Before officially declaring his candidacy for governor last week, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald spent months preparing for his run against Republican incumbent John Kasich.
Kasich’s allies have been preparing for FitzGerald nearly as long.
There is little doubt FitzGerald will trade heavily on his experience as an FBI agent and his reputation for turning the page on a corrupt chapter of county government. But the GOP prefers to focus on FitzGerald’s largely inconsequential mention as "Public Official 14" in the indictment of Jimmy Dimora, the county commissioner later convicted on racketeering and other charges.
Consider how the Republican Governors Association (RGA) welcomed FitzGerald to the race.
"After failing to recruit a more experienced candidate, Democrats are now stuck with Ed FitzGerald’s brand of pay-to-play and corruption politics," said Executive Director Phil Cox.
PolitiFact Ohio decided this was a good time to reexamine FitzGerald’s tangential connections to the widespread federal investigation of county corruption. The RGA statement was not the first -- nor will it be the last -- reference to the case. The Ohio Republican Party has launched a web site -- www.publicofficial14.com-- to blast FitzGerald, known in GOP shorthand as P.O. 14.
But how fair and truthful are these tactics?
The Plain Dealer wrote extensively in 2010 about FitzGerald’s bit role in the Dimora investigation. FitzGerald at the time was the mayor of Lakewood and the Democratic nominee for the powerful new position of county executive. Federal prosecutors charged Dimora a week after FitzGerald won the primary. They described a Lakewood deal for which Dimora had been bribed.
On March 6, 2008, Dimora called FitzGerald on behalf of developer William Neiheiser, who was interested in leasing Lakewood’s ice rink. Neiheiser had been having trouble reaching the mayor.
Neiheiser "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 wiretap transcript.
FitzGerald replied: "I’ll make the time … I’ll make time to talk to him."
Dimora added: "If there’s anything we can do, uh, let us know …. any help we can provide."
Neiheiser pleaded guilty to charges that he bribed Dimora with free home improvements and other gifts in exchange for favors involving the ice rink and other public contracts. Essentially Dimora, then the chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, flaunted his ability to get lower-level party leaders on the telephone when a patron such as Neiheiser was in need.
Prosecutors did not accuse FitzGerald of wrongdoing in the Dimora indictment, let alone charge him or even identify him by name. But as The Plain Dealer found, Neiheiser contributed $250 to FitzGerald’s political campaign the following month. And in June 2008, the Lakewood City Council unanimously agreed at FitzGerald’s urging to lease the ice rink to a Neiheiser company.
FitzGerald and those who served on the Lakewood council at the time defended the deal as a smart financial move for the city. The lease called for Neiheiser’s company to operate the rink and pay the city about $75,000 a year in rent. Neiheiser’s attorney told The Plain Dealer in 2010 that his client had spent more than $2 million to refurbish the city-owned complex.
Matt Dolan, the Republican nominee for county executive in 2010, raised questions about FitzGerald’s involvement in the Dimora deal and branded his opponent as Public Official 14.
FitzGerald rid his war chest of contributions from Dimora, Neiheiser and others caught up in the investigation by making a charitable donation. And after beating Dolan and taking office as county executive he rid the county payroll of many patronage hires loyal to Dimora’s political machine.
But in January, FitzGerald’s name again surfaced in a case, this time at a trial for another crooked contractor, Michael Forlani. An FBI agent testified that Forlani used two intermediaries in 2008 to disguise his campaign contributions to the then-mayor. FitzGerald told The Plain Dealer at the time that the agent’s testimony was the first he had heard of the donations.
Then came an extraordinary announcement from Ann Rowland, the lead prosecutor in the corruption case. In a statement U.S. attorneys rarely make, Rowland cleared FitzGerald.
"Ed FitzGerald is not a target of the investigation," Rowland said. "We have no evidence Ed FitzGerald knew Michael Forlani had anything to do with these contributions."
After seeing Cox’s statement last week on FitzGerald, PolitiFact Ohio asked RGA spokesman Jon Thompson to specify what the group meant by FitzGerald’s "brand of pay-to-play and corruption politics." Thompson specified the Public Official 14 designation.
Thompson also noted that the Ohio GOP has tied FitzGerald to the corruption probe. And he shared a link to the conservative Third Base Politics blog, which reported that the left-leaning Plunderbund blog had deleted posts from 2010 that presented FitzGerald as Public Official 14.
So, let’s review.
Cox accused FitzGerald of perpetuating a "brand of pay-to-play and corruption politics."
More than 60 other public officials, government employees and contractors have been convicted of charges stemming from the federal investigation. But the agents and prosecutors who tore up county government never accused FitzGerald of a crime. And though FitzGerald has surfaced a couple of times in the investigation, the lead prosecutor has said he is not under suspicion.
The "brand" in question is one Republicans no doubt prefer as they gear up for Kasich’s re-election battle. But they have no proof that FitzGerald engaged in corrupt politics. And they misleadingly hide behind the cryptic and nuanced "Public Official 14" designation while ignoring the much more direct and meaningful exculpatory statement from the lead prosecutor. They also ignore the work FitzGerald has done to clean up after the corrupt regime that preceded him.
Facts lay waste to any effort like this one that explicitly brands FitzGerald as a corrupt politician.
Pants On Fire!