Cleveland paper owns up to failings
Where was The Plain Dealer over years of Cuyahoga County corruption?
Published: Sunday, November 28, 2010, 4:35 AM Updated: Sunday, November 28, 2010, 9:42 PM
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In the 28 months since the FBI went public with its investigation of corruption in Cuyahoga County government, one question has been asked repeatedly: “Where was The Plain Dealer?”
Someone named “swarley” asked it again in an online comment appended to an Oct. 24 editorial about the long and disgraceful tenure of former Cuyahoga County Sheriff Gerald McFaul:
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“. . . the worst element in this sordid scandal was the lack of a decent newspaper, which would have investigated the claims, had it not been so busy whistling a happy tune and sitting on its butt . . . for more than a decade, you guys failed to live up to your name, or your responsibilities. You ignored what was going on, you endorsed the crooks every time they were up for re-election . . . At what point are we going to see an expose of how poorly The Pee Dee handled its watchdog responsibilities?”
Harsh criticism, perhaps, but also legitimate questions that deserve answers.
The FBI investigation lasted several years. It has resulted in charges, indictments or guilty pleas against more than three dozen people connected with county government, notably former County Auditor Frank Russo and County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, for bribery, theft in office, obstruction of justice and other forms of corruption.
Some critics, such as “swarley,” have said they worked for the county and would have talked to reporters if anyone had asked them. Others have accused Plain Dealer reporters, editors and executives of laziness at best, or of protecting their pals in office at worst.
Several months ago, Publisher Terrance C.Z. Egger, then-Editor Susan Goldberg, and I, then the paper’s managing editor, agreed that The Plain Dealer needed to look inward and examine our role over the years in the coverage of corruption in Cuyahoga County government. In response to mounting questions, we wanted to explore whether The Plain Dealer had fallen short of its responsibility to mind the public’s business and uncover corruption wherever we found it. Reader Representative Ted Diadiun interviewed dozens of journalists and others and pored through hundreds of news stories in a historic examination of the newspaper’s coverage of county government spanning the past three decades.
The stories were edited by an independent editor, John Walcott, the former Washington bureau chief for McClatchy and Knight-Ridder. He also was a reporter at Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal as well as an editor at U.S. News & World Report. Walcott is now the chief content officer and editor in chief at Smart Brief, a Washington-based business news company that serves 4 million readers.
– Debra Adams Simmons, Plain Dealer Editor
Two top Plain Dealer executives — outgoing editor Susan Goldberg and her successor, Debra Adams Simmons — asked me to look into the charges and review the paper’s coverage, and write what I found.
“Everywhere I went in the community, people would say to me, in varying degrees of politeness, ‘Yeah, it’s great you are doing these stories now, but where were you 10 or 20 years ago when the corruption was taking hold?’ ” said Goldberg, who left the paper Nov. 5 to become an executive editor for Bloomberg News.
“It really began to bother me, because I didn’t have an answer for them, or even a sense of what we’d done or hadn’t done as a newspaper. I ended up thinking it was a very fair question — and one that we should publicly answer.”
Accordingly, I’ve interviewed more than 30 current and former Plain Dealer reporters and editors, public officials and other sources, rooted through clippings, read online comments and trolled our archives going back to the early 1970s.
So . . . where was The Plain Dealer?
The newspaper’s coverage has been stellar since federal agents began issuing subpoenas and carting boxes out of homes and offices across Northeast Ohio in July 2008. Most of what the public knows about the investigation is gleaned from what people have read in The Plain Dealer.
- January 1998: ‘Political ties that bind,’ a look at patronage hires by politicians including Frank Russo
- February 1998: ‘High Noon: The sheriff battles back after yet another scandal,’ a Sunday magazine profile of Gerald McFaul
- May 1998: ‘A long fall: What Cuyahoga County is entering won’t be remembered as a golden era,’ an editorial warning of trouble ahead because of candidates including Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo
- July 1998: ‘New Democrats seizing power with old-fashioned politicking,’ a look at Jimmy Dimora and Bill Mason as reformers
- August 1998: ‘The Democrat who would be king,’ a Sunday magazine profile of Jimmy Dimora
- The Plain Dealer’s editorial endorsements of McFaul, Dimora and Russo over the years
Reporter Mark Puente’s pursuit last year of McFaul’s misdeeds led to the sheriff’s resignation, arrest and subsequent guilty plea. Last November’s historic vote that changed the system of government in Cuyahoga County probably would not have happened without the depth and breadth of the information that readers found in these pages.
But where was The Plain Dealer before that? Was the newspaper asleep at the wheel — or worse — as elected officials and their minions lined their pockets with the taxpayers’ money? Why didn’t the public’s watchdog bite, or at least bark?
It’s easy to second-guess the coverage, or the lack of it, with the benefit of 10 years of hindsight. I was in charge of the Metro operation for several years in the ’90s myself, and I can tell you that things that seem obvious today didn’t look as clear then.
Nevertheless, my review of the coverage has produced a conclusion that’s as inescapable as it is uncomfortable: As Russo, Dimora, McFaul and many others were running roughshod over the public trust, The Plain Dealer was guilty of a lack of aggressiveness, of failing to put together the threads of a story that a lot of people knew was out there, and — perhaps — of failing to be as tough as it should have been on people its journalists liked and thought were doing a good job.
Here’s a closer look at The Plain Dealer’s coverage of the three main characters:
PD fileGerald McFaul
For 32 years as sheriff, and during his tenure as a Cleveland city councilman before that, Gerald T. McFaul enjoyed relatively smooth sailing through these pages. A colorful character, he got lots of friendly, uncritical ink, going back to a 1969 raid that Councilman McFaul led on a downtown after-hours joint, and a 1970 St. Patrick’s Day brawl, when he flattened Port Director W. Kiely Cronin after an argument. (McFaul told reporter Bob McGruder that he “didn’t see any fighting”; Cronin went to the hospital for stitches.)
After McFaul was elected sheriff in 1976, the paper dutifully covered his occasional legal difficulties, including a prophetic episode soon after the election. He had been accused of receiving campaign contributions from Cleveland police unions during his tenure on the council, supposedly tied to a promise that he would get legislation passed that would enable several policemen to be promoted. Two police union leaders were suspended, but the state election board cleared McFaul.
Later, he faced two high-profile sex-related charges that became Page One news. In the first, former Deputy Ruth Anne Arendt accused him of sexual harassment; he was acquitted in a 1986 trial. In the second, former Chief Deputy Mary Zorn sued him for sexual harassment, for which he paid a $65,000 settlement in 1993.
Former Plain Dealer political columnist Mary Anne Sharkey was appalled by McFaul’s behavior and by the “obscene, graphic and disgustingly sexist terms” that he used toward women on a tape that Zorn had made, and after the settlement she wrote that the sheriff should pay for his transgressions with his job.
“I wrote it and it just went nowhere,” said Sharkey, who isn’t easily appalled. “There was this attitude about ‘that’s just the way he is’; there was no sense that this was not right.”
The next time that McFaul ran for sheriff, in 1996, he got more than 60 percent of the vote — along with The Plain Dealer’s endorsement, which acknowledged his peccadillos but declared him a good sheriff.
“McFaul ran against an opponent who barely had the faintest idea of what the job was all about,” said former editorial page director Brent Larkin. “That said, if we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have endorsed him.”
PDSusan Goldberg became editor of The Plain Dealer in May 2007. She left a few weeks ago to join Bloomberg News.
At the beginning of 2009, however, two things happened: McFaul responded to budget pressures by laying off 21 employees, and Mark Puente, who had been on the police beat for a bit more than a year, began hearing things.
Puente’s story about the layoffs ran on Jan. 2. The next day, he reported that despite the layoffs, McFaul had simultaneously given raises and promotions to friends and family. The following week, Puente learned that McFaul’s niece had been working as a security guard while she was on medical leave from her job in the sheriff’s office. As soon as Puente started asking questions, she resigned.
Puente’s reporting generated further tips, and in the following weeks, he wrote stories about how employees had sold tickets to the sheriff’s fundraising clambake while they were on duty; about how real estate appraisers appointed by the sheriff had donated thousands of dollars to his campaign; about how employees were strong-armed for cash donations to McFaul for birthdays, vacations and Christmas; and about a 23-year-old tape on which the sheriff advised a girlfriend on how to dodge a subpoena to testify in his sexual harassment trial.
By March 24, 2009, McFaul had resigned. A special prosecutor charged him last May with theft in office and ethics violations. He pleaded guilty to two felony theft charges and was sentenced on July 25 to a year of house arrest. He also paid more than $150,000 in restitution.
Russo and Dimora
Plain Dealer file Frank Russo, left, and Jimmy Dimora celebrate their 1998 election wins.
Like the sheriff, Frank Russo and Jimmy Dimora were affable, funny, quick with a quote and easy to like. That comes through again and again in a review of Plain Dealer stories, columns and editorials about the two over the years.
The review of the paper’s coverage, however, also found many stories that revealed how the two ran their offices, including tales of nepotism and how they used their staffs to buttress their political goals and campaign coffers.
The Russo file bulges.
In 1992, his opponent for county recorder in the Democratic primary, Jerry Krakowski, accused him of larding the office with patronage jobs, milking employees for campaign contributions and financial reporting irregularities.
The Plain Dealer published several stories about the charges, but Russo denied the allegations, which he attributed to negative campaigning and clerical errors, and noted that Krakowski had gotten his own job through patronage. Russo won The Plain Dealer’s endorsement, doubled Krakowski’s vote totals in the primary, and then coasted into office when his Republican opponent withdrew from the race.
Six years later, charges of wrongdoing were harder to slough off. In his first race for county auditor, Russo was socked with a state audit of his tenure in the recorder’s office, which revealed, among other things, that some of his employees had campaigned for him on county time and that others had conducted private business on county time with his blessing.
The Republicans ran a substantial candidate, then-State Rep. Mike Wise, against him. The Plain Dealer published a number of stories about the audit and other charges Wise presented, and scolded Russo in editorials, at one point calling him “the county’s most blatant practitioner of patronage politics.” Then the paper published a powerful endorsement of Wise, saying that Russo had forfeited the public trust and that Wise “would trim the bloat in the auditor’s office and restore its depleted sense of ethical responsibility.”
Nevertheless, Russo won the election by almost 90,000 votes, later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of dereliction of duty and went on about his business as usual.
Over the years, Plain Dealer stories revealed that Russo mismanaged the process of taking ineligible commercial properties off a tax-relief program intended for homeowners; bungled a reappraisal process that reduced the property tax valuations of dozens of expensive homes; gave all of his office’s legal business to the firm of a political ally; later hired the ally, Louis C. Damiani, as an administrative assistant so he could reap retirement benefits; and showered large raises on employees who worked on his campaigns.
Like Russo, Dimora got his first significant scrutiny from The Plain Dealer in 1992, when he ran for county commissioner for the first time. Former Plain Dealer reporters John Long and Steve Luttner wrote a lengthy piece about the political machine Dimora had built over 11 years as the mayor of Bedford Heights. The federal corruption charges against him this summer echoed their 1992 story, which revealed how his employees had raised thousands of campaign dollars, how his office had mixed fundraising with city business and bought more than $200,000 worth of city vehicles from Dimora’s father-in-law, and how he’d appointed friends to positions of debatable worth to the public.
Subsequent stories chronicled Dimora’s frequent mixing of county business with his position as the head of the county Democratic Party, his leadership of a buyout program for county employees that cost taxpayers more than $100 million, and his role in the county’s long and tangled purchase, and then attempted sale, of the Ameritrust building.
In 2008, The Plain Dealer published a story about a former strip club manager, the late Rosemary Vinci, who held a $48,000 county job with undetermined duties, reporting to Russo and/or Dimora. Also that year, the newspaper published two major stories highlighting the many political connections of employees in Russo’s office and in the office of County Recorder Patrick O’Malley.
The two nepotism stories were intended to be the beginning of a series, to include the prosecutor’s office and the county commissioners, but then the federal investigation broke, revealing some of the results of those cozy relationships and expanding the story exponentially.
“Those stories took months to put together,” said Metro Editor Chris Quinn, who took over the job in 2006, the year before Goldberg arrived. “We really started to drill into the county in 2007. I have no doubt that even if there hadn’t been a corruption investigation, we would have gotten to the bottom of what was going on.”
What commenters had to say
Responses to Plain Dealer coverage and editorials on the corruption charges:
- citizenx: “The Plain Dealer condoned Dimora/Russo’s style of politics with endorsements spanning from 1992 to as recently as 2006. Dimora and the Plain Dealer can’t have it both ways. … Efficiency, accountability and delivery of services should be the benchmarks for our news brokers and our political brokers…NEO’s media and political representation has failed miserably at both.”
- LakeErieSeagulls: “Where was any ‘editorial board’ when McFaul was king of his fiefdom?”
- gallifreyan: ” ‘I thought the PD was all about integrity and honesty–see the Dimora/Russo scandal’ Everybody else knew years before that those guys were crooks, but the PD pretended not to notice until they were forced to by the Federal investigation. That’s the kind of ‘integrity and honesty’ the PD itself displays.”
- bassackwards: “If you recall it has been the Plain Dealer that has endorsed most if not all of the elected officals that have been indicted. It has been the Plain Dealer that has propped up most of these people based on ambigiuos qualities like name recognition as oppossed to quality of ideas. Its the Plain Dealer that spends tremendous amounts of ink touting the people for office that it can control…and now the paper complains that they are no good. … Don’t trust the Plain Dealer”
- patriot1917: “The PD pats itself on the back for its reporting after the fact, when this cesspool of corruption went on right under its nose and with its tacit approval (endorsements) for ten years. Dont rewrite history when you were at the very least an accomplice in all this.”
- hagansucks: “How many times did this newspaper ENDORSE McFaul? Dimora? Hagan? Jones? Mason? Russo? Odd how the six clowns who’ve collectively DESTROYED this region through misfeasance, malfeasance and warped political ambitions for years received this newspapers stamp of approval. And silence.”
- pt816: “You guys are just fair weather Democrats pretending to be journalists. We know…you can come out of hiding now with your fake contempt for big Jimmy.”
- lakewoodmom: “So he must have known or he should have known? Oh, that refers to Brent Larkin. How many times were you told about Frank Russo’s activities or Jimmy Dimora’s, Brent? And what did you do about it? ‘That’s just the way Jimmy is.’ What a hypocrite.”
- born2hang: “Elizabeth Sullivan apparantly would have us believe that the PD knew nothing despicable about McFaul before their eighth endorsement of him in 2008. Readers can click over to Roldo Bartimole’s piece at the Cleveland Leader web site, ‘McFAUL WAS ALWAYS A CRUDE CHARACTER‘, and judge for themselves.”
- itsacurve: “I expect the Plain Dealer to keep a watchful eye on the workings of government and to blow the wistle loudly when it goes amuck! PD, for years you were asleep at the switch!”
- iziandali: “How many endorsments have been given over how many years? Voters will be blamed for putting these guys back into office year after year. But if we relied on political parties to police themselves, or the local media (print and broadcast) to be watchdogs, then we were either misled or lied to”
- danr: “The PD’s courthouse reporters clearly knew as much about what was going on in the Justice Center and County Administration Building as anyone. … These people were as much a part of the corruption mindset as anyone. They protected the politicians because the politicians are a news source.”
- Ohiovet88: “I would like for them to print an article listing the indicted officials that were supported or endorsed by the PD editors, and state whether or not they are sorry for the support/endorsements. They could have very easily been reporting on this much earlier, but only got on the wagon when it got too big too ignore. In some cases, they are as culpable as the indicted officials.”
- amberorbit: “Yes, the Plain Dealer broke the ‘culture of silence’ in early 2009 — when it was too late. Most everyone even marginally up on local politics – which should have included the Plain Dealer – knew about this stuff years before. McFaul was up for re-election in 2008. If the Plain Dealer had broken its own ‘culture of silence’ a year early, when we all knew about McFaul but it was impossible to do anything about him, maybe the Democrats would have been able to push him out and recruit a strong candidate.”
Two things stand out from a review of The Plain Dealer’s coverage, at least in the case of Russo and Dimora:
Neither man changed his spots over the years. The same cynical, self-serving approach to political office that the federal charges revealed last summer was evident in the paper’s stories from 1992 and later.
And The Plain Dealer produced little investigative reporting on those issues in the several years before the 2008 stories on nepotism and Vinci, and Puente’s 2009 reporting on the sheriff.
Part of the reason is that despite their historic image as cynical curmudgeons, too many reporters are unwilling to bite the hands of the sources that feed them. Another is that reporters, ever on the lookout for the man-bites-dog story, can grow numb to business as usual.
“I knew Gerry McFaul back in the old days,” said Dick Feagler, a longtime columnist at both the Cleveland Press and The Plain Dealer. “I knew he was probably playing fast and loose . . . but I think my mind was that that’s the way the system was. I don’t remember anyone fainting with shock when they found out that the sheriff was taking kickbacks.”
Also, journalists have to pick their spots.
Walt Bogdanich, who has won three Pulitzer Prizes for his investigative work with the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, spent four years cutting his journalistic teeth at The Plain Dealer in the early 1980s and was happy to be here.
“Cleveland had always been a pretty corrupt place, which is why I wanted to come here,” he said. “There was always a lot of low-hanging fruit.”
Bogdanich was familiar with McFaul during his time in Cleveland. “If you worked around McFaul’s office, you got a sense that there was a whole lot of power there,” he said. “I always felt very uncomfortable around his office. But I ended up not pursuing that because there were other things. You can only pick off so many.”
The newspaper has had a long history of tough coverage of county officeholders, however. In the 1970s, the paper’s reporting on fund-raising transgressions and other illegal acts was instrumental in the ouster of Ralph Kreiger (McFaul’s predecessor as sheriff), County Commissioner Frank Pokorny and County Engineer Albert Porter. In the mid-1990s, Plain Dealer reporting drummed County Treasurer Francis Gaul out of office after the disastrous SAFE investment mismanagement, which cost taxpayers $115 million as a result of risky investments. Also during that time, an investigation by former City Hall reporter Stephen Koff, now the paper’s Washington Bureau chief, helped send Cleveland Municipal Court Clerk Benny Bonanno to jail for theft in office, for using his staff and office equipment on political campaigns.
Afterward, however, the paper took its eye off the ball when it came to investigating county government.
That doesn’t mean The Plain Dealer didn’t give readers lots of county coverage. Over the last decade, reporters have brought depth and perspective to county finances, elections and building projects such as the medical mart, the Ameritrust tangle, the juvenile justice center, the convention center proposals and much more.
Despite the ample clues, however, the paper never rooted out the nepotism, corruption and bribery that the federal investigation found was rampant.
Part of the challenge is the sheer size of the beat. Covering a government operation the size of Cuyahoga County is an enormous task. Although more than $1 billion a year flows under the control of the commissioners and the “row offices” of the treasurer, the auditor, the recorder and other officials, the beat generally has been handled by only one reporter. Joe Frolik, who has written about government and politics as a reporter and editorial writer for more than 20 years, said that a reporter could spend all of his or her time on the beat covering children’s and family services or some other aspect of county government and do good, important work — but never get close to any investigative reporting.
Another part of the problem is that the federal investigators had advantages our reporters did not.
Almost everyone who was interviewed for this story pointed to the same two things when they were asked why they thought the paper didn’t have the county corruption stories before the federal investigation went public: Journalists can’t subpoena people and records, and they can’t run wire taps.
“I must have talked to five people who said they paid Frank Russo to either get their job or keep their job,” said former reporter Timothy Heider, who did good work here before his departure in 2005, reporting on several of the investigative stories mentioned above, including SAFE and the buyout boondoggle. “But none of them would go on the record. Lots of people can ‘know’ things, but there’s that little issue of proof before you can write a story. When the feds come in and they can indict you, and indict your family, and run wire taps on you, you get a little more talkative. But a reporter can’t do that.”
Ted Wendling is a former reporter who can subpoena people and interview them under oath. An investigative reporter at The Plain Dealer for two decades, Wendling is now a deputy inspector general for the state of Ohio.
“All of my antennae were going up [while at The Plain Dealer] when I looked at these guys,” he said. “But if you’re going to publish a newspaper story about somebody being corrupt, you’d better have the goods. I’ve got access in this position to so much more information than I ever could have gotten as a reporter, and that makes a big difference.”
Even Roldo Bartimole, the self-appointed hair shirt who has been The Plain Dealer’s strongest critic over the last 40 years, raised those two issues and said he didn’t fault the newspaper for not beating the feds to the punch. He also noted, “Newspapers change the beats a lot, so a lot of stuff that is there and gets known by one reporter doesn’t get followed up by the next.” He’s right: The Plain Dealer has had at least eight reporters on the county beat since 1994.
“It took 175 agents to come into Cleveland and nail these guys, so I’m not blaming The Plain Dealer too much for not having it first,” said Sharkey.
That investigation was a lengthy process. We know now that the FBI began getting interested in some of these issues at least as early as 2000. Tim McCormack, the longtime Cleveland politician who served alongside Dimora as county commissioner, has said that he was interviewed by investigators that year. County Treasurer Jim Rokakis said last week that he too was asked questions by the FBI in 2000, and also later in 2004 and 2005.
“Based on the questions they were asking then, I wondered what was taking them so long,” he said. “They didn’t say.”
Yes, The Plain Dealer has published many stories over the years that foreshadowed what the federal investigation proved. Yes, beating the feds to the punch would have been difficult.
However, there’s no getting around something that Sharkey and others said — and that Rokakis said more strongly.
“Nothing in these stories was a total shock to anyone who’s been paying attention,” said Sharkey.
PD fileJim Rokakis: “The politification of the county was complete, and in plain sight.”
“The politification of the county was complete, and in plain sight,” said Rokakis. “All you had to do was match up the hiring rolls with the lists of precinct committeemen. This has been going on for years. As I told Susan Goldberg in my first lunch with her after she got here, this county was Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Nobody but the FBI and its wiretaps and subpoena power knew (or was willing to talk) about the bribery and the theft. But as Rokakis noted, the nepotism was there to be uncovered, and reporters began to do that soon after Goldberg’s 2007 lunch with Rokakis.
“I don’t think we took it seriously enough before,” said politics reporter Mark Naymik. “I felt like, why not put together a team of politics, investigative and beat reporters, and go get it? But we never did that.”
The newspaper’s investigative reporters were pursuing other avenues during the eight-year tenure of Doug Clifton, Goldberg’s predecessor, and Metro Editor Quinn said it would be wrong to fault Clifton for the paper’s failure to nail down the county corruption story.
“The Plain Dealer had lost its way before Doug Clifton arrived as editor” in 1999, said Quinn. “I cannot recall a more magic time in my career than Doug’s first few years, as the newspaper moved from mediocrity to serious journalism. But when he left, we still had work to do. Susan Goldberg picked up where Doug left off, making the paper even more aggressive and establishing our role as watchdog as her overriding priority.”
Clifton agrees with the explanation that the FBI has investigative advantages over reporters, but only up to a point. “There are many things we can do that the FBI can’t,” he said. “There was a lot more [investigative] attention being paid in other areas, but we had people covering the county, and if they’d been doing their jobs, they should have been looking into it. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to find something. They have to be the kind of reporters who can peer through the obfuscation and see what’s really there.”
Some people I talked with think that if a reporter like Puente had been on the beat, the paper would have broken the story earlier. Puente himself cautions that it’s a two-way street: A reporter has to have sources who will talk and direct him to the records he or she needs to verify the story, and he didn’t have those on the sheriff story until people started being laid off.
Puente, who is now at the St. Petersburg Times, also thinks that The Plain Dealer didn’t put enough incremental stories in the paper, however. “You run one story, and people read it and call you with other tips,” he said. “If you do the work and follow up and they see that you’re taking them seriously, they give you better stuff. That’s how it works.”
As for the endorsements, the charge that the paper usually endorsed all three men is accurate. The Plain Dealer did indeed endorse them nearly every time they ran. McFaul got the endorsement for sheriff eight times. The Plain Dealer endorsed Russo five of the six times he ran for countywide offices. The paper did not endorse Dimora in two primaries, but it endorsed him all three times he ran for commissioner in the general election. (Related story: A tally of The Plain Dealer’s endorsements, and links to most of those editorials)
“Somnolent watchdogs,” current Editorial Page Editor Elizabeth Sullivan called it in a recent editorial lamenting the failure to be more demanding.
It’s not that simple, of course. In overwhelmingly Democratic Cuyahoga County, few Republicans have a chance in a countywide election. Consequently, the county GOP usually offered the three only tacit opposition, and sometimes none at all. The one time the Republicans did run a substantial candidate, Wise in 1998, he was armed with a devastating state audit against Russo and editorial support from The Plain Dealer — and he got 40 percent of the vote.
The fact that the Republicans weren’t offering more-substantial candidates doesn’t let the newspaper off the hook, though. The editorial page is there to thunder away at failures in the electoral process, and it didn’t do that often enough or strongly enough.
Two allegations that I’ve heard repeatedly should be addressed, because there is no evidence to support them.
The first is that former Publisher Alex Machaskee routinely put the kibosh on investigative stories to protect his “friends.”
That’s nonsense. Machaskee had a deserved reputation as a strong-willed publisher who was never shy about sharing his opinions, but nobody I interviewed said that The Plain Dealer failed to get this story because of anything he did or didn’t do. He insisted on fairness, but never in my time in Metro did he order a story pulled to protect a friend or anyone else. “People would try to drop Alex’s name all the time,” said Heider. “It never got them anywhere.”
Machaskee’s reaction was emphatic. “Where do people get that stuff?” he said. “I’m not friends with any of those people, but anyone who knows me knows that I would take the head off any person who approached me about killing a news story.”
PD fileBrent Larkin: “If I’m so (bleeping) plugged in, why didn’t I know about all this?”
The other is that former editorial page director Larkin, who has long been the most plugged-in journalist in the city, must have known what was going on, and failed to report it to protect his friends.
You won’t find any of his present or former colleagues who believe that, either. Of course, only Larkin knows what he knows, but he has a well-known and well-earned reputation for going after good stories where he finds them, friends or no friends. “Anyone who would suggest that he knew about this and didn’t say anything is wrong,” said Naymik.
Larkin, who has ruefully noted the five endorsements of McFaul on his watch in the column he still writes for the paper, said he is embarrassed that he didn’t help get to some of these issues: “If I’m so (bleeping) plugged in, why didn’t I know about all this?” he said.
However, it was also well-known that Larkin had a friendly relationship with the former sheriff, and sometimes perceptions can work against a journalist and his newspaper. One of Puente’s sources said that he saw Larkin jocularly talking to McFaul at public gatherings and concluded that he’d better keep whatever information he had about McFaul to himself. Larkin was just doing his job as a columnist by getting out and about, but that’s not the way it appeared, at least to this potential tipster.
PD fileDoug Clifton: “Sometimes you fail.”
The bottom line is this: I don’t agree with “swarley” and other critics that Plain Dealer reporters were lazy or taking care of their friends. I think instead that the paper’s failure to report this story before it was revealed in a massive federal investigation was a significant missed opportunity.
The information was there to get, and The Plain Dealer had reported some of it — but it did so incrementally and without cohesion or consistent followup. The paper never pulled what it had together into what could have been a fascinating public-service story of political corruption — and possibly led reporters to what the FBI found.
No stories were spiked, and no reporters said they were dissuaded from following up leads. It is true that reporters don’t have subpoena power, but what kept the paper from getting to the story ahead of the FBI was sins of journalistic omission — the failure to follow up leads, to cultivate sources and mobilize resources, to report aggressively on matters of keen public interest rather than accepting business as usual. In some respects, that is even more disturbing than the false charges that the newspaper was in bed with the people it covers.
Sullivan’s term, “somnolent watchdogs,” stings, but despite all the good work that the newspaper has done before and since, The Plain Dealer’s failure to nail this story is a lesson for the future, and something that everyone who was there at the time will have to live with.
“Any time, in any town, when the FBI winds up making a bunch of arrests for corruption, the newspaper always flagellates itself,” said Clifton.
“Newspapers have historically done a pretty good job of rooting out corruption,” he said. “But sometimes you fail, and that’s the score that goes up on the board in this case: FBI six, newspaper zero.”