The All-City Drum Line is filling the just-renovated Artemus Ward School in Cleveland City Council President Marty Sweeney's West Park ward with a pep-rally vibe. The ribbon is cut in the gym, everybody half-cheers and the students file back to class, as Sweeney, pulling at his tie, settles into a cafetorium table with a worried look on his face.
Obviously, the reporter has many questions about Sweeney's troubles in recent years - the sexual harassment settlement, the attempted coup by eager council contras, the cozy ties that have caught him up in the county corruption probe now entertaining a federal grand jury. But Sweeney wants to fill in some backstory first. "I just want to get this out of the way," he says at one point, and recommends that he explain how Martin J. Sweeney - referring to himself in the third person - got to where he is today. Fair enough.
Three of his four grandparents came from Ireland to Cleveland and quickly put down roots in West Park. One grandfather was a state representative. Another was a cop for 30 years. Martin and his six siblings - all but one still live between Eastlake and Avon - were raised traditionally Catholic by a doting housewife and attorney father, Gerald F., who retired as a Cleveland Municipal Court judge. See how service is in the blood, he notes.
But basketball anecdotes invariably stiff-arm all the other memories aside. How he still plays with his old fifth-grade team from St. Mel. How he won MVP at St. Ignatius as a freshman. How he didn't make Tri-C's squad until nine players got canned for academics. How the reputation of his older brother, CSU alum "Big Mike" Sweeney, just might have gotten point-guard Marty aboard for, as he calls it, CSU's "magic carpet ride" season, 1985-86, when the team reached the NCAA's final 16. It ended after a school-record 14 straight wins in Sweeney's last year of eligibility. Ask anybody at City Hall - it's the pride of Sweeney's past.
He ticks off some of the lessons learned in sports that translate well to his current job: "Positive reinforcement. Loyalty. Depending on your teammates. Sacrificing for a common goal while molding individual talents. Building relationships that last a lifetime."
He doesn't mention winning. Maybe that's because he's learned that the jock image can hurt him as much as it helps, if he comes across as calculating. But even critics might concede that Sweeney really does seem to prize loyalty and relationships above all else. That too can come with a price, however, and Sweeney's closest ties might ultimately damage his reputation and career more than council foes or complaints of boorish behavior ever could.
After graduating from CSU with a degree in political science, Sweeney floundered for a while, first scraping asbestos, then taking the firefighter's exam, then running for the Ward 19 seat and losing with a respectable 19 percent of the vote.
In 1990, he began a six-year run as a probation officer, joined the ward club and waited. His next chance came with what he calls "the Dennis Kucinich Domino Effect." After 15 years of exile, the former mayor was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1994. A few years later, in January 1997, he was headed for Congress. That hole eventually landed Ward 20 Councilman Dale Miller a seat in the Ohio House. And from a field of several candidates, Miller tapped Sweeney to take his chair at City Hall.
"What I saw in Marty was a serious attitude, a genuine interest in helping other people, and a reliable and dependable person who does the things he says he's gonna do," recalls Miller, now a state senator. "And I think if you took a little tour around Ward 20, you'd be hard-pressed to find too many people to say he's not done a good job as a ward councilman. However, when you ascend to the position of council president, you take on a whole bunch of new challenges, and I think that Marty is trying to work through that."
Sweeney brags about how Kucinich's return was hatched from the basement of his uncle, John Gallagher, a politico whose name today graces the West Park post-office branch. But where Kucinich fought hard to claim his anti-establishment image, Sweeney quickly established himself as someone fighting to get into the inner circle by riding the fence on in. Richard May, leader of the West Park Republican Organization, says the reason he voted for Sweeney in 1997 - the only year he's been opposed - was because Ed Crawford, chairman of the county Republican Party's finance committee, expressed early and often unabashed Sweeney support. "When I had to choose, I saw Ed Crawford's actions in supporting Sweeney and supporting [Ward 18 councilman and political chameleon] Jay Westbrook," says May, "and I knew that this person was cooperating with the business community."
The 45-year-old Sweeney is husky, built like a retired jock. He sometimes seems uncomfortable in fancy clothes. But that's the uniform in his grand second-floor office at City Hall, with its regal desk, smoked glass and a spectacular view of Browns Stadium and the lakefront beyond. He points to the nail holes in the wall where his basketball hoop used to be, then to his sofa, and describes with reverence the day Council President Jay Westbrook ushered him into this very office, to that very seat, for lesson No. 1 of his then-fledgling council career.
"Would you support the council president?" he recalls Westbrook asking him. "I told him, 'I don't see why not.'" He ended up becoming chairman of the service committee that first year, quickly learning about the importance of relationships.
"I'll never forget I went to one meeting with [then-Mayor] Mike White about improving the lakefront, and I was the only council member to show up," he says. "He called the meeting at 9 a.m. and I was in the Red Room at 9 o'clock all by myself. It showed him I respected him as the mayor of Cleveland." Even as White's name has come up in pay-to-play investigations, like the one that sent his friend Nate Gray to prison, Sweeney has remained loyal. After a rare White public appearance at the I-X Center in 2007, Sweeney got in the face of a reporter who dared to ask the former mayor a few questions.
Sweeney's education continued. Jane Campbell became mayor, and after a short-lived coup by Collinwood Councilman Mike Polensek against Westbrook, Frank Jackson rose to the top job on council to counter what he saw as Campbell's ineffectual leadership. Sweeney stays loyal to Westbrook to this day. "One really cool moment for me: The 10 members who were with Jay all went in that committee room with him and sat with him and said, 'Jay Westbrook is our council president.'" Sweeney and Polensek, however, exhibit a cool professionalism toward each other, nothing more.
Jackson tapped Sweeney, from the mostly white West Side, to be his majority leader. He'd learned by then a variety of methods to obtain political ends. "One of the tougher things I experienced was the heat for the council president vote," says Sweeney. "Polensek and Jay wanted it in '97, and it was all this going back and forth. It was discussions with everybody, like, 'What do you want? I'll try to give you this committee. I'll get you this job.' It's kind of a barter system. But then the system we employed under Frank was, 'I'd like you to support the group of good-government council members that we think we are. You're going to vote for me, and you're going to be a part of the decision-making process.' I like that."
But they retained a Westbrook tradition, the Council Leadership Fund - a pot of money filled by a coterie of monied interests, many residing outside city limits, used to refresh friendly council members' campaigns. It keeps majority members from straying and minority members salivating. "If you're supportive," says Sweeney teasingly, "it's there."
When Jackson decided to run for mayor in 2005, he gave the purse strings to Sweeney. Under him, the fund has grown from an average of $60,000 in 2002 to more than $400,000 today, according to recent campaign-finance reports that show well-heeled contributors like Sam Miller and the Ratners of Forest City Enterprises giving thousands almost every year.
Other regular givers, like Crawford and developer Tony George, were able to bend Sweeney's ear over lunch a few years ago to lead a successful push toward what Sweeney calls the "right-sizing" of council. He'll announce April 1 which two ward leaders will be nixed - something that made more than a few opponents wary to comment for this story.
"My job was to make sure Frank Jackson was able to deliver whatever we wanted to deliver," says Sweeney of being then-Council President Jackson's majority leader. But Polensek and others on council say that loyalty hasn't ended now that Jackson's the mayor and Sweeney's president - to Jackson's understandable delight.
"There's a reason why there's a division on the rotunda in council chambers, to show that division that's supposed to exist," says Polensek, who's served three decades. "A weak council is an ineffective council that doesn't do its due diligence, and that's not good for the mayor, because every administration needs to have oversight and be challenged."
Sweeney brushes all this aside: "There's an appropriate amount of due diligence done, but I can't think of a better situation with a mayor of a large city and a council president of a large city having absolute trust in each other. It's a tremendous respect. But we don't agree on everything." He's able to give one solid example of a disagreement: In 2006, Jackson wanted to shorten tax abatements from 15 years to 10. Council declined.
Pretty much everything else Jackson has wanted, Jackson has gotten.
Councilman Zack Reed, who brought bad press to City Hall with two drunken-driving arrests, says Sweeney has done way more to tarnish council's image. More than a month ago, Reed says he went to the city's economic development department and found that it had been moved to another building. "Marty was coming out of the office and I asked him, 'Where's economic development?' He was like, 'They're right down the hall.' The clerk came out and said, 'No, they moved the entire department over to the Pennington Building for three weeks.' How do you go and move an entire department and not tell the council president? Can you imagine Jane Campbell doing that to Frank Jackson as council president? Or George Voinovich doing that when George Forbes was here? It just shows how the administration looks on the leadership of Martin Sweeney."
Sweeney acknowledges that the only piece of legislation he's authored in his entire council career is a law restricting garage sales. And he doesn't deny another charge by critical colleagues - that he's never cast a no vote.
Asked if Jackson's majority, made up mostly of black East Side members, is Sweeney's now, or if he actually belongs to them - and, hence, Jackson - Sweeney answers with a knowing chuckle: "I'd say there's some crossover there."
But all this falls shy of explaining why Ward 17 Councilman Matt Zone, shut out of the discussion at a recent hearing, calls Sweeney "intellectually challenged" and much worse when speaking away from the microphone, why a former firefighters' union leader calls him an "incompetent boob," or why even some among his own majority call him "frat boy," "meathead" or "jockstrap."
Maybe this explains it: Sweeney has been known to announce that he isn't wearing underwear.
It didn't take long for Emily Lipovan, former council clerk, to start loathing her new boss. In a complaint she filed in September 2007 with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, she complained of having duties stripped from her and eventually having to resign after "confronting the president … on unlawful practices within the council and requesting for the third time to stop the harassment/sexual to myself and other members of staff."
A current council member and a former staffer independently chronicled the events like this: Lipovan began complaining to Sweeney about his actions as early as four months into their time together at City Hall.
Several incidents were recollected by the City Hall insiders: Lipovan complained to colleagues that Sweeney was expressing dismay at her dating choices around the same time that his wife revealed in her Ward 20 newsletter column that she'd been diagnosed with cancer (she's now in remission).
On another occasion, Lipovan, along with a labor leader and others, was sitting in Sweeney's office when Sweeney allegedly grabbed her high-heeled pump and said, "Look at how sexy her shoes are. Mmm."
After a tour of the city's salt mines, several people were in Sweeney's office when Sweeney stuck his cheek out and said to her, "Here, you want to taste? You want to lick me?" Another day, in a crowded setting, Sweeney reportedly asked a female staff attorney if she wanted a hug and, when rebuffed, he asked, "You can't hug me?' From then on, the source claims, Sweeney favored another attorney for council duties (though the staff attorney did not file a complaint).
"Marty loves to make small talk and have people like and accept him," says Zone, "and sometimes what comes out of his mouth isn't appropriate for a person in his position."
At the time, Lipovan also accused Sweeney of having an aide snoop around on her work computer. She claimed to have surveillance footage and a security log to back her accusation.
When Lipovan threatened to go public, Sweeney tried to push a $56,000 settlement through council. Lipovan resigned around Labor Day 2007, sending letters of goodbye, but returned before some were even opened when Sweeney couldn't muster enough votes for the pay-off. When Ward 14 Councilman Joe Santiago spoke out during a caucus meeting about what Lipovan had told him, council leadership hired two attorneys at $275 an hour each to begin investigating, a preemptive probe of sorts. Days later, she filed her complaint with the state, lamenting the "political nature of the work environment and [an] unspoken protection order in place for the council president."
Ward 15 Councilman Brian Cummins, a Sweeney foe, said at the time, "Because the accusations are being made against the council president, many members are skeptical that this problem can be dealt with effectively by the current council leadership."
But it was dealt with. By December, enough council members were on board to offer Lipovan a $60,000 settlement. She left for good. The total bill for taxpayers: nearly $100,000.
"The findings of the special investigation basically came down to the point of saying that, short of going through a drawn-out and lengthy hearing, which might go into a couple of years before the OCRC, there's no way to really know what the full facts were in this case," claims Westbrook, who, as chairman of council's personnel committee, headed up the internal investigation. The city's law director was instructed to cut a deal to keep things as private as possible.
As far as Sweeney's concerned, it's a done deal. "I already expressed my public regrets about the situation," he says. "And I have no further comment. The matter has been settled."
But it almost cost him his presidency. Zone attempted a coup and claimed to have come within one vote of succeeding.
Last November, Sweeney had his press secretary collect signatures in support of the status quo. She got six signatures, which raised some brows. Just six? "Why'd she stop there?" wonders Councilman Reed.
And Zone didn't let up. In November, he openly critiqued another crack in Sweeney's armor when Stephanie Howse, the council president's pick to replace the late Councilwoman Fannie Lewis, lost to T.J. Dow in a special election. In January, Sweeney finally lashed back, removing Zone from a prized position on the finance committee.
Tough but fair, says an ally.
"When you're president of council and somebody is trying to overthrow you, history and tradition of council is that you don't keep them in their coveted positions," says Ward 16 Councilman Kevin Kelley, Sweeney's majority whip from the West Side. (East Sider Sabra Pierce Scott is Sweeney's majority leader.) "That's the way things are done and, quite frankly, a lot of people thought he should have done more." But still Zone hammers away about Sweeney's shortcomings: "He's the kind of guy you might like to have a beer with, but I don't want him performing brain surgery on me and I don't want him leading council. No way."
Last summer, the feds started looking into the business dealings and lives of many of Martin Sweeney's politically connected friends in the county Democratic Party's establishment. It's a tight-knit group that's met formally and informally for years for meals, poker and excursions to the islands and elsewhere, say insiders at City Hall. In juvenile fashion, the members of this network arrogantly call themselves "The Group."
"The Group" is made up of the county's top politicians - most notably County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, Auditor Frank Russo and Sheriff Gerald McFaul - and a select number of local businessmen. Most, if not all, are mentioned in documents relating to the ongoing federal probe that came to light with the high-profile raids of offices, businesses and homes last summer. After those raids, a narrative began to emerge involving contracts, kickbacks and favors - lots of favors.
Sweeney's name came up in two subpoenas seeking information about his relationship with two construction companies involved in airport work. He reportedly ingratiated himself with "The Group" about five years ago and doesn't deny being a member. "There's no membership dues," he says casually. "You don't have to do a pinprick to belong. I play poker very rarely. I have relationships."
A councilman who asked to remain anonymous says that Sweeney attempted to push for council's hiring of Vince Russo, the son of Auditor Frank, whose Burke Lakefront Airport offices were raided as part of the county probe. Sweeney, who hasn't been served with a subpoena himself and claims he wasn't contacted by authorities, acknowledges hiring Solomon & Associates in 2002, when he was majority leader and vice-chairman of council's aviation committee, for a $50,000 expansion on his West 133rd Street bungalow. Solomon, which oddly specializes in commercial and retail work, hired Doan Pyramid Electric as a subcontractor. Around this time, Solomon received about $1 million in airport soundproofing jobs. Doan, which also specializes in large-scale projects, got sizeable contracts for airport work in 2001 and as recently as last spring. Doan president Michael Forlani and Solomon owner Roger Solomon are listed on Sweeney's disclosure forms as being regular gift-givers. Both are also reportedly members of "The Group." Councilman Kelley, who now heads the aviation committee, sounds convinced that nothing untoward occurred. "It's inaccessible for council to be able to influence that. I couldn't influence a contract decision if I wanted to, which I wouldn't. The same goes for Marty."
"They've never asked me for nothing," Sweeney says about Forlani and Solomon, "so I really don't have anything further to say about it. I put an addition on my house, I did everything appropriately, filed all the paperwork, so I think I'm going to be OK."
Did you pay for the work? "Absolutely. The record will show for itself." What record? Do you have the receipts? But Sweeney is done talking about this. He smiles silently for a moment, then says, "I'm still waiting for the next question."
Additional reporting by Charu Gupta.