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A Culture of Corruption

9 January 2013 No Comment

When I was about 24, I moved to Youngstown, Ohio to take a job as a newspaper reporter. It was, I now realize, a crazy thing to do.

I didn’t plan to stay in the city long. But my dad was pretty upset when I told him about it. His company had an experience there in the ’90s where one of the construction foremen was run off the road by someone who was upset about something–I’m guessing they had problems with a local labor union. After that, his company wouldn’t do business there anymore.

I had heard about the mafia in Youngstown, but they had sort of been flushed out by the Feds. Anyway, I thought that stuff would be interesting, reporting-wise. But my dad said something that I only know understand the wisdom of: corruption like that, he said, long-term corruption, becomes a part of the local culture.

I think about that a lot now that I live in Cleveland, a city with a similar history–and only about an hour away.

In the four years since I’ve been here, the FBI has been conducting a major corruption investigation and many of the local officials have been caught up in it. As a result, there was a big “county reform” effort and the bums–at least the most obvious two–were thrown out. Then they held an election to name new leaders and Cuyahoga County residents reelected a lot of old-time politicians to the newly vacated offices. Disappointing, yes. But, also, telling.

This high-school-educated former janitor was the unquestioned political leader of Ohio's largest county for decades, a position he used to enrich himself.

None of these old-time folks had been caught pants-down in a corruption case. But they were all part of the same milieu; everyone who held a power position must have had to deal with these guys. One notable exception is the county executive, who has been a breath of fresh air.

Some City Council members and high ranking city officials had been mentioned during the course of the investigation, most notably City Council President Martin Sweeney, a career Cleveland politician. He continues to serve in that position–the second most powerful one in the city. Just today it was revealed in The Plain Dealer that in one of the ongoing corruption trials, Sweeney’s name came up as part of some contract fixing scheme, possibly tied to free improvements done to his home and campaign donations.

And meanwhile, yesterday, Cleveland City Council did something I found to be especially significant–and depressing. One of the Councilmembers, Ken Johnson, wanted to retire and then immediately be reappointed to his job so he could collect a public pension and a salary at the same time, something we in Ohio call “double-dipping,” which is technically legal but widely viewed as an abuse of the system. And what did City Council do? They reappointed Ken Johnson so he could double-dip–even with the The Plain Dealer staring them down, publishing a page-one story.

And you know why they did it? City Council doesn’t care what people think about them. It doesn’t matter. Constituents don’t hold the power in Cleveland, with politicians answering to them for their actions. Quite the opposite. In fact, I’m fairly certain these politicians don’t expect their constituents to even question them.

That is how power operates in Cleveland. First you must become part of the club. How do you do this? Not smarts, not merit–it’s loyalty. Loyalty, or, “connections” or “relationships,” reign supreme in Cleveland. It’s the culture of corruption, because if you’re breaking the law (or doing something otherwise dubious or morally questionable, abusing your position of authority) the number one priority is surrounding yourself with people who will keep their yaps shut.

And that’s exactly what everyone in greater Cleveland did for decades. There were a scant few whistle blowers who lost everything, only to be vindicated decades later. But nearly everyone was in on what was happening.

Something that really struck me was a lengthy article the The Plain Dealer ran about why they themselves didn’t expose the local corruption ring that was our regional government. The former editor pushed for the story before she left.

They interviewed reporter after reporter, and they all said they knew it was going on but offered, in my opinion, extremely inadequate reasons for not uncovering it.

Here is one reporter on trying to expose the County Sheriff, who was eventually ousted:

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.

I think the reason the The Plain Dealer didn’t uncover corruption is because it was so widespread and pervasive it was hard to tell where the corruption began and ended.

The central premise of David Hugill’s critical media theory book Missing Women, Missing News is that the mainstream media, exemplified by major newspapers, are inherently conservative because their default presumption is the legitimacy of public institutions. Expecting The Plain Dealer to properly cover the story of Cleveland’s corruption would have required a radical rethinking of the legitimacy of our public institutions. So, they couldn’t.

Anyway, all of that doesn’t go away overnight after a few FBI arrests, although I think Cleveland (especially its leadership and civic boosters) likes to imagine that it does. Corruption, in the sense of a degraded, rotten foundation, is a well chosen term for what’s occurred, because the cheating and dishonesty we see from our leaders, the blatant public theft, has a corrosive effect on a community. You take a look at a place like East Cleveland or Buckeye and ask yourself, would such profound wreckage have been possible without corruption, without someone with power choosing to exploit the community? I think the answer is no.

The story of Cleveland’s decline is much bigger than deindustrialization, even though I think that’s what we’re most comfortable attributing it to.

I saw a study about national corruption a while ago and it found that nations with higher levels of corruption had greater levels of infant mortality and greater high school drop-out rates. This would certainly apply locally. The money these guys stole to remodel their tacky homes in Parma Heights or wherever was literally food out of babes’ mouths in one of the poorest major cities in the United States.

It’s bigger than that even. It seeps into every aspect of life, I think, this culture of corruption. I think it erodes the freedom associated with creativity, as exemplified in the 2006 German film The Lives of Others. As much as Cleveland touts its performing and visual arts, I think the local art scene is strangely stifled. We have a great orchestra and some great theaters, but no street art scene, no art element with a revolutionary bent.

Cleveland is a place that’s very deferential to authority. I heard a theory once that industrial cities are like that because of the historically hierarchical structures of the manufacturing industry. But I think it’s more sinister than that here. I feel it constraining me sometimes, and it makes me very depressed. It makes me want to move away from Cleveland. This very blog, which is at times critical of leadership in Cleveland, provokes such reactions from Clevelanders who are wary of criticizing authority that you’d think I was drowning puppies.

One time someone told me, in all seriousness, that having strong opinions was not accepted in the local culture here, that it was considered “arrogant” to have strong opinions about anything. I think he was actually trying to help me; he was trying to give me advice. But it just made me feel worse about this place. A city where it’s not okay to have strong opinions is not a good place for creative people: it is a good place for sheep. It is a good place for morons. People with respect for their own thoughts won’t choose to live in a place like that, and given the choice again, I probably wouldn’t.

People should be able to freely express opinions in a public blog about civic issues without fearing retaliation. I think people in other cities take that for granted. I saw this kind of thing happen recently to my friend Phil Kidd in Youngstown. Phil runs a popular blog and a store in Youngstown and is a well-liked and well-known activist. Last week he made an offhand comment on his Facebook page about past corruption in the city with respect to the upcoming mayoral race. Soon, one of the county commissioners was virtually shouting him down on Facebook, saying he needs to be careful what he says on Facebook.

I also think in Cleveland we continue to have a society that doles out rewards fairly arbitrarily, rather than based on merit–and what is corruption, basically, if not that? I think this culture of “loyalty,” or “relationship building” establishes a perverse set of incentives for people that live here. It doesn’t encourage people to excel in specific fields or realms. It rewards only friendly relationships with powerful individuals. As a result, I think in Cleveland we hold up some very mediocre stuff produced by well-connected people as a very lousy ideal for others to aim for.

For example, why is it that this blog should be referenced and praised by Salon, The Atlantic, the Indianapolis Star, the Las Vegas Sun, Governing Magazine, and Details, but we’ve never received any sort of formal mention by our local press? Is it that our local media is more discerning than those national publications? I don’t think so; I’ve seen them feature centerfolds of bloggers who write about going out to local bars and how much they love Cleveland.

That is very discouraging if you are really striving to excel in a particular realm. And those individual ambitions, nurturing them, that is the very foundation of a healthy society. The smartest and the most ambitious, they will chafe in that environment. They will realize that they can’t succeed, and they will leave — as I am quite certain the last generation of honest political talent did — leaving a gaping hole.

The culture in Cleveland doesn’t lift people up: it grinds honest, hardworking people down. That was perhaps Jimmy Dimora’s and Frank Russo’s most serious crime. And that is the problem with Cleveland. New York inspires. Chicago is a mecca of Midwestern ambition. But no one comes to Cleveland to realize their dreams because of the fantastic opportunities available to anyone who’s ambitious or hard working or smart enough.

If we can solve that problem, we’ll have solved them all. I’m not sure how to do that, but I think shining a light on it is an important first step. We need to be brave and stand up to the corrupt elements of our society to make it better, even if that requires making great personal sacrifices. The people who do that, though, just end up being marginalized here. I think it’s a shame.

- A.S.