Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cuyahoga County's scandal-plagued boards of revision leave legacy of uncertainty as new government takes hold: A Question of Values

With Gabriel Baird

A few strokes of correction fluid. That's all it took to light the fuse that exploded into a series of scandals.

In June, someone with access to Cuyahoga County tax documents tried to secretly lower the value of a townhouse with the aid of the commonly used office product.

Could something so simple, yet so brazen, be so routine in taxing property, the county's most important duty?
Over the next six months, a stunning answer emerged in the pages of The Plain Dealer.

The newspaper, in a series of investigative stories, unearthed rampant mismanagement, deplorable work habits, questionable tax breaks, favors for the connected and violations of state law.
Today, the paper looks back on all that went wrong and what that may mean for the future of Ohio's most populous county.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Frank Russo's campaign donors got big tax breaks

With Gabriel Baird and Mark Puente

Many of the people who contributed to former Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo's election campaigns also went to his office in search of tax breaks -- and got them.

They received hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars off their tax bills thanks to reduced property valuations, a Plain Dealer analysis of campaign-finance reports and county records has found.

At least 359 of Russo's campaign donors received reductions, saving them or their business interests more than $1.8 million in property taxes, according to the findings.

Nearly half of Russo's most generous supporters, who contributed $1,000 or more between 2003 and 2009, have received discounts. Scores of other cases are still pending.
This contrasts with fewer than 10 percent of properties countywide that received reductions during that period.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Personnel moves peel away at former Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo's patronage hires

With Gabriel Baird

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- By cleaning house Thursday, Cuyahoga County Auditor Dave Reines began peeling away at a payroll loaded with patronage hires.

Many of the political cronies of Frank Russo, Reines' disgraced predecessor, remain.

But at least half of the 22 positions that are being eliminated belonged to people with close ties to the corrupt former auditor or to other leaders in the Democratic machine he helped build.

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Cuyahoga County Executive-elect Ed FitzGerald announces shake-up at county auditor's office

With Gabriel Baird

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Cuyahoga County Executive-elect Ed FitzGerald announced a major shakeup Thursday at the scandal-plagued county Auditor's Office, including the elimination of nearly two dozen positions created by former Auditor Frank Russo.

FitzGerald also said he has asked for resignations from all members of the county's boards of revision, the panels that hear taxpayer challenges to property values. Board members who refuse to resign by Jan. 1 will be fired, he said at a morning meeting with Plain Dealer reporters and editors and at an afternoon news conference.

The announcements came after a months-long Plain Dealer investigation detailing how the boards routinely violated state law and county policies, raising questions about the legitimacy of decisions that erased hundreds of millions of dollars of property values.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis ignores new hiring guidelines with board of revision appointments

With Gabriel Baird

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis ignored new hiring guidelines for the county's beleaguered boards of revision this month by directly appointing two people, including a former political colleague, to $58,000-a-year jobs.

Helen K. Smith, who served with Rokakis on Cleveland City Council, and Steven Billington, who worked on the treasurer's foreclosure-prevention effort, started Nov. 1 as hearing officers.

Neither was screened by a county human resources department, which has the authority to review applicants for the positions under a plan Rokakis and others approved in September. Had the two been vetted, officials would have found that at least one did not meet a key qualification.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald wins historic race for Cuyahoga County executive

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald won the keys to Cuyahoga County's new government and preserved the local Democratic Party's stronghold Tuesday evening with a solid win over former State Rep. Matt Dolan.

With all 1,068 precincts reporting, FitzGerald beat Dolan, a Republican lawyer from Chagrin Falls, 45 percent to 31 percent in the race to be the first county executive.

The victory propels FitzGerald, an ambitious young mayor with a textbook knowledge of politics, into a job many believe will be second only to the governor in terms of power and constituency. It also revives Greater Cleveland's Democratic machine in a year many thought it would collapse under the weight of the largest public corruption scandal in county history.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Parma Mayor Dean DePiero's vacation home built by contractor who did business with city

With Mark Puente

A little more than a year after Dean DePiero became mayor of Parma, Ohio's eighth-largest city closed a real estate deal with the same contractor that built DePiero's Lake Erie vacation house on Kelleys Island.

The land, where a justice center and police station once stood, went to the highest bidder. And DePiero, aware of the conflict, refrained from signing the 2005 legislation that authorized the $425,850 sale to Glenwood Homes Ltd., which built single-family homes on the site.

But the mayor was involved in the process leading up to the transaction, according to public records provided last week by his administration. He fielded offers directly and received copies of documents detailing the proposals submitted by eight prospective developers.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason's supporters got at least $1.6 million in title work

With Mark Puente

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason has awarded at least $1.6 million in real estate title work to political supporters since 2005, records show.

The list of those who benefited includes a now-defunct company connected to Parma Mayor Dean DePiero, one of Mason's longtime friends and closest Democratic Party allies.

And no company received more title work over the last five years than United Title & Escrow, which was run by a frequent Mason donor until closing its doors this year.

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Saturday, October 9, 2010

Coroner Frank Miller accuses Prosecutor Bill Mason of making him hire ally Patrick Coyne

With Mark Puente

Cuyahoga County Coroner Frank Miller said Friday that county Prosecutor Bill Mason ordered him to hire a friend and political ally in exchange for help with Miller's election campaign.

Miller, in an interview with The Plain Dealer, said Mason and his chief trial lawyer, Steve Dever, told him to place Strongsville City Councilman Patrick Coyne on his payroll in 2007, the year Miller took office.

"Bill Mason sent him over here," Miller said of Coyne. "Bill Mason and Steve Dever did it. I got a call from Dever, and he said, 'He'd help you, and you have to take him.'"

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ken Lanci rides personal wealth, $1 salary pledge in colorful campaign for Cuyahoga County executive

When Ken Lanci was 13, his father purchased a Cleveland printing company for the bargain-basement price of $1.

"Nobody," Lanci recalled thinking at the time, "sells anything good for a buck."

Sure enough, unbeknownst to his dad, the business came with a $25,000 tax lien.

Fast-forward nearly five decades. Lanci, today a successful printing mogul whose first taste of the industry came in those teenage years, drives a luxury car worth more than most homes. He lives in a suburban mansion valued at nearly $2 million. He keeps an orange glow -- a distinguishing contrast to his snow-white hair -- with the help of a personal tanning bed.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ed FitzGerald helped close a deal for which Jimmy Dimora was bribed, federal prosecutors say

Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald, a top contender to be the first Cuyahoga County executive, helped close a deal for which Dimora had been bribed, federal prosecutors say.

FitzGerald has not been charged with a crime. Charges filed Wednesday against Dimora say that in March 2008 the county commissioner telephoned FitzGerald on behalf of businessman William Neiheiser, who wanted to lease Lakewood's ice rink. Neiheiser had phoned the mayor, but FitzGerald had not returned the call.

"He wants to make a proposal to you ... that he thinks will be advantageous to the city and to you if you wanted to talk to him," Dimora told FitzGerald, according to a transcript included in the 139-page indictment against Dimora, Neiheiser and others.

FitzGerald, a former FBI agent, obliged.

"I'll make time ... I'll make time to talk to him," he replied.

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Jimmy Dimora: The political outsider who became kingmaker

As fast as Jimmy Dimora built a political machine to rule Cuyahoga County, his machine's collapse came even faster.

When federal agents raided Dimora's house and office in July 2008, citizens got their first glimpse at a corruption probe that over the next 26 months would tear apart county government.

Ever since that day, Dimora, 55, and his closest friends and political allies -- some innocent, others not -- lived under intense scrutiny. Within a year, Dimora was pushed to the sidelines of the Democratic Party he had led for 16 years. He defiantly refused to resign as a county commissioner and challenged prosecutors to charge him or leave him and his family alone.

Early this morning, they opted for the former. Agents arrested Dimora at his Independence home and led him out in handcuffs and chains.

"I'm sickened by it," Tim Hagan, a fellow Democrat and commissioner, said this morning after hearing of Dimora's arrest. "It's been a nightmare, and it's coming to an end."

Dimora maintains his innocence. But, unquestionably, the events of the past two years diminish his legacy as one of the greatest political talents Greater Cleveland has ever seen.

While fallout from the federal investigation cannot yet be measured completely, one certain souvenir is the new form of government corruption-weary voters approved last year. New leaders will be elected this fall. Replacing Dimora, if he finishes his term, as well as the two other commissioners, will be a county executive with a local constituency unrivaled in terms of size.

It is the type of office that Dimora, a man for whom big is too simple an adjective, might crave under different circumstances. Fueling the irony, Democrats harbor legitimate fears that he has left the party in such turmoil that a Republican or independent might win the job.

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