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Smackdown

Inside the investigation of Cleveland Works and David Roth, its messiah-turned-pariah.

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There stands David Roth, wearing a suit and that trademark ponytail, alone on a cliff, at the end of what seems to be a dead-end road. From this precipice, he describes his nonprofit agency, Cleveland Works, and its mission: to find work -- and hope -- for those who need it most.

Now he stands opposite a rotating bridge, and it pivots to meet him. Roth strides gallantly across, joined by a host of people, all with new jobs, their heads high and proud. From welfare to working class, Cleveland Works is their bridge. David Roth is their messiah.

This is one of the television commercials that made Roth the face of welfare-to-work efforts in Cleveland, efforts that would win him national acclaim. But a police investigation has exposed another side of Roth, one almost too bizarre to believe.

Through the eyes of a police informant, we see Roth lusting for heroin. We see him snorting cocaine. We see him slinging a range of prescription drugs. We even see him using Cleveland Works funds to pay off his dealer. And in new charges filed just this week, we see Roth threatening a witness into not testifying in a murder case.

"He was the best-known figure in the nonprofit world -- and probably the most respected," says Charlie Clarke, a friend of Roth's, as well as a member of the Cleveland Works board of trustees. "So this was a very surprising event."

Those who saw Roth at work marveled at him. "He had this great organizational mind," says Clarke, who says Roth had plenty of corporate suitors who would have paid him handsomely as a personnel director. He turned them all down and focused on welfare-to-work.

It defies logic, then, that a man who was so altruistic in public could be so reckless in private, that someone who seemed to have a higher calling could be undone by such base impulses. The trial next year will surely yield even more sordid details, occasioning a new round of backlash on Roth and Cleveland Works. The agency that for 17 years succeeded on the strength of his idealism and boundless energy now must survive despite him.


Cleveland Works exists for people like Clarence Dent. He had quit his bus-driving job with the RTA, gambling that he'd find more lucrative work. But his employability was marred by a two-year prison stint in the early 1980s. When the RTA wouldn't hire him back, Dent languished at home, enduring the condemnations of his wife, his meager retirement savings slowly melting away. It was with this predicament that Dent arrived at Cleveland Works.

Never content to function as just an administrator, David Roth invested individual attention in clients like Dent. Roth wrote a glowing letter of recommendation on Dent's behalf, saying that he exemplified the qualities found in a good worker. The letter imbued Dent with confidence, and agency programs gave him the self-assurance he needed to complete applications and shine in interviews. "I was inspired to get back into the workforce," he says. Dent landed work with the Red Cross, delivering blood. "I'm one of the lucky ones," he says.

So is Jacqueline Gibbs. Her situation was dire: After spending much of the 1990s in prison, she found the prospect of earning a decent wage remote. But a six-week program at Cleveland Works changed her mind. Soon, she had a job at the Heavenly Ham plant in North Olmsted, preparing tuna and ham salad.

"When we would have trouble finding work," she recalls, "our case workers would send us to David Roth."

Mike Periandri Sr. was Gibbs's case worker. He would be indicted with Roth. "I can't imagine him being involved in something like this," says Gibbs.

She isn't the only one. Periandri and his son, Michael Jr., were Cleveland Works poster boys -- they fell into the mire together, then saved each other from it. A Plain Dealer column in 1998 told how Periandri Sr. went from being a lead singer in a cover band to a junkie, then a dealer, and finally an inmate. Upon his release, Periandri landed in a Cleveland Works classroom, where he learned to take the righteous path. He then became a counselor, using his life's mistakes as lessons for other wayward souls, his son included.

"I didn't accidentally take a wrong road -- I knew where I was going," Periandri preached to a class of Cleveland Works clients, according to The PD.

Michael Jr., who had been serving time for the same drug crimes as his father, sat in the back row of the classroom. Since his release from prison, Junior was said to be devoted to his $7-an-hour dishwashing job.

But the Periandris' commitment seems to have faltered. In September 2002, a long-time friend of David Roth's told Cleveland Police that the father-son duo was dealing again, according to police records. And Roth, the man said, was not only getting drugs from them, he was profiting from their sales -- coordinating transactions from within Cleveland Works' headquarters.

Detective Greg Whitney and Ohio Board of Pharmacy Agent Lynn Mudra opened an investigation. Roth's friend agreed to play informant. A source close to the investigation says the informant had been a client of Roth's and volunteered as a way to escape a long prison sentence he faced for unrelated drug charges.

Whitney and Mudra are barred from commenting on the case until it's resolved, a process that is likely to extend well into next year. But much of the evidence is laid out in court documents. The informant's encounters with Roth and the Periandris -- secretly taped -- are described in an affidavit. The following account is based on that document.

January 29: Roth apparently does not sense treachery when an old friend stops by Cleveland Works' headquarters at 3400 Hamilton. Roth shows the friend into an office, and the conversation quickly turns to drugs. Roth claims that he can arrange to buy 40-milligram pills of OxyContin for $20 each. The best way to get a high on Oxy, he adds, is to chew the pills, unleashing the drug's power suddenly. (It's also a good way to overdose. OxyContin is a time-release drug, designed to numb pain slowly.) Roth tells his friend that Periandri Jr. is dealing drugs out of Cleveland Works. In return, Roth gets a cut of the profits.

Two days later, Roth calls his friend to offer OxyContin, and on February 2, they meet at Cleveland Works to discuss price. The friend returns on the 4th and is introduced to the Periandris.

Periandri Sr. is suspicious, as evidenced by his Godfather allusion: "If this ends up on the six o'clock news," he says to the informant, "you'll be sleeping with the fishes." Periandri Sr. then strip-searches the man. Somehow, he misses the wire. Satisfied, he reads to the informant the menu of available drugs: OxyContin, liquid morphine, heroin. The informant is interested in everything.

He returns to Cleveland Works the next day, and Periandri Sr. sells him enough drugs for a road trip with Hunter Thompson: 119 grams of liquid morphine and three bundles of heroin, which typically contain 30 doses. The day after that, the informant and the elder Periandri drive to Murray Hill to cut a deal for seven grams of cocaine.

Another trip to Cleveland Works on February 12, another haul: 25 doses of heroin and 50 pills of oxycodone, the opiate ingredient in OxyContin. Roth asks his friend how much he paid the Periandris. Fifteen hundred, he's told. That's too much, Roth says, and offers to broker future deals. He also asks to share in the drugs his friend has purchased. The man refuses and leaves.

But apparently they later reach a brokering agreement. On February 14, the informant arrives at Roth's home, carrying $1,000. He gives the cash to Roth, and is told to visit Cleveland Works later that day for the drugs. He meets this time with Michael Periandri Jr., who hands off 100 doses of heroin.

Periandri Jr. tells the informant that Roth's habit has left him thousands of dollars in debt. On the tape, Roth can be heard in the background, making a speech, presumably to Cleveland Works clients and employees. Roth was always making speeches.

The most startling disclosure comes on February 26 -- Periandri Sr. mentions how Roth sometimes gives him bonuses out of the Cleveland Works payroll as payment for drugs. (Periandri Sr. complains that taxes are deducted from his check.)

Two days later, the informant records a cocaine purchase at Cleveland Works. Subsequent meetings, however, yield indications of Roth's downward spiral. In March, he complains that he can no longer afford his habit, though his salary was near $100,000. In May, he notes that if there were a pile of heroin in front of him, he'd do it all on the spot.


Roth should have known better. Throughout his career, he saw daily reminders of the pernicious influence of drugs. Out of college in the early 1970s, Roth was among the young idealists who launched the Free Clinic. Junkies were a large part of the patient population.

By the mid-1980s, Roth had established Cleveland Works, which put him in the vanguard of welfare-to-work nationally. Al Gore toured the office during the 1992 presidential campaign. Two years later, when President Bill Clinton unveiled his welfare-reform plan, he cited Cleveland Works as a model agency. Roth was also interviewed on CNN about welfare-to-work.

For a few thousand government dollars, the nonprofit could take a person off the welfare rolls and place him or her in a job, with health benefits and a living wage. By 1995, Roth boasted of having placed 7,500 clients in jobs, at a cost far below most other agencies'. All this, as Cleveland Works endured budget cuts -- between 1993 and '94, Roth laid off 30 of the agency's 60 workers, many of whom were Cleveland Works graduates.

In more recent years, the state diverted a giant pool of federal money earmarked for welfare-to-work to education. In the absence of government funds, Roth beseeched corporations, foundations, and wealthy individuals for donations.

If he failed to win new grants, Roth knew, he would have to lay off more employees. Being in the business of job creation, this notion was anathema. Roth must have felt the pressure.

"If you care about what you're doing -- and he did -- you may go home at night and think about all the people you couldn't serve that day, the people who are going to be on the streets that night," says Charles See, director of the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries Community Re-entry Program, which specializes in turning ex-cons into full-time workers. "It becomes an incredibly stressful situation."

A hippie in the '60s, Roth might be forgiven for lighting a joint at the end of a long day. But the idea of Roth noshing on OxyContin pills, doing lines of blow, mixing black-tar heroin in a spoon? "That doesn't sound like the David Roth I knew," says See.

Roth certainly wouldn't be the first guy with a high-pressure job and a drug addiction. But his life's mission was freeing people from such traps. He would have known how to get treatment, and as his agency's effectiveness slipped, he should have recognized that his own dependence might have been a factor.


In the same period that Roth's friend was recording their meetings, Detective Whitney was picking up the trash at Roth's Cleveland Heights home, sifting through it for evidence. In February, he found evidence of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, according to court documents. The Periandris lived together on West 14th. Nearly every search through their trash turned up traces of cocaine and heroin, police say.

There was little evidence of Roth indulging in hard drugs after April. Searches of his trash through August found only marijuana.

But on the morning of August 27, when police finally served a warrant at Roth's home, they found dope in abundance. On the mantel above the fireplace was a jar of marijuana and a jar of LSD. On shelves in the living room was more marijuana, in bags. A kitchen cabinet held 39 doses of heroin.

Roth agreed to dictate a confession on the spot. "I know that both Periandris have been selling drugs out of Cleveland Works and to me," Roth said in the statement, which Whitney transcribed. "They gave it to me and then charged me for it. Periandri gave me a lot of black-tar heroin." Roth admitted that he "assisted in the sale of drugs," but only on "one or two" occasions.

The confession ends on a mournful note: "I admit to taking drugs and messing myself up, but never thought I was hurting someone else . . . I have given drugs to other people but not sold."

Among the papers seized in a search of Cleveland Works' headquarters was correspondence between the deputy warden of Lake Erie Correctional Institution and Ed Francis, Roth's assistant, in May. The deputy warden, Paul Compton, tells Francis that Periandri Jr. was caught scheming with an inmate "to introduce controlled substances into the institution." Periandri, as a representative of Cleveland Works, was supposed to be talking to inmates about job prospects.

Periandri Jr. was fired for the offense. The facility banned Periandri Sr. from entering, a decision that brought an appeal from Francis. In a letter to the Lake Erie Correctional warden, Francis says that after knowing Periandri Sr. for nearly four years, "I have not seen anything in Mike but a sincere desire to turn his life around and, even more significantly, a desire to make a positive contribution to society and truly help our clients, who are facing many of the same obstacles that Mike has faced." Francis calls Periandri Sr. "a model of what we are all trying to accomplish."

Detectives also found a memo, dated July 7, in which Roth authorizes a bonus check of $1,500 to Periandri Sr. "to acknowledge that he is working in marketing while still undertaking responsibilities as a client advocate." Prosecutors will attempt to prove that the payout was for drugs.

The Periandris were arrested at a relative's home on Wetzel Avenue, where they'd been living since a bank foreclosed on their Tremont home, according to the affidavit. Michael Jr. was nabbed as he waited outside for a ride. A detective found a glass pipe in his pocket and a plastic baggie with cocaine residue. Periandri Sr. was on the couch. He didn't resist arrest. Detectives said they found small baggies of cocaine in his jacket pockets, as well as a mirror with cocaine residue.

Roth was indicted on September 2, on charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy to deal drugs, and engaging in corruption. The Periandris were indicted on drug-trafficking and corruption charges as well. Charles Lazzaro, a friend of Roth's and the Periandris' former attorney, was also caught up in the investigation for allegedly using cocaine while the informant was present. All four have pleaded not guilty. The Periandris did not respond to letters mailed to the Cuyahoga County Jail. Through his attorney, Roth declined to comment. Lazzaro did not return numerous calls seeking comment.

Since each of the Periandris already has two felony drug convictions, a third would spell a lengthy prison sentence. Roth, whose record is largely clean, may be able to negotiate a sentence of just a few years. But his career as a community leader would seem to be over. He may soon learn firsthand about the challenges of getting work as an ex-con.


Since the indictments, questions have surfaced about why there wasn't closer monitoring of workers like the Periandris, whose records demonstrate impulses toward drugs and dealing.

But what's left of the Cleveland Works leadership argues that such expectations are unrealistic. For one, the agency must employ ex-cons to prove to businesses that it believes in its own ability to rehabilitate. "You have to practice what you preach," says attorney Eric Kennedy, a member of the Cleveland Works board.

Welfare reform changed the agency's client base. Before the mid-'90s, the typical client was a single mother with a checkered work history, who needed help with child care. As a diffuse range of government agencies picked up these cases, nonprofits such as Cleveland Works accepted a steeper challenge: placing felons in jobs. "David was personally committed to that," says State Senator Eric Fingerhut, who was associate director of Cleveland Works during the late 1980s.

Ed Francis, who has shared the helm at Cleveland Works with John Lawson since Roth's arrest, says that, in the great majority of cases, employers who hire former inmates experience no more problems with them than they do with workers who have never been locked up.

Neither was Francis suspicious of individuals with felony convictions who worked in his office. "Looking back, I didn't see anything that raised a red flag," he says. And even if he had, Francis isn't sure he could have saved his boss. "If there were drug sales going on -- and none of us know that as a fact -- it can happen anywhere," says Francis. "It could happen in the bathroom or in the parking lot. There's no way any organization can be totally and absolutely assured that nothing is going to happen on its premises."

As a board member, Kennedy was removed from day-to-day operations, but he does not blame Cleveland Works staff for failing to blow the whistle. "I don't know how you prevent something that allegedly occurs behind closed doors on 20 different occasions in six months."

The mood among Cleveland Works leadership is not one of outrage so much as profound sadness. The staff is preoccupied with keeping the agency afloat. Yet, as the trial commences, and as the agency goes before public officials for badly needed funds, it may feel considerable backlash.

This reality elicits a long sigh from board member Charlie Clarke. "You can't very well ask them to make grants or donations to an organization whose head is being threatened with criminal charges, especially when [the charges] are operating a drug house," he says.

Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim McCormack is furious that Cleveland Works officials are looking forward to survival, instead of backward at how they could have intervened. "That response more than anything else is very disturbing," says McCormack. "Let's talk practicality: Don't you know if a co-worker or a friend is addicted or around a culture of drugs? The fact that the warning signs were not more strictly attended to is troubling. I have to wonder to what degree was it within the culture there to overlook? That's a problem."

McCormack says he would oppose giving Cleveland Works money until radical leadership changes are made, such as the board being "completely renewed."

The agency was struggling mightily even before the drug-trafficking scandal, a result of Ohio's heavy cuts in welfare funding as well as Cleveland Works' slumping job-placement numbers. "We had 85 percent of our state funding cut in the last 18 months," says Kennedy. "That's a tough hurdle. Now add to it that your main fund-raising person is no longer there."

Both Francis and Kennedy contend that Cleveland Works continues to have strong relationships with the employers who hire its clients, and with the individuals and foundations that supply critical funding. But considering that David Roth was the intermediary, it's hard to believe there isn't some crisis of faith.

As the old TV commercial suggested, Roth was Cleveland Works, and Cleveland Works was Roth. In his absence, Francis and others have returned to founding principles.

"You have to take a step back and say that our mission is to help people get into full-time, permanent jobs, and we believe in the people that come to us," says Francis. "They come to us looking for help, and if they weren't well intentioned, they wouldn't be here."

On the other hand, it would seem that Roth's life is an example of how good intentions aren't always enough. "There is a deep sense of surprise -- even disbelief -- that this would happen to him," says Clarke. "There was a high degree of faith people had in him."

The prevailing sentiment among former Cleveland Works clients is also one of disappointment. "I was more than shocked -- it hurt me personally," says Clarence Dent, who mailed a letter expressing both his gratitude to Roth and his sympathy. "The spirit flows through that man. He's a leader."

"There are a lot of people on their side," says James Bojar, who credits Roth with helping him land a job with a catering company after 15 years in prison. "And if you put it on a scale, the good they've done outweighs the bad."

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