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Big fish Russo & little sharks

Matt Westerhold • Sep 13, 2010 at 10:59 AM

State officials stood with their hands in their pockets for the past two years as the federal government came to Cuyahoga County to clean up corruption.

The federal corruption probe finally snagged one of its big targets last week: Cuyahoga County auditor Frank Russo. Russo’s resignation came with a 21-count indictment accusing him of everything from cronyism to taking million-dollar bribes.

In all, more than 30 county officials have been arrested since “the Calvary” came to town, with most of them pleading guilty to various corruption charges. But what’s frightening about that is those same state and local officials, and their predecessors, who stood by for three decades condoning corruption by ignoring it are now ready to quickly move on, as it were, and distance themselves without paying any penance or looking for any meaningful statewide reform.

“Our Party has moved beyond this scandal and will not engage, tolerate nor defend the wrongful and selfish actions of a few officeholders who have disgraced themselves and violated their public trust,” Democratic Party chair Stuart Garson said after Russo resigned.

Won’t engage, tolerate nor defend? That would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. Both political parties have done exactly that for the past 30 years. Republican and Democratic officeholders on both the state and the county levels (well beyond just Cuyahoga County) have engaged and tolerated bad behavior as a matter of routine.

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray will tell you — through a spokesperson, of course — his office really has no jurisdiction over such matters as corruption. And that is true if one has no guts for the battle. There are provisions in state law that allow the AG to armor up and fight the good fight, but his office opted out of the war. And standing down in the face of corruption is allying with the enemy when there is no other recourse.

Cordray did announce some months ago the AG’s office would engage in the corruption probe, but that announcement came more than a year after the feds launched their investigations. And there certainly has not been much, if any, follow-through from Cordray. The state AG’s website has not one word about Russo’s arrest. In fact, performing a search at the site using the word “corruption” returns with a big fat zero on the results page. A big fat zero.

The AG’s website reads like a patronizing pat on the head for voters, offering appeasement and candy to them so Cordray doesn’t have to have the needed hard conversations with the public officials he calls friends.

Here’s a sampling of Friday’s headlines from the AG’s website: “Cordray provides more than $350,000 to assist Ohioans who lack adequate health insurance,” and “Cordray warns of credit card interest rip-off.” Here’s the Plain Dealer headline: “Charges against Russo magnify public concerns.”

Obviously there isn’t much here that concerns Cordray, and therein lies the problem: If the Ohio AG’s office, caked in its own bureaucratic morass of cronyism and favor-giving, can’t police Ohio then what agency does? If there is no controlling state agency that will call out corrupt politicians from Erie to Adams and from Mahoning to Hamilton counties as well, then corruption will remain the only growth industry in Ohio for years to come.

The fish here in Erie County are too small for the feds to take too seriously, but our little sharks are eating up the tax revenues from our small population just as the big sharks in Cuyahoga County have damaged that much bigger region of the state. Eventually, the federal cavalry of FBI agents and U.S. Justice Department attorneys will leave the corruption probe behind.

It’s not the federal government’s job to police Ohio, but without meaningful reform Ohioans will be back at square one, left with sharks for leaders and impotent in the fight against corruption.

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