The Eight-Year War

Corrupt officials fired workers for trumped-up reasons. But Summit County won't concede.

John Eldridge
John Eldridge has won five different decisions dating back to 1997. But he still doesn't have his job back. - Walter  Novak
John Eldridge has won five different decisions dating back to 1997. But he still doesn't have his job back.
John Eldridge should be lighting a Cohiba over the mounds of legal documents he will soon be able to forget.

In September, the former video technician finally won his suit against Summit County, which he accused of wrongly firing him in 1997. An appellate court told the county to cough up eight years' worth of back pay and benefits for Eldridge and six other ex-employees. The final settlement -- projected to be in the millions -- should be enough to grant the 66-year-old Eldridge a comfortable retirement.

But as he scarfs down an omelet at Dodie's Diner in Akron, he knows better than to uncork the Moët. "I was thrilled when I first won this case in 1998," he says. "Now I'm tired -- just exhausted."

This isn't the first time that Eldridge has won. It's the fifth, to be exact, and it may not be the last. Despite the knowledge that he was fired by corrupt officials for trumped-up reasons, Summit County refuses to concede its case.

It's all about the money.

"This is our Hundred Years War," Eldridge says.

In 1997, Eldridge's job, ironically, was to make the county look good. He was the chief video technician, in charge of producing videos on everything from public-service announcements to applying for welfare. Then he and at least 10 other Human Services employees were laid off.

The county justified the cuts by pointing to a $1.5 million Human Services deficit. Eldridge didn't buy it. He believed that at least one official, John Keenan, had ulterior motives.

Eldridge knew that Keenan, the department's assistant director, was carrying on vendettas against several of the laid-off workers.

Kathleen Peters was working as a public-information officer when she was fired. She had once complained that Keenan sexually harassed her and was subsequently removed from his direct supervision.

Eldridge had problems of his own. In 1990, when he was a welfare caseworker, Eldridge filed an age-discrimination suit against the county after it hired a younger, less experienced person to fill an unposted position for a video technician, a job he had sought. He won and was awarded the job plus $1 more a year than the previous staffer earned.

"What they were really mad about was that my lawsuit forced them to start posting the jobs that they were just giving away to their friends," Eldridge says.

William White ran Human Services' fraud-investigation unit, which screened for welfare cheats. Keenan made frequent derogatory comments about White's previous work for the FBI, court records allege. In December 1996, he abolished the entire unit, despite reports indicating that it was one of the state's best.

Keenan argued that closing fraud investigations would improve the department's "efficiency and economy." But after it closed, the department's fraud collections dropped by 60 percent.

Eldridge knew Keenan's real motive.

"There were all these things -- cars, radios, sophisticated phone systems -- that were being charged to the welfare department," he says. "But we never saw the stuff, just the receipts. Suddenly, Keenan, who was always this worn-down-heels kind of guy, started showing up to the office in a big fat Cadillac and nice suits. That could have been why he wanted the guys like White out of there. He didn't want to get caught stealing."

Eldridge took his story to the Akron Beacon Journal. Not only was he unjustly laid off, he told a reporter; he was fired by thieving officials who stole county funds to buy Caddies and Christian Dior. "I was sitting in this exact booth eight years ago with the Beacon's Carol Biliczky," Eldridge says. "And I told her. I looked her right in the eye, and I told her exactly what I'm telling you. She just looked at me like I was a raving lunatic -- just an old man who lost his job and wanted revenge."

Biliczky reported Eldridge's outrage, but never bothered to examine his claims against Keenan.

Along with several other employees, Eldridge appealed his firing with the Human Resource Commission. After a series of hearings, an arbitrator, determining that the county had no rationale for the firings, recommended the rehiring of Eldridge and two other workers. The county rejected the notion.

Around the same time, Keenan suddenly resigned. Though he'd been promoted to Human Services director just three weeks before, he cited his fight with bone cancer as the reason for his departure. It was a lie.

Shortly before Christmas of 1997, the FBI and IRS searched Keenan's home, uncovering nearly a decade's worth of widespread corruption. In just three years, Keenan had given more than $1.7 million in contracts to the private consulting firm of Michael Smith. In exchange, Smith gave Keenan more than $136,000 in bribes.

The feds also discovered that county Finance Director Bill Hartung had accepted more than $170,000 in bribes from a Westlake contractor in exchange for contracts.

In 1998, Keenan pleaded guilty to bribery, conspiracy, and tax evasion. A year later, a jury found Hartung guilty on 14 similar charges.

Both men were responsible for the Human Services layoffs. And as it turned out, their tales of a deficit were pure fiction. The year Eldridge was fired, Human Services actually ran a $220,000 surplus. Keenan had simply invented the deficit, according to depositions given by his staff.

Eldridge, along with six other employees, took the county to Common Pleas Court. Lawyer Nancy Grim submitted evidence of the fabricated figures.

Yet Judge John Wise nonetheless sided against the workers. Grim appealed, claiming that Wise never looked at the evidence against Keenan and Hartung. The appellate court agreed, and kicked the case back to Wise for a new ruling.

But apparently Wise wasn't interested in his superiors' ideas. Three times he was ordered to reexamine the case. And three times he simply produced the same ruling, with only minor alterations in language.

"Wise just kept printing out the same decision, and we continued to fight it," Grim says. "Only once did he take out the bad sentences that showed he used the wrong standard of review, but he still issued the same decision. No sensible judge could make that decision after actually considering all the evidence itself."

(Wise declined Scene's interview requests.)

In September, the appeals court put an end to the merry-go-round. It sided with the workers, ruling that Wise had "abused his discretion" by failing to consider the evidence. It also set December 5 as a settlement deadline.

But a week later, Assistant Prosecutor Anita Davis filed yet another appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court.

It would seem a strange move. The county has spent eight years defending what appears to be an open-and-shut case of malfeasance. And by delaying the inevitable, it has burned through hundreds of additional lawyer hours, further escalating the taxpayers' tab.

But Chief Counsel John Manley sees it in a different light. "We're not defending [Keenan and Hartung], we're defending the four corners of the lawsuit. We're basing our case on hard, cold facts, not inferences of contact with people who've admittedly done wrong. A bum can abolish a job and do so lawfully. The fact that [Keenan] was a bum doesn't mean that the firings were wrong."

Yet it's a strategy that has Eldridge convinced that the county can't win. "The delicious ironic hook is that Summit County now finds itself trying to put forward the actions of the same gang of thieves that robbed them blind," he says. "It's shameful."

If the county loses the next go-round, it will have to reinstate all seven workers. Eldridge says he's going back to work, even though he'll be eligible for retirement. "At this point, I don't even care how much I get. I just want my job and my good name back."

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