The New Sheriff in Town

For 22 years, Greg White made enemies busting crooks in Lorain. Now it’s Cleveland’s turn.

Strapping Young Lad Peabody's Thursday, April 14
After two decades as prosecutor in little Lorain County, Greg White knew corruption when he saw it. He made his bones busting mayors, cops, judges. At times, it seemed as if he were checking names off the guest list for a charity ball.

So in January 2003, a month before he was appointed U.S. Attorney for Northern Ohio, White's curiosity swelled when he noticed something odd about a county contract. A member of the election board had persuaded the county to hire Micro Advantage, a technology firm, to clean up the government's computer systems. Problem was, the board member also worked as a consultant for Micro Advantage -- and made $4,000 on the deal.

The prosecutor sent his case to the state ethics commission. Last April, the board member pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of having an illegal interest in a public contract.

For his inside dealing, he was fined a measly $100 and ordered to pay court costs. Such is the nature of the political system policing itself. But the true damage was to his name. For this was no ordinary board member. It was Robert Rousseau, chairman of Lorain County's Republican Party. The chairman, that is, of White's own party.

"He would take on anybody, anywhere, any time," Rousseau says, defeat still in his voice as he mentions that he and White were once friends. "Not anymore," he adds gruffly.

For White, this is life for a crime fighter. Guys who break the law go down. Sometimes they're your friends; sometimes those friends become enemies. "I have a long list of those," White says matter-of-factly.

He's sitting in his eighth-floor office in the Federal Courthouse, a glimmering tower teetering on the edge of the Cuyahoga. From this lofty perch, Greg White is watching over the city.

For decades, it seemed, no one was. Public corruption festered, thanks to one-party rule and a look-the-other-way attitude. Officials dealt lucrative contracts as if the city's business were just a poker game between friends. A culture of cronyism and kickbacks flourished, even as the rest of the country discovered that good governance could be profitable.

Now the feds are finally casting a harsh spotlight on the region's dirty laundry. A years-long investigation of Nate Gray -- a politically connected consultant accused of bribing government officials from Cleveland to Houston to New Orleans -- has already brought down the mayor of East Cleveland and a former Cleveland parks director. Other power players, including a Cleveland city councilman and a well-known attorney, have also been implicated.

Then there's Gray. When his trial begins next month, federal prosecutors are expected to unspool tapes of secretly tapped phone calls and surveillance videos to argue that he was the ringleader of a complex multistate bribery ring. Prosecutors say that Gray lavished public officials with cash, Super Bowl tickets, and massages to win big contracts for the companies for which he consulted -- national firms such as Honeywell and CH2M Hill.

At the center of it all is White. Although the investigation began before he was appointed U.S. attorney -- the top federal prosecutor in northern Ohio -- it's now his charge to flesh out the corruption of Cleveland. And if the region's track record is any indication, there won't soon be a shortage of crooked politicos and powerbrokers for White to hunt.

Cleaning up Cleveland is a big job, but there may be no one better suited for it than White. For starters, he's a Republican in a Democratic town -- an outsider with allegiance to no one. With a Marine's work ethic and an utter disdain for crime, White is known for his hands-on leadership. He also brings a reputation for hunting public officials, having indicted two mayors, a finance director, a city councilman, a police chief, and others.

"As far as I'm concerned, he's one of the best crime fighters that ever stepped foot in Ohio," says Rick Thomas, the North Ridgeville police chief.

Yet, there are also those who say that White isn't the spotless lawman he portrays himself to be. In Lorain, he was often accused of overzealous prosecution. While he burnished his reputation by taking down Democrats, there were times that he let Republicans skate. Others say that he'll readily burn bridges with friends when it's politically expedient.

Mark Betleski, a Lorain County judge, who once ran against White for county prosecutor, says that the U.S. attorney has the grit and the know-how to clean up Cleveland. But, he cautions, "If you're going to have Greg White leading the charge, make sure he's surrounded with people who are willing to stand up to him."

White is meticulous. On this day, he wears jet-black lace-ups, a snug white dress shirt, and an I'm-in-charge burgundy tie. His close-cropped gray hair shows his 55 years over square shoulders and perfect posture. He always looks prepared for his next press conference.

Born in Huron County to a gas-station owner and a stay-at-home mom, White spent adolescent afternoons tending to his father's business. "When you have seven kids, that's how that goes," he says with a shrug. His family moved to Oberlin when he was in middle school, and after graduating from high school in 1967, White took a stab at college, enrolling in classes at Lorain County Community College. He calls it his "unfocused semester."

So he signed on with the Marines and headed for Vietnam. White doesn't like to talk about that part of his life. News articles never fail to note that he earned a Silver Star for helping save his platoon, which was pinned down by enemy fire. Yet White refuses to elaborate on how it happened. Instead, he will talk only generally about the sacrifices soldiers make. "Not that mine were so great," he quickly adds.

White returned from the Marines with a plan. He re-enrolled at LCCC, intent on becoming a cop. To pay his way, he worked nights rolling steel. He also married his high school sweetheart, Deborah. "He became very determined and focused on what he wanted," says White's younger brother, Bob.

But White's life took a sharp turn not long after he transferred to Kent State. His major was an easy choice: criminal justice. Then, an accounting professor who was impressed with White's logical mind suggested that he try law school. If it was a turning point in White's life, you'd never know it to hear him tell it. He merely shrugs. "He probably thought I had no future in accounting," he says.

Nevertheless, White listened. He enrolled at Cleveland State, focused on criminal law, and earned his degree in 1976. He started in private practice, but his career took another path when the law director in Elyria quit. The mayor, Peg Bowman, needed someone part-time. To his surprise, White got the job.

Though he enjoyed government law, he also learned a valuable lesson about something else: the fickleness of politics. Bowman was up for reelection that year, and White pounded campaign signs and helped spread the word. But his new boss was bounced from City Hall, and White found himself out of a job.

The following spring, another job opened up: county prosecutor. It was a long shot. White was a Republican in a county teeming with Democrats. Lorain hadn't seen a GOP prosecutor in 36 years. It was, White says, "a race that couldn't be won."

In any other year, he would have been right. But when some Democrats were caught misspending federal money, scandal split the party, and the incumbent lost the primary. White, meanwhile, vowed to fight corruption full force. Moreover, it was the beginning of blue-collar flight from the Democratic Party. Surprisingly, Lorain County fell to Ronald Reagan.

When it was all over, White had managed to eke out a 2,000-vote victory.

The margin wouldn't matter. Greg White -- former Marine, Republican among Democrats, the guy who won when he couldn't -- was officially in charge.

In his two years as U.S. attorney, White has added few personal touches to his office. But one object stands out: a large frame displaying patches from Lorain County law-enforcement agencies.

It was a going-away present. If he had any allies in Lorain, it was the cops. But that didn't stop him from going after their chief.

In 1988, White got word that a police officer was pushing around some fire inspectors. White decided to investigate. He found two inspectors who claimed that Lorain Sergeant Wayne Long threatened to arrest them if they didn't overlook code violations at a local bingo hall. As it turned out, the bingo hall was run by the daughter of the police department's beloved chief, John Malinovsky.

At 61, the chief was nearing retirement. His bio looked a lot like White's: He served in World War II, then worked in a steel mill before moving into law enforcement. His daughter worked as a police clerk.

None of that mattered to White. He charged Long with extortion and evidence-tampering. After a judge convicted Long of evidence-tampering, White went after Malinovsky, charging the chief with extortion, perjury, obstructing official business, and interfering with civil rights.

"John Malinovsky was a tough guy," White recalls. "When you walk into his office and tell him he's a suspect, he doesn't like that."

Officers were outraged. They called the investigation a witch hunt. "He deserves better than this," then-Captain Cel Rivera -- who's now chief -- said at the time. The Morning Journal reported local concern that White had "gone off the deep end" and was "head-hunting, perhaps for political reasons."

White made no apologies. "If the evidence is there, and if they committed a crime, they ought to be prosecuted," he told the paper. "That's the way it is. And it ought to apply equally for government officials, for white-collar criminals as well as common street criminals."

But a judge threw out evidence -- a taped conversation between Long and a fire inspector -- that White considered crucial. He appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court, earning prosecutors the right to question a judge's evidence ruling mid-trial.

Ultimately, Malinovsky skated free, but White had made his point. "He didn't kowtow to law enforcement," says Thomas, the North Ridgeville chief.

Indeed, White built a reputation as a prosecutor who wouldn't roll over for anyone. A decade later, he went after another public official -- Avon Lake Mayor Vince Urbin. Urbin was younger, only 40, and lacked the rich history and hard-won respect of Malinovsky. But the fresh-faced mayor had one thing in common with the chief: Everybody liked him.

"I liked him," White says firmly. "Anytime the law touches you or somebody you know, it's always harder."

That didn't slow White. In the winter of 1999, someone called the Avon Lake Police, saying that the city had hired Fountain Bleau, a catering company belonging to Urbin's brother, to provide food for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Not long after, Fountain Bleau found more work with the city.

Police investigated and found a nest of conflicting interests. Urbin, prosecutors charged, had also taken for himself proceeds from a Mayor's Ball, and he had used city resources to mount his reelection campaign. Then, when the cops went after him, he tried to dispose of the evidence.

White slapped Urbin with a slew of charges, including theft in office and unlawful interest in a public contract. After hearing six days of testimony, a jury deliberated for three days before returning with its verdict: Urbin was found guilty of four felony counts of evidence-tampering and having an unlawful interest in a public contract. He resigned his office in disgrace ["The Mayor Who Thought He Was King," June 21, 2001].

Before it all went down, Herman Kopf, an Avon Lake developer who was the prosecution's key witness, had urged Urbin to call White and "nip this thing in the bud," according to court documents. But Urbin held out, perhaps figuring that White wouldn't prosecute him for something as minor as a catering contract. When Urbin finally did reach out to White, the prosecutor offered some harsh advice: Get an attorney.

"Some people should be held to a higher standard," White says.

He sneaked into office in 1980, but 20 years later, White had become an institution. In 2000, when he ran his final campaign for county prosecutor, Democrats didn't even put up an opponent.

It's not that Lorain County had taken a liking to Republicans. They just liked White.

"What made Greg a good candidate was that you never saw him take a shift in stance in terms of policy," says defense attorney James Burge. "If someone voted for him in 1992, they were voting for the same guy they did in 1980."

Adds Kosma Glavas, a retired judge: "If he was roughing a guy for a certain crime, he was roughing everybody."

But not everyone sees White as being so straitlaced. His critics suggest that he sometimes looked the other way for Republican allies and lashed out with undue ferocity at Democratic foes.

"It's always easy for county prosecutors to go after the other side," says Betleski, the Lorain County judge.

Over the first decade of his career, White continually feuded with Joseph Cirigliano, a popular judge. Cirigliano was a well-liked Democrat; many lawyers believed he was among the best judges in Ohio. But more than once, White accused him of wrongdoing. In 1986, the judge stepped down from a drug case in which White questioned Cirigliano's relationship with a defense attorney. Two years later, White again complained of bias and forced Cirigliano to step down from another case.

Many people saw the head-butting as simple political warfare -- a well-liked Democrat versus a well-liked Republican. In the end, White won the battle. After Cirigliano retired, he worked as a visiting judge for the Ohio Supreme Court, hearing cases in several counties -- but never Lorain. Cirigliano declined to comment, but acquaintances of the men say White used his connections in Columbus to keep the judge out.

"Once he retired, he was not allowed to come into Lorain," says Jack Bradley, a defense lawyer and friend of Cirigliano's.

Adds Rick Zarbaugh, who covered politics for The Morning Journal: White "made sure that Cirigliano never heard cases in Lorain County again."

For other critics, it was the battles that White didn't fight that drew attention. White has claimed that he ignores friendships and politics in carrying out his duty. As evidence, he points to the way he turned in his own party chief. But he hit Rousseau on his way out of Lorain -- when there were no more elections to be won.

Other Republicans managed to escape White's hammer altogether.

In 1995, a lawyer named Jeff Manning was finding creative ways to fatten his paycheck as the law director in North Ridgeville. Manning, apparently not satisfied with his $85,000 salary, cut a deal with housing developers for payment to look over their agreements with the city. In one instance, a developer cut Manning a $19,000 check for work Manning was getting paid by the city to do.

The North Ridgeville Police investigated and concluded that Manning had broken conflict-of-interest laws -- laws that Greg White had a reputation for upholding. The police forwarded the case to White, but he turned them away. Manning was an up-and-coming Republican, who would later win an Ohio House seat in a Democratic district. And he would also eventually replace White as the Lorain County prosecutor.

"There is no indication that Jeff Manning ever received a penny he did not earn or was not entitled to," White said at the time.

But to this day, Thomas, the police chief in North Ridgeville, believes that Manning, who died last year, should have been prosecuted. And while Thomas says he's certain that politics didn't play a role in White's decisions, others aren't so sure.

"He'd rather go after elected officials that are Democrats, rather than his own party," says Congressman Sherrod Brown, who narrowly held off White's challenge for his seat in 1994. "That was clearly his reputation in Lorain, and it was probably deserved."

Adds one defense attorney who often battled with White: "Some people felt there was a double standard."

White brings his hands to his temples, thrusting them forward and saying, "I'm gonna look ahead." These people -- the judges, mayors, and police chiefs -- are not what Greg White wants to talk about. And there is no subject he appears more eager to dispose of than his falling-out with his former chief assistant prosecutor, Jonathan Rosenbaum. "It is what it is today," White says. He'll leave it at that.

What White wants so badly to gloss over is a relationship that for two decades defined his career. Rosenbaum, an intense and often intimidating prosecutor, has long been portrayed as the single flaw on the prosecutor's otherwise perfect résumé. Many believe that it was Rosenbaum who built White's success, racking up convictions and votes, while the boss stayed above the fray and kept his hands clean.

"Jonathan Rosenbaum was probably one of the most capable prosecutors in Ohio," Rousseau says. "I don't believe Greg White could have gone farther without Jonathan Rosenbaum. Maybe the opposite's true."

One of White's first decisions after winning in 1980 was to hire Rosenbaum, and for years their relationship was mutually beneficial.

Rosenbaum tried the big cases and built a reputation as a fierce and unrelenting courtroom presence -- one that often turned ugly, but was more often effective. In one trial, when a state trooper said that he couldn't return the next day to testify, Rosenbaum berated him outside the courtroom, recalls Bradley, the defense lawyer. The trooper, who was wheelchair-bound, was close to tears, but returned the next day to testify.

"He was just like the big bully," Bradley says of Rosenbaum. "And the judges seemed to be intimidated."

Rosenbaum won case after case, building the office's reputation as one of the state's best. And any fires that Rosenbaum sparked could be put out with White's charm.

One heated moment came in 2001, when Rosenbaum drew criticism for a case against a doctor named Ashok Ramadugu.

A nurse noticed a bruise on the leg of one of Ramadugu's patients, a woman who was partially paralyzed, deaf, and blind from multiple sclerosis. To the nurse, the bruise looked like a bite. A dental specialist told investigators that Ramadugu was the only hospital employee whose teeth matched the mark.

White charged Ramadugu with rape and assault. His face was splashed across TVs and newspapers. The hospital denounced the incident as isolated, and the doctor went on leave.

Soon after, another of the doctor's patients came forward. In her dreams, she said, she realized that she, too, had been assaulted in the hospital's intensive-care unit. She picked Ramadugu out of a lineup.

The grand jury indicted the doctor again. More rape charges. More news coverage.

It was a high-profile case, and Rosenbaum's to win. But it wouldn't be easy. The first woman had taken a bath after the alleged attack, so police had little physical evidence. And she told police that her attacker's name was David. As for the second woman, she had seen her attacker in her nightmares -- not exactly bulletproof evidence.

But Rosenbaum had the bite marks. He called dental experts who said that the doctor was the only person in the hospital who couldn't be ruled out.

The case went before Judge Tom Janas in June of 2001. He examined the photos, the fuzzy details the woman presented, the lack of physical evidence. In the end, the doctor walked free.

Rosenbaum took the heat. An attorney filed a complaint that Rosenbaum had withheld evidence during trial -- evidence that the woman's descriptions had come to her in dreams. Shortly after, The Plain Dealer called Rosenbaum the "one peculiarity attached to [White's] 20-year tenure" and "a petty, vindictive bully."

"Greg White has long stood as a paragon of fairness and toughness," the paper editorialized. "But his top lawyer has too often acted more as an attack dog than a public interest watchdog."

Yet looking back, some lawyers wonder whether Rosenbaum caught more than his fair share of the mud. After all, if Rosenbaum was the attack dog, wasn't White holding the leash?

"White was the ultimate decision-maker on things," says one defense lawyer. "We all felt like, if White didn't like it, he could have changed it -- and he didn't change it. So he must have approved it."

Many saw Rosenbaum as the biggest stumbling block to White's lofty political ambitions.

In 1994, Republicans pegged White as the candidate who could challenge Brown, then a freshman Democrat, in Ohio's 13th Congressional District. White's tough-on-crime reputation, Republicans figured, could help them secure House control.

White earned The PD's recommendation and wooed voters by painting Brown as a close ally of President Clinton and far too liberal for the suburbs and farms of Lorain County.

But it didn't work. When it came to fighting crime, White was fine, but shaping social and economic policy was a different endeavor. The voters narrowly sent Brown back to Washington. "He was my closest race by far," Brown says.

Four years later, White expressed interest in joining Governor Bob Taft's cabinet, but dropped out, citing family concerns. Several people say that he also harbored hopes of becoming attorney general, but there was always that "peculiarity" attached to his tenure.

"If it weren't for Rosenbaum," says defense attorney Burge, "Greg probably would have been the attorney general."

By January of 2002, after a 20-year partnership, the relationship between Rosenbaum and White began to disintegrate.

It involved the case against Kopf, the Avon Lake developer implicated in Mayor Urbin's corruption. Kopf was a generous donor to Republicans. His lawyer asked White, who was notoriously stingy about cutting deals, to downgrade a charge of obstruction of justice. Though White turned Kopf down, he considered cutting the developer a deal.

Rosenbaum fumed. He had spoken out before, when Jeff Manning got a pass in North Ridgeville. He didn't like the notion that his office played favorites.

Not long after, Rosenbaum resigned. The move fueled speculation in Lorain that White dumped his longtime assistant to clear the path toward higher office. White's name had surfaced only weeks before as a possible candidate for both the U.S. attorney job and the lieutenant governor's post.

"Greg probably would not have gotten the U.S. Attorney's Office if Jon Rosenbaum remained in his office," says Bradley. "Because not only did Jon Rosenbaum upset local defense attorneys, but he also offended well-respected U.S. attorneys, former U.S. attorneys, judges, former judges -- people who were all respected."

White's response is brusque. "That's absolutely not true," he says. "The decision . . . had nothing to do with this office."

Rosenbaum still practices law in Lorain County and works as a part-time magistrate in Sheffield Village. When contacted by Scene, he flashed anger. "What do you want?" he asked. After hearing the name of Greg White, he abruptly ended the conversation: "Don't bother calling me again."

For big press conferences, the U.S. Attorney's Office uses a spacious room on the bottom floor of the Federal Courthouse. On an April afternoon, White arrives early. Within minutes he's already glad-handed 15 visitors. Eye contact. Shake. How are you? Next.

Sure, he's made his rep busting crooks, and he's prided himself on leaving politics out of it. But he's picked up some tricks along the way.

After his failed congressional campaign, White co-chaired President Bush's 2000 campaign, and he has often raised money for important Republicans, including U.S. Senators Mike DeWine and George Voinovich.

For a while, it appeared as if his help had gone unnoticed. In 2001, when it came time to recommend possible U.S. attorneys, DeWine and Voinovich offered up Geauga County Prosecutor David Joyce. All that remained was the background check.

But Joyce's history set off alarms. Defense attorneys accused him of withholding evidence during a murder case. He'd been cleared of the accusations, but the White House didn't want to risk it. Joyce eventually dropped out, and the senators sent the president another list of names. This time, White got the job.

He was sworn in on February 18, 2003. In his 22 years as a prosecutor, he had seen plenty of corruption in Lorain County. But he hadn't seen anything like what he would confront in Cleveland.

For several years, federal investigators had slowly built a case against Nate Gray. They were still gathering evidence when White arrived. He walked smack into one of the city's largest corruption scandals in decades.

White dove right in. Fourteen months later, the first indictment dropped. East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor was charged with 22 counts of racketeering, public corruption, and other charges. He was accused of taking thousands of dollars in bribes from Gray. Four months later, the mayor was convicted -- on all 22 counts.

But prosecutors weren't through. In December, Oliver Spellman, a former Cleveland parks director under Mayor Mike White, admitted taking bribes from Gray while working in Houston. A month later, prosecutors unveiled charges against Gray and five others, including Cleveland City Councilman Joseph Jones. Gray faces 45 counts of bribery, tax evasion, racketeering, and other charges. His trial begins next month.

Several lawyers familiar with the U.S. Attorney's Office say that the case against Gray and his alleged accomplices would have been prosecuted no less aggressively under White's predecessor, Emily Sweeney. But not everyone agrees.

"Sweeney played politics," says Eric Brewer, an East Cleveland watchdog and ally of former Mayor Mike White, whose close friendship with Gray casts a long shadow over the case. "Greg White doesn't."

Before Clinton appointed her, Sweeney had worked in the asset-forfeiture division of the U.S. Attorney's Office, supervising lawyers who seized property for the government. As U.S. attorney, she became known as a low-key leader who let the office's many veteran prosecutors work their cases without interference.

In contrast, Greg White has inserted himself into the nitty-gritty, lawyers say.

"He has a lot more hands-on criminal experience," says J. Matthew Cain, a prosecutor under White. "He's very interested in all the cases."

"He seems to have sped up the treadmill at the office," says Subodh Chandra, Cleveland's former law director and an adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University. "And that's a good thing."

While it's the career prosecutors and investigators who make or break cases, having a seasoned crime fighter in charge certainly helps.

"They know that they're not out there on a limb by themselves," says another former assistant U.S. attorney. "If the assistant knows that, it's a lot easier for him to do his job."

Greg White's thrusting his hands forward again. "Looking ahead," his mouth is saying, while his body language telegraphs: Why do we keep talking about the past?

But here's the thing about White: He doesn't like to look too far ahead, either. When President Bush was reelected in November, White earned at least four more years in his eighth-floor office. If his tenure ends in 2008, he'll be 59. He says that he isn't likely to retire, but when pressed, he says he can't be sure what he might do. Congress? Attorney general?


"It's a good age for a charter-boat captain," White says with just a hint of a grin. For a second, it seems like a good idea. He's tough, experienced, a leader -- that boat would definitely go places.

Then again, unless someone crooked was on board for him to bust, you get the feeling that it would be a short trip at sea.

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