William Denihan's reputation as fixer faces its biggest test yet

William Denihan, head of Cuyahoga County's Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board (ADAMHS), had two requests for this interview. One, that his director of external affairs, Scott Osiecki, sit in. Two, that Scene not call him a "bureaucrat."

"It's kind of weird, kind of quirky, I guess," he admits when we meet. "One of your reporters called me a 'career bureaucrat.' I'm not a bureaucrat — those are fighting words around here. I'm a public servant."

Denihan wasn't the only one offended by that description, which appeared in Scene in June, right after he was named the CEO of ADAMHS, the entity created by combining the county's Mental Health Board and the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board. Several readers familiar with the service agencies wrote to defend Denihan's appointment, even though he had no experience in the alcohol and drug-addiction treatment field, and the other candidate for the post, Dr. Russell Kaye, did. But letter-writer Adam Jacobs, Ph.D., hit on the key factor: "Mr. Denihan's decades of success as a manager of large, complex and varied publicly funded systems made him a credible candidate for his eventual selection."

Denihan, 72, defies the stereotype of the inflexible, challenge-averse government worker — hence his annoyance over the admittedly loaded term "bureaucrat." But he has certainly polished the skills one needs to run a bureaucracy. He has built a reputation on taking control of turbulent departments in which he has little to no background and learning enough to set them straight, or at least straighter.

This is a man who ran the Cleveland police force without ever having worn a badge, who headed a nuclear power evaluation committee for a governor with no more than an associate's degree from Tri-C, who's managed everything from state parks to landfill contracts. Perhaps he never deserved to hold these positions either, but the reality is that he has excelled in every post. He's done this either through incredible luck or by surrounding himself with the right people and making the right decisions, or perhaps a combination of the two.

He'll need all the luck and skill he can muster now that he's in charge of services for two historically underserved constituencies — the addicted and the mentally ill — at a time when local and state budget cuts (the merger is a cost-cutting move) are leaving them even further behind.

Denihan joined the Army right out of high school. From 1957 to 1960, he traveled the country with a small group from the Chemical Corps, "telling the public how wonderful it was that we had phosgene, nerve gas, mustard gas, flamethrowers and atomic bombs — that was my job."

His public service career began in 1973, when he left a job running a handyman service to take a position as deputy administrator of the Ohio Bureau of Worker's Compensation. "That was interesting," he says. "I uncovered a massive fraud investigation, the governor got fired and I got promoted."

Denihan says the scandal unfolded after he fired an employee for collecting worker's compensation for lower- back pain. Later, she called Denihan and confessed that she had been involved in a scheme where attorneys would set up fake businesses at mail drops and pay insurance for the company. Then, they would use a relative or a friend to file a claim saying that they'd slipped, fallen and hurt their lower back. A doctor would sign off on the injury, the attorney would push through the claim with the Worker's Comp employee and they would collect the claims money. Denihan met with the woman, and she helped him to find case after fraudulent case, totaling $10 million.

Three doctors and three attorneys lost their licenses. One attorney committed suicide. Governor John Gilligan lost in a close race to Republican James Rhodes in an upset, and when the Republicans took over, Denihan was promoted to the position of claims director at the OBWC, even though he was a Democrat.

From there, Denihan moved rapidly between a variety of increasingly powerful seats, rarely staying put for more than a year. He became the personnel director of Cuyahoga County in 1979, controlling the human-resources concerns of about 8,000 county employees. After eight months, he took up the role of deputy county recorder. In only a year, he was able to streamline the office by reducing staff 20 percent and converting the office to computer processing. His résumé claims that these changes saved the county $400,000 and reduced document retrieval times from three days to one.

He returned to state government to become deputy director of the Department of Administrative Services, where he claims to have removed 1,500 political appointees from a previous administration.

To prevent a labor crisis in 1983, he set up the Ohio State Employment Relations Board in just 38 days, then took over as executive director. The following year, he was named assistant director of Administrative Services, "when they needed someone to take over a prison that they were putting on the shelves," but stayed there for only a month.

When Lieutenant Governor Myrl Shoemaker became ill, Denihan took over the Department of Natural Resources. At that stop, he oversaw operations to build the inner harbor, where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame resides, and to turn Euclid Beach into a state park.

After the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, Governor Richard Celeste established a nuclear-power evaluation committee to advise him on whether Ohio should have nuclear power. Denihan, still almost 10 years from earning a bachelor's degree, served as chairman, and within 90 days, the committee delivered recommendations that were implemented in the state's policy.

He served as the director of highway safety for five years, running the State Highway Patrol and the BMV. During his time, he says, he implemented an image-processing program that saved the BMV $900,000 and reduced call times from 60 minutes to three.

Denihan made headlines when he sought to end a system that allowed for the political appointment of the deputy registrars that ran most of the state's vehicle and driver-licensing agencies. The move left him fending off attacks from both Democrats and Republicans, and among those appointees who would lose their job was Denihan's own mother-in-law. Eventually, a compromise was settled upon that allowed the appointees to remain in business but eliminated political kickbacks and reorganized the system.

Denihan says the controversy didn't affect his marriage, but he divorced and remarried shortly after. When an auditor revealed that between December 1989 and May 1990, Denihan had spent time in a room that was reserved for him at the State Highway Patrol Academy as a result of the divorce, Denihan was ordered to pay $970 to the state for the stay.

Two and a half years after he left the organization, another audit claimed Denihan owed the state $4,700 in personal calls. He paid, but claimed that the bills had never been submitted to him, and that most of the calls were not personal.

He returned to Cleveland in November 1990 to act as service director for the city, where he negotiated a waste-management contract that saved more than $14 million. Then, when safety director Carolyn Allen became city prosecutor, Denihan was named her successor. As safety director, Denihan oversaw a $250 million budget with 3,450 personnel. Crime rates in the city dropped by 20 percent — a national trend during that time — and deaths by fire were the lowest in Cleveland's history.

In December 1994, Cleveland Police Chief Patrick Oliver resigned suddenly after only nine months of service. Mayor Michael White chose Denihan to serve as the interim chief to help stabilize the department. The Fraternal Order of Police went to court, claiming that he was unqualified, but the appointment was upheld.

On New Year's Eve of that year, one of Denihan's granddaughters, 15-year-old Alicia Denihan, was struck by a drunk driver, suffering a broken pelvic bone, a fractured skull and a brain injury that left her in a coma for two weeks. Denihan used the incident to stress the dangers of drunk driving, calling drunk drivers "equal-opportunity destroyers." The driver walked away with a misdemeanor conviction.

Denihan returned to direct the Department of Public Safety the following April, and held the post until 1999 when he stepped up as executive director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Child and Family Services. The appointment came at the end of a nearly yearlong search by county commissioners to find a head for the demoralized department, eventually returning to Denihan despite his lack of experience on the matter.

"Same thing we're going through right now," says Denihan as he rises from his seat and walks to a Plain Dealer headline framed by his door. "You should read this. The Plain Dealer says that I have no experience running child and family services." Yes, Denihan has framed an article critical of him, as if to remind himself that no one can tell him what he's capable of.

"'Does Denihan have any clue, does he have any idea of the scope of the job?'" he reads with a grin. "So I went into this job with all of the naysayers ... and I turned around that agency in less than two years."

It's true Denihan managed to decrease the employee turnover rate there from 34 percent to less than three. He says his time as chief of police gave him a special respect for public servants who put themselves in harm's way.

"When I went over to child and family services, I realized those social workers go by themselves, out in the community, and take a child out of a home," he says. "Police officers don't even go in there unless there's two of them, and they're wearing a gun. A social worker has their [note]pad! Think about it for a minute: Is there anything more dangerous than taking a child out of a home?

"I just wanted them to feel good about the job that they do," he says. "They save lives." Denihan doesn't claim to have had a favorite job, but it's clear that this post was up there.

In 2001, the Cuyahoga County Community Mental Health Board trustees needed a new director, and Denihan's name came up. The county commissioners, who control the board's funding along with the Ohio Department of Mental Health, told the board to look elsewhere. Denihan had riled the Democratic establishment by running for mayor.

He'd jumped in the race early, but less than a week later, Mayor White changed the whole landscape by abruptly announcing that he would not seek reelection. Denihan was suddenly lost amid a rush of candidates, including then-commissioners Jane Campbell and Tim McCormack. He stayed in the primary but won just two percent of the vote.

The Mental Health Board trustees interviewed 37 other candidates, then returned with their decision: They still wanted Denihan. They got him.

Two years ago, the county commissioners ordered the Mental Health Board and the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board to present a consolidation plan by the end of the year. Of course, there could be only one executive director. Denihan criticized the ADAS board, claiming it was poorly managed. When the dust settled, Denihan won out over Dr. Kaye, despite his lack of experience in the alcohol and drug-addiction treatment field.

"When I look at it, just in terms of formal credentials, I wouldn't have made that decision," says Jim Joyner, a 15-year veteran of the ADAS board who took a buy-out when Denihan was appointed. Joyner is just one of many from the ADAS board who were worried that addiction services would be submerged in the consolidation (though no one else would speak to Scene on the record). Mental Health has a $139 million budget, compared to ADAS's $35 million.

"No matter who was picked, if it does not help those who are mentally ill, [and] those who are drug and alcohol addicted, then it wasn't worth it," says Joyner. "That's the bottom line. Anything less than that, I think the public should question it and go back to the drawing board."

Denihan is not worried that the consolidation or his appointment will prove to have been bad moves.

"It's not that I think anything less of Dr. Kaye," says Denihan. "I think I was the person with the right skill, with the right tools, at the right time."

"My whole career has been as a change agent," he says.

It's become his catchphrase, one that is unlikely to disappear soon.

One of his changes, he notes as an aside, has been his language. Referring to a 2001 Scene profile, he admits, "It was mind-boggling how many times I [swore] in the article. I was embarrassed. All my kids were saying, 'Dad, you talk like that?' So I got hell for that at home."

All of Denihan's children are grown now. There's a daughter in Grand Rapids, a son who settled in Germany after retiring from the Navy, another son with three children and seven grandchildren, a daughter in Columbus, another in Annapolis, another in Tampa. There's a first-grade teacher, a chef, a bachelor and a few more from his wife's previous marriage. He's got 11, and they've got kids, and those kids have kids too.

He turns to Director of External Affairs Scott Osiecki. "So, I don't swear that much, do I?" This seems important to him.

"No, not often," replies Osiecki. The two share a laugh. After a few more lines of dialogue, Osiecki turns to me, as if to clarify the point: "No, he doesn't swear in regular conversations."

"At least I try not to," says Denihan. "I have, but I try not to."

CLARIFICATION: Governor John Gilligan lost his bid for reelection to James Rhodes before the fraud investigation. The investigation had nothing to do with outcome of the election.

[email protected]

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.