth almost died from head injuries, while John Kleem Jr. flew into the Pinto's windshield and was knocked unconscious.

Virtually every adult member of Ferris Kleem's extended family in Cleveland sued him over the accident. Together they requested damages of more than $1 million. Ferris agreed to hand over an undisclosed amount in an out-of-court settlement. But for years, he refused to pay. It was only in 1986, when the Bureau of Motor Vehicles revoked his driver's license for nonpayment, that Kleem began to make restitution.

Kleem was attending classes at Cuyahoga Community College at the time of the accident, but he dropped out after one year and went to work as a laborer. That's when he met Loriann Kasl, who was working for the Ohio Department of Transportation. Her father, Ray Kasl, was a top ODOT administrator. Ferris and Loriann were married in 1983.

Two years later, the young couple founded Blaze Construction in the garage of their Berea home. Loriann owned 95 percent of the company's stock, which qualified Blaze as a woman-owned business -- a key advantage for a small company that hoped someday to bid on ODOT projects. This arrangement made Blaze controversial from its inception.

"I worked a lot of projects with Blaze, and I never once saw Loriann on a job site or do anything else with that company," says Gary Cole, whose former company, Cole Excavators, was a subcontractor for Blaze. "It was a minority business in name only. And the only reason they did it that way was because Lori's father, Ray Kasl, told them how to do it."

Kleem says his wife was always active in the business. "She can run Blaze Construction as well as I can."

Blaze started out doing small, private jobs -- sidewalks, driveways. It moved on to public projects in the southwestern suburbs, especially Berea, in 1987, soon after Stan Trupo became mayor. "We tried to do Berea projects before Stan Trupo became mayor, but we weren't successful," Kleem says.

Blaze quickly became one of Berea's top contractors. It won contract after contract by claiming it could do the work cheaper than its larger, more established competitors, who suspected that Kleem had an unfair advantage. "In this industry, everybody's bids come in within two or three percent of each other," says a rival contractor, who wishes to remain anonymous because he regularly competes against Kleem on government projects. "But Blaze always seems to underbid by 6 or 10 percent. They lowball every job, then get the job and get a bunch of change orders to make up the difference."

A change order happens whenever the owner decides to alter a project that's already under way. Maybe the city wants another water fountain, or the excavator hits an unexpected sewer line. But ever since Blaze began bidding on public jobs, competitors have alleged that it abuses change orders. They say that Kleem bids low and then calls on his well-connected friends to approve "changes" that should have been part of the contract in the first place.

"When they bid, they're normally dirt-cheap," says another competitor who often bids against Blaze. "They have a reputation in the industry for getting more change orders than they're entitled to."

Blaze Construction did 42 public projects in Berea from 1989 to 1999. Some were completed under budget. Many others soared above Blaze's original estimates. For example, Blaze won a project at the Berea Recreation Center with a bid of $374,000. Change orders added 31 percent to the cost. In 1999, Blaze said it would charge $518,300 to improve Berea's Coe Lake. By the time the project was done, the city paid Blaze $628,125, a 21-percent jump.

Nationwide, change orders increase construction costs by an average of 3 to 5 percent, according to ODOT. But in the 1990s, Blaze projects cost Berea taxpayers 24 percent more than the company's original bids, according to an analysis by Jim Slater, a Berea accountant who works in the construction industry and investigated the city's books.

How could Blaze consistently get away with such large change orders? Its contract to repave First Avenue may have been the model. Four contractors bid the job, saying it would cost around $560,000. But Kleem said he could do it for $431,108.

"There was no way he could bid that low and still get all the work done," says Gary Cole. "So I asked Ferris how he did it. We were standing on First Avenue, right in the middle of the road. He said, 'Stan [Trupo] told me to bid it real low, and we'll make it back in extras . . . Nobody can beat me.'"

Kleem says the conversation never happened: "Gary Cole is a liar."

Cole wasn't the only one to notice Kleem's tight friendship with the mayor. Berea is a small town, where rumors are easy to start and grudges hard to forget. It consists of six square miles and only a handful of restaurants. When the biggest contractor in town regularly eats lunch with the mayor, people notice. "Oh, they were very close," says Joe Biddlecombe, who served as Berea's director of planning, engineering, and building under Trupo in the 1990s. He replaced Trupo as mayor in 2000. "That was the impression, and I don't think Stan hid that at all."

"We're still friends," Trupo says. "I like Ferris, but not enough to put myself in jeopardy."

In addition to Blaze, Kleem founded Phoenix Cement, which he co-owns with John Mayer. Together, Mayer and Kleem contributed $8,140 to Trupo's election campaigns from 1997 to 1999 (the county Board of Elections keeps records only back to 1997). In return for these donations, Trupo opened Berea's pocketbook to Blaze, claim Trupo's critics. "Without Stan Trupo, there is no way Blaze Construction would be where it is today," says Cole. "Stan made sure Ferris bid low, then helped him get the change orders. And Ferris made sure Stan got elected. It's all cooked."

It wouldn't have been hard to do. Berea's charter is unique in providing the mayor with broad powers. Under Trupo, the mayor advertised and awarded construction projects, consulting city council only for the final rubber stamp. Trupo also signed all change orders without any public scrutiny. "Our mayor has complete power," says Slater. "He's like a little dictator."

Trupo's personality was well suited to the job. He inherited an aging suburb of small homes, struggling businesses, and a declining tax base. He lobbied aggressively to win millions of dollars in private investment, state money, and federal grants. "Stan had a difficult time taking no for an answer," Biddlecombe says. "He was always saying, 'I want that done! It's gotta get done! And I'm gonna get it done!'"

The change under Trupo was astonishing, especially to longtime residents. The city infuriated preservationists when it quickly sold the old Berea Theater to developers, who demolished it and built a medical building. The triangular park downtown was rebuilt and a new clock tower installed. Bagley Road, once a country lane west of town, was annexed and widened, and the farms alongside were replaced by industrial parks and office buildings.

Within a few years, a town that hadn't changed much since the 1950s felt radically different. "They've ruined this town," says Jim Webster, a dogged Kleem opponent who has lived in Berea for 30 years.

And in each project, Ferris Kleem seems to have had a hand. Blaze won the contracts to demolish the theater and build the medical building. Kleem donated $40,000 to erect the clock tower. He also bought three farms along Bagley Road. When Berea annexed the road and won ODOT funding to widen it, Blaze got the contract. With a new five-lane industrial road servicing his land, Kleem sold the farms for a considerable profit. Many of the new owners hired Blaze to build their new industrial and office buildings.

Even city officials believed the process was rigged. "We as a community have been the victims of shady, back-room deals," said Councilman Greg Miller at a 2000 meeting. "Time after time, the special interests of the pals of Mayor Trupo were put ahead of the interests of this community."

Kleem and Trupo say they never traded construction contracts for campaign contributions. "What the hell do I get out of it?" says Trupo. "He doesn't line my pockets. Never has."

Far from being a boon for business, Kleem says, his friendship with the mayor actually cost him money, because Trupo was always asking for favors. "He would call me at two in the morning and tell me to shovel some lady's driveway," Kleem says. "He used to cost me $20,000 to $30,000 a year with that stuff. But he was the best mayor this city will ever see. Anybody who tells you different, they're full of shit."

Here lies the fundamental weakness in the case against Kleem. His enemies have unearthed mountains of circumstantial evidence that Kleem traded on his friendship with Trupo to cheat Berea taxpayers out of millions of dollars. There are coincidences, strange happenings, innuendoes. But Kleem broke no laws by bidding low on construction projects, and Trupo broke no laws by accepting Kleem's campaign donations.

The frustration of not finding hard proof of a conspiracy might help explain the tenacity of Kleem's opponents. They have asked for investigations by the FBI and the Ohio inspector general. They have pleaded with The Plain Dealer for a full-length exposé. And after a decade of fighting, they have received virtually nothing.

"I've had to scale back my involvement," says Slater. "I have had it up to my eyeballs. You can only spend so much time fighting these things."

At the same time as Kleem became close to political leaders, his companies were gaining reputations for shoddy, sometimes dangerous work. In 1990, the Ohio Seafood Company hired Blaze to build a concrete floor to support heavy, commercial-grade freezers. Six weeks after the freezers were installed, the floor began to crack and sink. Blaze returned to examine the work, said the cracking was normal, and then ignored Ohio Seafood's phone calls as the sinking floor proceeded to destroy the freezers.

According to the company's lawsuit, Blaze failed to take a soil sample or drain water from the soil before laying the floor. Blaze also skimped on materials, pouring just one inch of concrete instead of two. The company denied the allegations, but the court ordered Blaze to pay $16,000 in damages.

The company's contract to widen Bagley Road in 1995 was among its first successful ODOT bids. When the road was finished, it rose and fell in waves. "It was like you were driving on a roller coaster," says Jim Webster.

Blaze also poured the concrete an inch and a half thinner than it was supposed to, alleges Cole, a subcontractor on the job. "It's talked about in the industry that they're skimping on materials," says another contractor. "They might do six inches of concrete instead of eight, etc."

Kleem denies skimping on materials, but admits that he had problems on the job. "We had purchased a state-of-the-art paving machine, and we didn't know how to use it."

The safety of Kleem's work sites also raises concern. John Burtyk was working for Phoenix Cement when John Mayer, Kleem's partner, told him to retrieve an air compressor from another construction site in Valley View. The compressor sat on a folding metal stand that connected to a trailer hitch. "You could see the stand was damaged," says a former Phoenix employee. "It was bent. It was pretty obvious that it was dangerous."

Burtyk started moving the compressor, pulling it with his hands toward a pickup, when it collapsed. Burtyk's finger, caught inside, was severed.

"I felt bad," Kleem says. "You don't want to see that happen to anybody. But the guy was an accident-prone kind of person." Court records show Kleem knew the assembly was dangerous before the accident, however. Kleem and Mayer may also have destroyed the crucial piece of evidence in the case. Mayer said in a deposition that he and Kleem waited "four or five months" after the accident before discarding the damaged stand. In a recent interview, Kleem said they waited about two months.

But two Phoenix employees, Baron Williams and Edward Groening, said in affidavits that Mayer ordered workers to dispose of the stand one day after the accident. Burtyk's lawyer, Mark DiCello, asked the court to consider allegations that Mayer and Kleem destroyed evidence. Soon thereafter, Phoenix agreed to settle for an undisclosed sum.

Kleem defends his safety record. "We take safety very, very serious at our companies," he says. Nevertheless, Kleem's three companies -- Blaze Construction, Blaze Building Corporation, and Phoenix Cement -- have been cited for 67 workplace safety violations, 52 of them serious, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

People in Berea did not know about the John Burtyk case or Kleem's OSHA record, but his screw-ups at Bagley Road and the Berea Baptist Church were well publicized in the Berea News Sun. City council meetings devolved into grueling boxing matches. At the height of the tension, in 1999, Trupo unexpectedly bowed out of his bid for reelection. "I just got tired of fighting," he says.

Trupo endorsed Joe Biddlecombe as his successor. It was an odd choice. The two had not been close since 1994, when Trupo fired Biddlecombe from his city job. Trupo says it was because the city ran out of money. Biddlecombe thinks it was because he was a squeaky wheel in Trupo's machine.

"I used to question a lot of things, not just his relationship with Ferris," Biddlecombe says. "He treated people terribly. Including me. He had a terrible temper."

Biddlecombe received $3,210 from Kleem and Mayer for his 1999 campaign. His opponent, city council member Audrey Carlo, accused him of being a stooge for Blaze Construction and Stan Trupo. The message had broad appeal -- Carlo lost by just 90 votes. "I believe there is a lot of influence there [between Kleem and Biddlecombe]," says Stanley Maxwell, who recently completed two terms as city council president.

Since then, Biddlecombe says, he has tried to prove his independence. He signed a law that gave city council more control over the contracting process, and another that bars developers from receiving any city money for new water and sewer lines. The latter was a preemptive strike against Ferris Kleem, who is building a 614-house subdivision called Sandstone Ridge on Berea's northern edge.

Biddlecombe also claims that he told Kleem to stop giving him campaign contributions. "Why make it worse?" says the mayor. "I'm not stupid." The talk apparently had some effect -- Kleem and Mayer donated $6,775 during Biddlecombe's first three years in office, but gave him nothing during his 2003 reelection campaign.

It's true that both the current and previous mayors have received significant donations from Kleem. But for some Berea residents, reasonable fears that Kleem wields too much power over their town have hardened into a mania. Biddlecombe tapped Cyril Kleem, Ferris's distant cousin, as Berea's head of community development in 2000. The job gives Cyril little power to help Ferris; the department's $175,000 budget goes mostly toward fixing homes for low-income residents. (Blaze Construction does not work on houses.) Nevertheless, many assume Cyril is Ferris's puppet.

"Cyril and Ferris grew up together," says Jim Webster. "And now Cyril is the liaison for Blaze at City Hall."

Cyril did not grow up with Ferris -- he was two years old when Ferris immigrated to the United States. Three years later, Ferris nearly killed Cyril's brother and sister in the car accident. Nevertheless, the legend of Ferris-Kleem-as-evil-puppeteer refuses to die. People have thrown dog feces at his house, Cyril says. He claims to have received anonymous notes in his mailbox that read, "Go back to where you came from, you fucking sand niggers," even though he was born in Berea.

"People just assume that there's this really tight relationship between Ferris and me, and there's not," Cyril says. "There's a history of lawsuits and accidents and near-death experiences. That's our relationship."

The pressure on Biddlecombe has not relented, either. During the 2003 campaign, Audrey Carlo again accused him of working for Kleem and Trupo -- four years and two elections after Trupo left office. "Ferris Kleem has turned this town into his own little fiefdom," says Webster. "And Joe Biddlecombe is part of it."

Biddlecombe doesn't know what else he can do. "I don't understand. It's terrible the way these people hate each other. Just get on with your life, you know?"

Ferris Kleem has done just that. Biddlecombe's critics may not realize it, but Blaze doesn't need Berea anymore. Kleem's companies have moved on to bigger projects. And Kleem's current friends are far more powerful than Stan Trupo.

The letter from Ferris Kleem's father-in-law, Ray Kasl, is brief. Written on Blaze letterhead on March 8, 2001, the note informs ODOT engineer Ray Bencivengo that switching from concrete to plastic sewer pipe would not cause any delays in Blaze's $3.4 million job of rebuilding Engle Road in Middleburg Heights.

The note is cordial, even formal. The last sentence reads, "If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at your earliest convenience."

What the letter didn't need to mention was that for years, Kasl worked above Bencivengo at ODOT. "Yeah, we're friends," says Bencivengo, who oversees projects in Northeast Ohio. "I've known Ray for a long time."

Kasl worked for ODOT from 1959 until 1997. By the time he retired, he was a major player inside the department's Columbus headquarters. Kasl drew plans and inspected projects for all of Northeast Ohio.

After his 38 years, Kasl went to work for his son-in-law, Ferris Kleem. "Of all the ODOT projects I worked on that Blaze did, Ray supervised half of them," Bencivengo says.

Still, Bencivengo did not agree with Kasl's idea of swapping concrete pipes for plastic ones on Engle Road. It was only when Richard MacKay, city engineer for Middleburg Heights, signed off on the change that Bencivengo agreed.

But MacKay also owns MacKay Engineering, the company Kleem hired to survey the Engle Road project. MacKay and Kleem deny allegations of quid pro quo. "We were in agreement with it, because it meets the standards that the city uses," MacKay says.

On March 5, 2001, Blaze said the plastic pipes would cost $92,265.76. ODOT paid that amount. But when the department received the supplier's invoices, it learned that the pipes actually cost $13,734.58, according to Matt DiSanto, ODOT's engineer on the project.

Kleem says the discount came unexpectedly, after he bought more plastic pipe for another project. "We bought in volume and got a better deal," he says. But his story doesn't match ODOT's records. Kleem claims he didn't get the discounted price until three months after he filed his March 5 estimate. But ODOT records show he paid for the pipe on March 23.

DiSanto complained to Ray Bencivengo, his boss. Bencivengo says that he immediately passed the complaint along to ODOT headquarters. For a year, nothing happened. "Mr. DiSanto said that he made ODOT officials Raymond Bencivengo and Randall Over aware of the inflated material costs in August of 2001," reads the highway patrol's report on the incident. "He said that he was concerned that no action had been taken against" Blaze Construction. DiSanto declined to be interviewed.

Finally, in August 2002, DiSanto asked the highway patrol to conduct a probe. Investigator Mike Giuliano was given the case. Giuliano happens to be Ray Bencivengo's cousin. Giuliano found that since ODOT had signed the change order, the "case could not be considered for criminal prosecution."

Bencivengo says that he never knew of the highway patrol's investigation, much less that his cousin was leading it. "I don't know of any collusion," Bencivengo says. "We didn't hide anything."

The Engle Road incident is classic Ferris Kleem. His father-in-law happens to be good friends with the ODOT engineer overseeing the project. Kleem happens to hire as a subcontractor the one man with final control over change orders. Kleem happens to overcharge ODOT by 671 percent. The ensuing investigation happens to go nowhere when it reaches his father-in-law's buddy. When the instigator of the complaint calls for an outside investigation, it happens to be referred to the ODOT engineer's cousin. That cousin happens to decide that Kleem can't be prosecuted, but leaves the door open for the agency to recover its money through its own internal mediation process. Two years later, ODOT happens to have ignored that opportunity.

Blaze has done $36.5 million worth of projects for ODOT since 1998, according to the department. In that time, its change orders have amounted to $1.2 million, or just 3.3 percent of the total, "which is damn good," says Brian Cunningham, ODOT's spokesman.

Allegations of cronyism continue, however. Since 1999, Blaze has earned $22.8 million from the Ohio Turnpike Commission for rebuilding five toll plazas. In 2001, Kleem invited three top aides of former turnpike Commissioner Gino Zomparelli to watch Indians games from Blaze's private loge at Jacobs Field. "How would I buy your integrity by taking you to a baseball game with me?" Kleem asks.

But when the state inspector general investigated Zomparelli in 2002, he found the gifts were illegal. "Gratuities bestowed by vendors are generally extended to create a positive impression or garner influence," notes the inspector's report. Political pressure generated by the report forced Zomparelli to resign.

When Kleem does return to Berea these days, he's no longer building sidewalks. Blaze recently won two of the largest public works projects in Berea's recent history, and the contracts are reopening old wounds.

Two major railroad lines cut a diagonal swath across Berea. After aggressive lobbying by Stan Trupo and U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich, Congress authorized $48 million to build bridges and underpasses on Bagley Road and Front Street. (Months later, Kleem and Mayer donated $2,000 to Kucinich.)

Blaze won the first phase of the project. As with its last project on Bagley, Blaze's contract is plagued by allegations of collusion. "Ferris got this as a payback for all the money he's given to the Democrats over the years," claims Jim Webster.

Kleem says he won the contract fairly. "The bidding process can't be shifted," he says. "It has to go to the lowest bid and the most qualified."

Yet the company took months to get its workers to the Bagley project. The first phase was completed four months late. "Everything with them is a battle," says Joe Byrne, who is overseeing the project for the Gannett Fleming company. "To get the most simple things, to get any kind of cooperation, we had to do a lot of head-butting."

For every day that Blaze missed the deadline, the contract says, it must pay $2,500. Far from acting like anybody's stooge, Mayor Biddlecombe withheld money from Blaze's latest payment to cover those late fees. "Right now he owes me $157,500 for being late on phase one," Biddlecombe says. "I'm not giving him his money. I told him I'll go to mediation, arbitration, or to court. Prove me wrong! It's your move!"

Kleem says the delay was Byrne's fault, for not getting the necessary permits from the railroad. "If we attempted to do the work without that permit, the railroad would have shut us down," Kleem says.

In January, Kleem won his latest project in Berea, to build a grassy median on Bagley Road. Out of four contractors who submitted bids on February 3, Blaze was the only one to beat the engineer's estimate of $1.6 million. Berea is bound by state law to award contracts to the lowest bidder, says City Engineer Al Troietto.

Kleem's opponents say that it's just one more example of collusion. "They found the money to do this totally frivolous project, because Kleem has got the connections," Webster says.

But with an openly hostile administration in power, and with three companies too large to survive on the budget of one small city, Kleem knows that he has to diversify. "I mean, there's nothing special about Berea," Kleem says. After all, he seems to make friends wherever he goes.

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