The Godfather In the Closet

The Republican boss of Summit County revels in crushing his enemies. Now his private life might crush him.

Rocket From the Tombs, with Cobra Verde Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Road 9 p.m. Thursday, June 5, $15, 216-383-1124.

It was past 2 a.m. when the kid left the bar and headed for home. Back from college for Christmas, he'd met up with his high school buddies at Annabell's, a neighborhood watering hole in Akron. Frustrated for reasons that no longer seem important, the 21-year-old Kent State student had been too annoyed to wait for a ride.

It wasn't long before he wished he had. It had been a white Christmas. The ground was still blanketed, early that morning of December 27, 2002; the air, frigid. Maybe a stranger would give him a lift.

As the kid would later explain in an interview with Scene, he tried to flag down the first car he spotted, a souped-up Mitsubishi, neon underbelly aglow. It didn't stop. But when the new Audi behind it did, the kid got in.

The driver was a middle-aged white man. Dark hair, well dressed. He asked the kid how he was doing; the kid said OK, then offered a few dollars for gas. The man said not to worry.

The kid told him to take a right at Main Street. But the man didn't. I'll get you home, don't worry about it, the kid remembers him saying. Then the man started rubbing his thigh. Are you gay? he asked. Are you bi? No? Are you sure?

The kid was trying not to freak out. He saw a red light ahead and clicked open his seatbelt, bracing himself for the jump out. But the light flicked to green.

What are you doing? The man asked. Are you nervous?

The kid said no, he was just trying to get comfortable. The man was caressing his thigh, grabbing at his crotch. "I didn't want to piss him off," he says. "He could just hit the gas, and I'd be stuck."

Do you want to make some money? The man asked. The kid laughed weakly and said he had plenty. He was watching the light ahead, willing it to stay red.

The Audi pulled to a stop, and the kid saw his chance. He took off running. The Audi peeled off in a different direction.

Then the kid heard a siren. An Akron patrolman had witnessed his desperate departure, according to the police report. The cop stopped the car and questioned the driver. The man told him he'd picked the kid up, but he was too drunk and had hopped out.

But the kid, fearing trouble, doubled back to the cop car. Gasping for breath, he relayed his version. The man had tried to touch him, he said. He had to run. "You can arrest me for anything you want right now," he remembers saying.

The cop took the driver's information and let him go. Then he told the kid to relax, something like "What are you doing getting into a stranger's car, anyway?" He offered to take the kid home.

Then a second black-and-white pulled up. The officer gestured at the departing Audi with its ARA 1 vanity plate. "Do you know who that was?" the kid heard him ask. "That was Alex Arshinkoff. He's the chair of the county Republican Party."

"My stomach just dropped," the kid says.

For years, Alex Arshinkoff topped the scale at more than 400 pounds. He was a man of giant appetites: for politics, for conversation, and of course, for food. A former dining companion says Arshinkoff would order one entrée, finish it, then order another. Sometimes he'd go for a third.

Thanks to the Atkins diet, a personal trainer, and daily nine-mile walks, Arshinkoff has shed half of his girth. But he's still larger than life. Head of the Summit County GOP for 25 years, he seems to burnish a reputation as the county's Dark Lord, a man who consumes politics and plays to win. To many insiders, he is Don Corleone in the flesh, with a dose of Machiavelli's Prince thrown in for good measure.

(Through his assistant, Arshinkoff declined Scene's interview request.)

Since two failed runs for city council more than two decades ago, Arshinkoff has never been the guy on the ballot. He's not a politician, as he'll tell anyone willing to listen.

He's far more powerful, and he knows it. He picks the candidates. He runs their campaigns. He tells them what to do. Who to hire. Who to fire. If they don't play ball, they're out. Just like that. He's done it to top Summit Republicans. He did it as a University of Akron trustee.

He was on George W. Bush's campaign finance committee. Karl Rove is said to call him for advice. When the first President Bush visited Akron in 1990, he started his speech by thanking Alex Arshinkoff.

"He's a master of the nuts and bolts of politics," says state Senator Kevin Coughlin (R-Cuyahoga Falls). "He is just one of these old-school political leaders."

Arshinkoff lives for the job, calling up candidates at all hours of the night with advice and exhortations. When he's not being compared to Machiavelli, he gets Boss Tweed.

"Even those who don't like him have to admit he's as shrewd as they come," says Republican County Councilman Mike Callahan.

He's made himself wealthy. He's on Senator Mike DeWine's payroll as a consultant; he also began a lobbying business in 1997, harvesting the ties he developed as party chairman. He represents nine companies, from FirstEnergy to Playhouse Square, offering his advice and pushing their interests in Columbus. He has a $200,000 home in Hudson, an antique Chevy Bel Air, and two Corvettes -- in addition to the Audi paid for by the party.

His family has done well too. One brother is a bailiff; so is a sister-in-law. One niece is Barberton's clerk of courts; another is the party's attorney; a third works for the county engineer. Until Republicans lost the judge's seat this January, his nephew-in-law worked for the Juvenile Court.

In other counties, party chairs aren't so powerful, and there's little reason Summit County should be an exception. Akron has long been heavily Democratic. Despite suburban growth, the county retains a three-to-two Democratic edge.

But you'd never know it, looking at a list of Summit County officeholders. Under Arshinkoff, Republicans have put practically every seat in play. They hold a majority of judgeships, the Probate Court, the sheriff's office, both Ohio House districts, and the state senate seat.

"He has created the most effective county organization in the state," says Arshinkoff's Cuyahoga County counterpart, state Representative Jim Trakas. "Republicans in Summit County do better than they should. And state and national candidates do much better there than they should too."

A relentless fund-raiser, Arshinkoff gets $100,000 checks from lawyers and $1 million donations from CEOs. He also collects from the little guys: A list of campaign contributions shows bailiffs, magistrates, low-level county flunkies and their spouses -- all chipping in their $100 or $1,000 when asked.

He's a great motivator. "He has always kept the heat on, kept the pressure on," says state Representative Bryan Williams (R-Akron). "He keeps people prepared and primed and ready to go."

In 2000, the county party raised more than $2.19 million and spent $200,000 on TV ads, $300,000 on the sheriff's campaign, and $700,000 in a failed bid for the county executive's office.

The money doesn't just stay in Akron. In the last decade, the party gave $64,000 to Bob Taft, $46,500 to Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, and a whopping $339,000 to Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery.

To Arshinkoff, though, the local game is paramount. He's not so much interested in policy, though friends insist he's a true right-wing believer. For him it's the power, and power is in the money: the salaries, retirement benefits, and perks intrinsic in several hundred county jobs.

"It all has to do with raising money, contracts, pay-to-play," says County Executive James McCarthy, a Democrat. "If you don't give money to his party, you're not going to get jobs from the county -- or state contracts."

Democrats point to lawyer Deidre Hanlon. From 1996 to 2001, she earned $1.69 million from Attorney General Betty Montgomery's office. Most of the money came from an exclusive contract, allowing Hanlon to sell assets of deceased Summit County residents to pay off their Medicaid bills. As The Plain Dealer first reported, she was one of only two lawyers in the state to get such a contract.

Her luck may have followed the money trail: From 1996 to 2001, Hanlon donated $121,000 to the county GOP. Meanwhile, under Arshinkoff, the Summit GOP gave Montgomery $244,400 during the same period.

Democrats say it's a system where those who play ball are rewarded; the recalcitrant are punished.

Consider Saundra Robinson. She beat a Democrat for a Juvenile Court judgeship in 1990 -- a surprising upset and a major victory for a party that counts its success by the jobs it controls.

Arshinkoff was in heaven. But Robinson was no pushover. "He made suggestions," she says. "Some of them were good." She had no problem hiring loyal Republicans who were qualified, she says, but refused to hire those who weren't.

That was her fatal mistake. When it came time for her reelection four years later, Arshinkoff ran another Republican in the primary -- with the party's full support. Robinson lost. "If I wanted to stay there, there were rules to play by. I didn't," she says. "I know I could have gone the other way and still be sitting there today."

Kim Hoover, then a Cuyahoga Falls councilman, found himself in a similar position in 1994. The county prosecutor's seat opened up when its longtime holder was appointed a judge; Hoover was widely considered the Republican Party's top choice.

But first Arshinkoff wanted to talk. The day before the appointment was to be announced, Arshinkoff informed him of the people to be fired his first day, Hoover says. One was Fred Zuch, chief of the criminal division, a widely respected bulldog who paid no mind to the orders of party bosses.

Arshinkoff's reasons seemed nebulous at best, Hoover says. He refused.

It didn't take long for Arshinkoff to find another candidate: Maureen O'Connor, then a common pleas judge. She took the job.

O'Connor didn't have to fire Zuch; Hoover's plight was leaked to the newspapers, and even Arshinkoff wasn't bold enough to order Zuch's termination after that. But the opportunity Hoover missed is clear. Five years later, O'Connor was elected lieutenant governor. She now sits on the Ohio Supreme Court.

Today Hoover is a Cuyahoga Falls Municipal Court judge. He hears traffic violations, DUIs, and minor drug busts.

He has no regrets. "I know who and what I am," he says. "Alex can say to me, 'If you'd listened to me, you could be lieutenant governor, you could be a Supreme Court justice.' Well, I have no interest in those types of things. And he can't beat me here in my own town -- and that's a source of great frustration to him."

Last election, Hoover faced a challenger in the Republican primary. He beat her handily. Soon after, Arshinkoff appointed her to an open Municipal Court seat. She'd done her job by challenging the rogue Republican; she'd earned it.

Get people talking about Arshinkoff, and soon enough they'll mention the incident involving the Kent State student. "You've heard about that report, right?" they'll ask. Feign ignorance, and they'll offer you a copy.

In the six months since that night, the police report has been circulated among politicos, pushed at newspaper reporters, and whispered about wherever Democrats gather. The kid got a call from someone who works for Summit County and someone at The Plain Dealer. The first wanted to know if he thought Arshinkoff was dangerous; he didn't call the second back.

The kid isn't exactly basking in the attention. He doesn't want his name used; he has no intention of filing suit. "It's water under the bridge to me," he says. But he can't help but wonder: "What is a public official going and picking up people like that?"

Nothing official became of the report. The kid says the police never talked to him again. He didn't press the matter, either. Akron Deputy Police Chief Mike Madden says the cops generally don't investigate "field reports," which are generated by traffic stops rather than official complaints.

"You've got a he said/she said situation, or in this case, he said/he said," Madden says. "There's no way for me to make a case off of that." Sure, if the kid is telling the truth, the incident could be a case of sexual imposition, Madden says. But who's to say? There are no witnesses, no physical evidence.

"I don't know that anyone even took cognizance of this report when it came in," Madden says. "If it weren't that particular name on it, no one would even care."

But it is that name. And people do care. For a Republican who touts "family values," there's a question of hypocrisy. There's also the antagonism factor: Arshinkoff has made so many enemies, they're practically a political party of their own. Even people who say positive things about him are glad to snark when they know it won't get back to him.

Of course, every powerful man has enemies, but the hatred Arshinkoff engenders goes beyond that. Now, perhaps emboldened by the report, many people who've felt his lash are breaking their silence for the first time.

Pete Kostoff, the mayor of suburban Fairlawn for 11 years, was a loyal party man who shared Arshinkoff's Macedonian heritage. Their fathers were friends, and they'd attended the same Eastern Orthodox church for years. Kostoff was considered one of Arshinkoff's top lieutenants.

That meant little when Kostoff endorsed a Democrat in the Cuyahoga Falls mayoral race. It wasn't just any Democrat -- it was his law partner and close friend, Wayne Jones. Kostoff thought it would be OK, because Jones was taking on Don Robart, a Republican known to be on the outs with Arshinkoff.

Indeed, Kostoff thought he had Arshinkoff's blessing. "He told me I'd have to sit out for a period of time, but then I'd be brought back to the party," Kostoff says. Like a good soldier, he agreed to step down from the party's central and executive committees, presuming it was temporary. Arshinkoff told him that he would also be supporting Jones, however quietly.

But as the campaign heated up, it became apparent that Arshinkoff was doing no such thing. Robart's campaign literature was vintage Arshinkoff. It showed an aerial view of Jones's five-acre spread, calling him out for supporting low-income housing because he didn't have to live by it.

After Jones lost and it came time for Kostoff's promised rehabilitation, he and Arshinkoff met for lunch. "You'll have to buy a little time," Kostoff remembers his friend saying.

After six months, Kostoff could read the writing on the wall. "There are a lot of people pissed off at you," Arshinkoff told him.

"I was hoping you'd help explain this to them," Kostoff protested.

No such luck. "It became convenient for me to be expendable," Kostoff says.

Within the next three years, Kostoff's uncle was fired from the Board of Elections -- just one year before he could retire with a decent pension, Kostoff says. His brother was fired from the engineer's office. His sister-in-law, the chief magistrate at Juvenile Court, returned from a week's vacation to find a letter tacked to her front door. She, too, had been sacked.

"At the end of the day," Kostoff says, "people can say it's just politics, but I don't think you use politics to hurt people. He and his gang seem to enjoy inflicting hurt on people."

Kostoff gives money to Republicans he thinks are independent. He considers himself part of the Republican Party. But he won't give it money, not as long as Arshinkoff is around. "Sooner or later, other people of conviction are going to stand up and tell him it's time to move on."

Common Pleas Judge Mary Spicer had always been a good Republican, though she was occasionally annoyed by Arshinkoff's directives. He'd summon the Republican judges to lunch at Tangier or the Portage Country Club, then tell them who to hire, she says. She resented it.

Spicer was the court's point woman for Oriana House, a halfway house the county used as a sentencing alternative to hard time. Though Spicer did the nitty-gritty supervision work, all eight judges signed off on decisions and appointments. They were, technically, a "judicial corrections board," she says, though they didn't officially meet or take minutes.

Such leadership may have seemed lackadaisical, but no one considered it a problem. The county was happy with Oriana, says County Executive McCarthy. So were the judges.

Or so they thought.

In February 2002, it was Spicer's task to get the other judges to sign off on appointments to Oriana's citizens' advisory board. Most were reappointments -- people involved with the issues at hand, such as vocational training and rehab programs.

But that wasn't what her fellow Republican, John Adams, noticed when Spicer gave him the papers to sign.

"These are all Democrats," he told her.

Spicer was surprised. She'd never thought of party affiliation as an issue. Still, she agreed to let Adams take the appointment papers and think it over. She couldn't formalize the appointments until another judge returned from vacation anyway.

(Adams says he "may have issue" with Spicer's recollections, but would prefer not to revisit "these things.")

Then Spicer's phone rang. It was her cousin, Probate Court Judge Bill Spicer. He reminded her that the filing deadline for their reelection campaigns was a week away. He also asked her to hold off on the Oriana appointments. "These are our last bargaining chips," he said. (Bill Spicer declined comment for this story.)

Mary Spicer knew that Adams, Arshinkoff, and her cousin were tight. She also knew that another Common Pleas judge, Democrat Jane Bond, was planning to challenge her cousin for his seat. The link was clear, she says: The GOP would approve the appointments only if Bond got out of the race.

Spicer thought it ridiculous. Then she got a call from Arshinkoff.

He was irate, Spicer says, and launched into a rant about Oriana House. "He said there was all this fraud and theft and corruption," she recalls, still amazed. But he offered no evidence, no specifics. Yelling, he said he was only telling her because he had to protect "his" judges.

Spicer yelled back, finally shouting that she wasn't going to talk about it anymore. Then she hung up.

In short order, she got a visit from her cousin and his bailiff, Chris Masich. They asked her to get Bond to drop out of the Probate Court race, she says. They told her she could promise Bond that she'd never face an opponent again.

Spicer resisted. She saw the party boss's hand. "This is how Alex Arshinkoff works," Spicer says. "He sends other people with messages, so he can say, 'I never said that.'"

Shortly thereafter, Masich sent Spicer a note telling her to forget the whole thing. Judge Adams started making a stink to the papers about problems with Oriana House's leadership, using buzzwords of "fraud" and "corruption."

The only judge to second him was another Republican running for reelection; after that judge announced her concerns, her challenger, another Republican, decided not to run after all.

Insiders believe Arshinkoff wanted control of the jobs at Oriana. If the organization could be proved corrupt, the county could take it over -- meaning direct oversight by Republican judges, meaning more jobs for the GOP to fill.

"Alex likes any place that has people," McCarthy says, "because that becomes patronage, contributors, campaigners."

Jim Lawrence, Oriana's executive director, would accuse Arshinkoff of "running a political operation out of Common Pleas Court." But it was effective: State Auditor Jim Petro agreed to do an audit.

Then Adams -- despite only four years' experience as a Common Pleas judge -- was appointed to a federal judgeship. And Arshinkoff's niece, attorney Betty Konen, announced that she was running against Mary Spicer as an independent.

Arshinkoff pushed an unprecedented amendment through the GOP's executive committee: From then on, the party could give support -- and cash -- to independents, even those challenging Republicans.

Spicer won her reelection, despite not getting a penny from the party or use of its in-house communications firm. She was also barred from using the party's bulk-rate postage unless Arshinkoff first approved her mailers. (She declined.)

Still, Arshinkoff had his own interpretation of Spicer's victory. He noted to a friend that Spicer had been forced to spend $70,000 of her own money on the campaign.

Spicer isn't bitter. "I'm still here," she says. "And I have a new birth of freedom. I don't get calls summoning me to lunch." She doesn't get told who to hire, either. She just gets ignored.

The Oriana House fallout continues. Montgomery, one of the largest recipients of Arshinkoff's largesse, took the auditor's position in January. A month later, she announced that the ongoing performance audit would be teamed with a more extensive "special audit."

Due to Montgomery's ties to Arshinkoff, Oriana's attorney asked her for an independent, outside review. She refused.

Four months later, she has yet to announce any major findings or problems, or complete the first audit. She's still looking.

With Arshinkoff, politics always comes first. Callahan, the county councilman, remembers Arshinkoff saying at a late-night poker game, "I've got a lot of friends in this business, but I'm in the business of getting people elected. That comes first. The job comes first." Good government can finish no better than a distant second.

In 1999, two Common Pleas judges completed a study showing that the Court needed two more judges. The recommendation was approved by the county and the Ohio Supreme Court. The bill was written.

And then it died.

The reason? State Senator Roy Ray, an Akron Republican and Arshinkoff ally, lobbied fellow legislators to kill it. His official reason: The courthouse didn't have room for two more judges.

But Judge Mary Spicer says word drifted back from Columbus that Arshinkoff had stopped it. After all, more judges meant more openings for Democrats, in years when Arshinkoff already had several expensive races to run.

The same fate befell plans to add a second Juvenile Court judge. For years, court workers had pushed for another judge as well as building renovations.

But talks between County Executive McCarthy, a Democrat, and Juvenile Court Judge Judy Hunter, a Republican, reached a stalemate in 2001. So Hunter asked Kostoff to run interference.

The Kostoff plan, recorded in a letter signed by Hunter in February 2001, agreed to details of building expansion and signed off on adding a second judge once renovations were complete.

One month later, McCarthy got a terse, one-paragraph letter from Hunter. She wrote that she "must and do hereby rescind" her previous statements. She gave no explanation.

Kostoff says Arshinkoff caught wind of the plan and stopped it. He was afraid Democrats would win the second judgeship and wrest partial control of the Juvenile Court, which Republicans then held.

Hunter denies this, although she offers no explanation. "There were a whole lot of dynamics at work with that whole scenario, including other issues beside court expansion," she says. As for Arshinkoff's involvement, "You would have to talk to him about that."

Arshinkoff's goal might be protecting his party, but it's irritated his opponents to the point of open contempt. "I have no respect for him, for a lot of reasons," says Jones, now the county Democratic Party's finance chairman. "He's been in powerful positions, and he's used that position in no way to help the county. It's all for his personal gain."

Arshinkoff's power plays extend beyond government. He sat on the University of Akron Board of Trustees for nine years and was its chairman from 1997 to 2001.

Under his watch, the board drummed out university President Peggy Gordon Elliott, after commissioning a report from then-Attorney General Montgomery on Elliott's hiring practices. Montgomery's report finished with "no recommendations or ultimate conclusions," but it was enough for the trustees to send Elliott packing, settlement agreement in hand. The trustees who supported her ouster were Republicans; Democrats were irate, but outnumbered.

John Wray was the university's treasurer when he drew Arshinkoff's ire. Wray says he's still not sure what happened, though he won't dispute that politics played a role. William Beyer, then the associate vice president of administrative support services and Wray's boss, is more outspoken.

"John's work was outstanding," he says. "But you could see what was going on. There was talk for a couple years that they weren't happy with him, because he did a lot of work for [then-Democratic Congressman] Tom Sawyer. That's the way things were up there."

Wray, whose contract wasn't renewed, headed off to Walsh University in Canton.

It was hard to fight. Trustees are appointed by the governor, and for years, Ohio's governor has been Republican. Akron's board is stacked with big Republican contributors: Of the nine members currently serving, eight have contributed more than $7,000 to county party coffers in the last four years, according to records. As for the ninth, her husband provided the money.

Arshinkoff may be gone from the university, but his relatives are still making money there. The university began using the firm Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs for substantial amounts of legal work in 1999. In 2001, the firm's workload dropped precipitously, and the university took on a new firm, Amer Cunningham Co., according to financial records.

What happened? Konen, Arshinkoff's beloved niece, left Buckingham, Doolittle in August 2001. She landed at -- where else? -- Amer Cunningham.

Hardball campaign ads have become Arshinkoff's signature. He uses TV extensively, even for judicial seats, though Summit County is dependent on costly Cleveland airtime. Every penny seems to bring torrents of mud.

In one ad, Judge Bond -- who lost a tight Probate Court race last year - was accused of being under investigation by the Ohio Supreme Court because her husband did work for Oriana House, while she supposedly supervised it.

Never mind that she hadn't actively supervised the program. Or that her husband earned a total of $2,000. Or that the Supreme Court had received a complaint from one of Arshinkoff's buddies, but wasn't necessarily investigating.

Presumably, a man who plays this brand of hardball should know the ball will eventually be fired back.

Michael Curry believes so. In the summer of 2001, Curry, who works for the Summit County Board of Elections, spotted Arshinkoff at the Leather Stallion, a gay bar on St. Clair. The Democrat made a point of greeting Arshinkoff "just to freak him out," he says.

Thirty minutes later, Arshinkoff came over and asked him to stay quiet about seeing him there, Curry says. Curry replied that it wasn't his style to out people. "It's just not my belief system," he says.

Arshinkoff seemed relieved. "If there's anything I can do for you, I'd be happy to do it," he said, according to Curry.

Joking, Curry seized the gambit. He named two friends, both Democratic judges. "I want to see that the two of them never have any opponents," he said.

"I can do that," Arshinkoff responded.

"I was shocked at the transference of power," Curry says. He'd been joking, after all. But when he ran into Arshinkoff several months later, at a gay dance club called The Grid, Arshinkoff waved him over. "He said he'd live up to his end of the bargain," Curry recalls.

Curry decided not to live up to his. "I've just decided he's a hypocrite about it," he says. "He's gone out and recruited candidates who are homophobic and anti-gay." Also, it's tempting to envision the fallout: "If he ever openly admitted he was gay, I think a lot of the money would dry up."

The pyre is growing. The newest memo circulating among the anti-Arshinkoff crowd is a complaint phoned in to the board of elections. In the conversation, a former Municipal Court employee claims Arshinkoff sexually harassed him.

It's public record, duly noted by a deputy clerk. Coupled with the police report, it's led to talk of an overthrow.

But Democrats aren't sure how to play it. "We're a party that supports gay rights," says county Chairman Russ Pry. "We don't believe in outing people. But we don't believe in being hypocrites, either. We don't believe in condemning someone's lifestyle -- and then secretly living it."

Adds McCarthy, "If this was an elected official who had picked up a young girl, I think people would have been all over that. And if Alex is a cruiser, if that's his M.O. . . . I'm sure there are people within his party that would be upset."

Chris Bleuenstein, who recently quit the Republican central and executive committees, says he thinks the gay issue may be the straw that finally breaks Arshinkoff's back. "Most people are aware of it," he says. "Stupid him -- he just keeps getting caught."

The party, Bleuenstein believes, is probably "not enlightened enough" to deal with a gay leader. "I would envision a coup," he says, adding, "He is not going to step down."

Madden, the Akron police deputy, says the whole thing doesn't seem fair. Arshinkoff hasn't been charged with anything, and homosexual acts -- Rick Santorum's views aside -- are perfectly legal in Ohio. "There's crime, and then there's embarrassment," Madden says.

But this is politics. And Alex Arshinkoff would be the first to explain: In politics, embarrassment is often enough.

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