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Monday, June 24, 2019

Lobbying Contract for Bill Mason's Buddy's Law Firm Falls Through After Concerns About Optics

Posted By on Mon, Jun 24, 2019 at 9:30 AM

  • Dean DePiero, City of Aurora

Scene reported last week, based on confirmation from two independent sources, that Cuyahoga County planned to contract with the law firm of McDonald Hopkins for state lobbying work. The contract was rumored to be in the neighborhood of $210,000 per year.

The purported contract was significant because McDonald Hopkins' public law division includes among its attorneys Dean DePiero, former Parma Mayor and longtime ally of former County Prosecutor Bill Mason.

Mason was announced earlier this month as County Executive Armond Budish's Chief of Staff. He'll depart the law firm of Bricker and Eckler and officially begin his new position July 1. 

A county spokesperson told Scene last week that no contract with McDonald Hopkins, or any firm, had been "signed" — a clever non-answer — but we'd heard that a contract could be finalized as early as this week and that all parties involved understood it to be a done deal.

As of Friday, multiple sources said that the agreement had crumbled. The implication was that Scene's reporting, and perhaps inquiries from other reporters, alerted the county to the bad optics of hiring DePiero's firm, especially so close on the heels of Mason's appointment.

The county may now try to pretend that they never planned to contract with McDonald Hopkins — nothing was on paper, after all — but the facts directly refute that. 

Benesch, the firm that has lobbied in Columbus on behalf of Cuyahoga County for the past eight years, confirmed to Scene that the county informed them that their contract would not be renewed. The county conveyed this information to Benesch on Tuesday, June 11, the same day that the Bill Mason news broke.

Benesch's contract, via the county's online checkbook, was a monthly retainer of $8,500, a total of $102,000 per year. Benesch confirmed the contract's value to Scene. 

If the purported McDonald Hopkins contract was $210,000 annually, that would have been more than double what the county had been paying for state lobbying in recent years. (Contracts like these are suspect anyway, not least because entities like the Grand Old GCP are down in Columbus lobbying against county legislation like the recently passed plastic bag ban.)

County spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan told Scene Friday that she had no updated information on the McDonald Hopkins contract, but said she believed the online county checkbook was accurate. When we pursued confirmation on the $210,000 figure via text message, Madigan responded, cryptically: "There is no contract."

"There is no spoon," we were tempted to respond.

And so the contract has apparently run aground. It's difficult to say how directly Bill Mason was involved in the attempted firm switcheroo, or whether McDonald would have secured a contract without Mason's new position, but the timeline is, or was, very interesting. The county will now have to determine whether to go back to Benesch, or to consult Armond Budish's campaign contributions to find another suitable firm for "lobbying."

If Mason had managed to get the McDonald Hopkins contract on the books — which it looks like he would have, if not for Scene's reporting — it would have been exactly the sort of behavior he became (in)famous for as prosecutor.

In its glowing promotional piece celebrating the hiring of Mason, the editorial board (likely Chris Quinn himself) noted that Mason was "known in his prosecutor days for building a huge Democratic Party machine, with many elected officials beholden to him. We hope he sets politics aside in the new job, and we’ll be watching to make sure patronage does not rear up during his tenure."

This is surely one of the dumbest lines in the annals of Cleveland journalism: We hope he sets politics aside? 

Even Brent Larkin, longtime PD editorial page director, had the decency to note in his generally favorable column on the Mason appointment, that a great number of "people who pay attention to these things" were "appalled" by Budish's decision. (That's an observation consistent with our reporting.) But Larkin ultimately decided that compared to Budish's vegetative leadership, a known politico like Mason was a step up. Mason had "world-class" political instincts, Larkin reminded us. And as he grew into his prosecutor role back in the aughts, he even "took some responsible positions." (HOW LOW IS THE BAR?) The upshot, for Larkin, was that Mason couldn't make things worse.

Fair enough. Mark Naymik, too, on a recent episode of "This Week in the CLE" said Mason had the ability to "be a jerk" if need be, which would serve him well as Chief of Staff. (We note for the record that rumors have been swirling that Naymik had the story of Mason's appointment ready to go June 11 or earlier, but that Quinn suppressed it. Enough people are griping about this — even Roldo donned his muckraker's cap again! — that we presume it's true. It's a serious abrogation of Quinn's role as editor of the largest media outlet in town.)

But it's stunning that the PD and seem to have fully adopted the position that Budish — a candidate they endorsed for a second-term as "a good manager of county money," if prone to secrecy —  is now incapable of serving as County Executive.

Why, then, has the editorial board not called for his resignation? Why has no one, at the very least, rescinded the endorsement, which was published only weeks before the U.S. Marshals report that documented inhumane conditions at the county jail? Why are the pundits and columnists at the PD / weighing the wisdom of key appointments when they've decided that the guy doing the appointing is a "deer in the headlights" with "no discernible political skills"? 

But if Quinn is in Mason's corner, Larkin at least, should be able to sniff out the fact that Mason took the position for a reason. And it's not "out of the goodness of his heart." Nor it it for the paycheck (though Mason will be collecting an unprecedented $220,000, plus bennies, to serve as Budish's Chief.)

Suffice it to say, there are reasons other than money. For one thing, Mason surely sees this an opportunity to choreograph the next wave of leaders at the county level. The region is "essentially leaderless," in Larkin's assessment, and the Democratic Party's Parma Boys smell blood in the water. Expect the dramatis personae of the next few years to include folksy stand-up guys like DePiero, current Parma Mayor Tim DeGeeter, Council President Kevin Kelley and current Prosecutor Mike O'Malley (Mason's former "right hand man"). The chess pieces are already in motion. 

As Chief of Staff — which everyone seems content to admit is a position that now functions as de facto County Executive — Mason gets to pull strings. Among other things, he gets to award lobbying contracts to his buddies. And if he can clean up even a fraction of the county jail train wreck, he'll have a ready-made stump speech when he pursues higher office, which has been his ambition since his days on Parma City Council. 

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