Mike O'Malley formally won the Prosecutor's Office race this week, but with no opponent on the ballot, he really won it earlier this year when he beat sitting prosecutor Tim McGinty in the Democratic primary. He'll be returning to an office he worked at for eight years, including as first assistant under prosecutor Bill Mason. A few days before the November election, he sat down with Scene to talk about how he plans to improve community relations, address a budget that he described as very poor, and advocate for the fair application of criminal justice in Cuyahoga County, come 2017.
What have you been doing to prepare for January? What can you do ahead of time before getting in the door?
I'm meeting with people who will be on my staff. I only left the office a year and a half ago, so I'm quite familiar with the operations of the office. I have a huge advantage as opposed to an individual who had never been part of that the Prosecutor's Office before. So I'm meeting with community groups, continuing to do that, and really at this point monitoring the office budget and trying to keep the current prosecutor doing the right things when it comes to his actions and expenditures in office.
What groups are you specifically meeting with and why?
For instance, I met with the Greater Cleveland Congregations group, which had the big event at Fairmount Temple. A bunch of groups. It was part of my campaign platform, of being a prosecutor who is accessible and out in the community, who understands what's happening around the county. I think it's important that that continues, that they can see me, have dialog with me. I think when I ran I expressed a viewpoint that some of the issues the current prosecutor was having was that the community didn't have confidence in him. Building those relationships allows the community to have some confidence, that I understand what's happening and that I'm someone who will fairly handle the issues that affect them. Becoming familiar with individuals and groups around the county is how I have to do that.
Did you hear from groups as you've talked to them that communication or access to dialogs with the current prosecutor was lacking?
I don't want to armchair quarterback — you can sit around and think about what Prosecutor McGinty did wrong, and different people have different viewpoints — but I would say that when I was out in the community, my personal viewpoint is that he wasn't out there enough building confidence in his leadership and decision making.
I know there were certain groups in the county that had called him looking for meetings, and he did not set up those meetings. People who just wanted to be heard. One of his weaknesses was that he wasn't available to them.
How do you continue that line of communication and assure different parts of our county that this is something that's important to you once you take office?
Certainly just getting out there. When I was in office before as Region 2 Supervisor, I was at the monthly second district commanders' meeting. I think it's important for the prosecutor to hit those meetings, maybe not every month — there are a ton of meetings — but making the rounds and being available and having speaking engagements across the county. The foremost job of the prosecutor is to seek justice, but I think that part of that is building confidence. And not just in Cuyahoga County, but around the country. People have questions about how the criminal justice system handles cases and whether it fairly and impartially represents all people. Part of my task in this era is to get out there and restore that confidence.
We'll get to Tamir Rice and certain other cases in a second. That has to do with that confidence, or lack thereof, in the office. And those are monumental cases, but they represent a small fraction of the cases that the Prosecutor's Office handles. What other concerns in the application of fair justice have you heard since your campaign started and after your primary victory?
For instance, I've heard from community groups concerned about the handling of drug cases. They feel that low-level drug cases are unfairly impacting abilities of individuals both white and black to secure future employment that would allow them to become productive members of society. They think there's been too much emphasis on convicting the individual for low-level drug offenses instead of rehabilitation and recovery and attempting to get them back into society without the stigma of a felony on their records that might prevent future employment.
What options are at your disposal to address that?
It's how we handle them. When I was in the Prosecutor's Office previously, Cleveland used to send crackpipe cases to the Prosecutor's Office. Then Mayor Jackson made a decision working with his team that they weren't going to send crackpipe cases back to the county Prosecutor's Office. So that decision was made, an individual who was caught for the first or second time with a crackpipe wouldn't get sent downtown for a felony. I would like to assist community groups and local police agencies in putting an emphasis on assisting people into recovery. I'd like to expand the opportunities for drug court, for example.
I was going to ask about that.
I think it's great. The problem with drug court right now — and it's doing a great job — is for people who are eligible, it's a very good program. But we can't have the eligibility criteria so restrictive that people who may have a more significant crime on their record are not afforded the tools of getting recovery. And I think an argument could be made that it should be a good option for everyone who has an addiction. So much crime in our community is driven by drugs.
We'd included a detail on that from Lorain in a recent drug story. That something like 85 percent of all investigations in Lorain County are tied to drugs in some fashion.
Absolutely. I don't know the numbers, but when you talk about theft, robbery, burglaries, I wouldn't be surprised if three-fourths of the crimes being committed aren't driven by drugs.
And we're talking mainly about heroin and opiates now.
Absolutely. Those are the things that lead to burglaries and robberies, those are the things that lead to theft from cars, like here in Parma, where people just rummage through unlocked vehicles. It's the stuff that destroys the quality of life whether it's in Shaker or Parma or wherever. People want to know that when they close their doors at night, they are going to be safe in their homes and their possessions are going to be safe in their driveways and garages. It's the drug cycle that drives much of what's occurring.
So, back to drug court. It's very restrictive. If you have any history of violent crime, and that could be a previous robbery from 15 years ago, you're ineligible. So when I meet with the GCC, their biggest complaint is that drug court is not inclusive of everyone in the county. I think the stats show that it's something like 85-percent white. And we know not 85 percent of crime is being committed by Caucasians. It would be good to be less restrictive. To give many individuals the opportunity to get on the road to recovery. I think you can make an argument that it's a great option for everyone, that it's great to get someone on the road to recovery who had a significant felony in his or her past. It's common sense.
Now, I'm not talking about the guy with five pounds of fentanyl. I'm not talking about drug cases like that. I'm talking about addicts who are using drugs and maybe selling an insignificant amount to a friend or neighbor to feed their own addiction. I'm not talking about people bringing two pounds of this or that into our community. Those people need to be prosecuted and prosecuted very sternly. I'm talking about the people whose lives are dependent on their addiction and whose whole focus is that addiction. We need to reach out to them and get them help, help them be productive members of society, work with them and assist in doing that.
Talking to some people who work in the office now, they know there will be leadership changes and such, but there are also questions about recent hires and promotions and what happens when you walk in the door.
I'll say this: The county prosecutor budget is in extremely poor condition. I've met with Prosecutor McGinty and I've urged him to cease hiring and cease promotions because the budget is not in the shape that it needs to be. I would have liked to have had attrition drop the numbers. I think he's 50 over where he was four years ago, 50 bodies. We can't sustain that. The number of indictments are down but the employee size has grown. And what he did was balance this year and next year's budget — the county is on a two-year budget cycle — by giving away delinquent tax money funding to the county in a swap. So, essentially, he used one-time funds to balance his budget. Now I'm coming in and that fund is down to zero.
What's delinquent tax money funding?
The focus of that money is supposed to be to hire staff to bring down the amount of delinquent taxes within the county. So all these parcels that are due, to file actions on them to get taxpayer dollars back into the system, whether that's for schools or for municipalities. So the amount of delinquent tax due in the county has gone up, up, up, and he should have been using that money to address that. Now, a lot of that has to do with the foreclosure crisis. But when you talk about delinquent taxes, you're looking at endangering your county's bond rating. It shows the health of the county. And so you need to keep that number at a manageable level. Otherwise, it makes it hard to borrow money.
The problem is that he gave it away. That should have been used for staffing to bring that number down. My problem for the budget years 2018-2019, is that I don't have that giveaway anymore. It was like $3 million. How much is $3 million in employees? Probably 30 or so.
Additionally, all of these various law enforcement funds, forfeiture funds, whether it's the $1 million they got from a guy with illegal gambling machines or whatever, those monies are split between local law enforcement agencies. He's spent every one of them down to zero. That money can be used for a variety of things to assist in the furtherance of justice. Whether it's hiring an employee to focus on a particular need or assisting law enforcement in buying a piece of equipment. He's spent it all. For instance, currently he has the last of that money, about $500,000, earmarked for the city of Cleveland for dash cameras. My understanding was that at a recent supervisors' meeting, the staff was told no more travel, only emergency usage. So, as Cleveland decides whether or not they want the money, he's said if they don't take it he'll give it to someone else. Which is fine if you have millions in these funds, but we don't. Which certainly makes you question his motives at this point when he's already been voted out of office. You just want what's in the best interest of the county and taxpayers going forward.
So, I was going to ask about the budget at large next.
Yes. So, back to employees. So my concern coming in is that I'm going to bring a leadership team, about a half dozen people. That's what happens when any mayor or governor or prosecutor comes in. When he brought his team in, there were spots left available so he could do that. He hasn't done that now. He continues to hire and promote. When I do come in, I've got a budget that's blown and a leadership team that currently there's no space on the budget for.
The Prosecutor's Office Conviction Integrity Unit was among the first formal units on a county level across the country, but also has produced among the fewest exonerations or dismissals of any Conviction Integrity Unit. Exonerations are up nationwide: 149 defendants were exonerated in 2015 alone. Seventeen defendants were exonerated in Cuyahoga County courtrooms between 1994 and early 2016. That includes Ricky Jackson, Kwame Ajamu and Wiley Bridgeman, who spent nearly 40 years in jail after a wrongful conviction. That number doesn't even include the East Cleveland 3, who were finally freed recently. In two years, the Cuyahoga County Conviction Integrity Unit had received almost 100 requests for review with only one being recommended by the office for dismissal. How can that unit improve and how can you ensure that justice handed out before you even walked in the door was in fact justice?
I think the dilemma that unit has faced is that they have a supervisor who has been handed multiple tasks. The conviction integrity work needs to be their focus. If you're going to have a unit and publicly promote that unit doing good work and seeking justice, that needs to be their task. You can't hand them 12 other things to do and expect them to accomplish what you need. I think those reviews need to be addressed promptly. If those are all handled, then maybe you assign other duties, but that's the task at hand first.
Because Ricky and Kwame and Wiley are not alone. The East Cleveland 3 are not alone. We're not talking about huge numbers, but it happens. And there are people like Ru-El Sailor waiting for that unit to address cases.
Absolutely. It's been promoted heavily as an accomplishment of the office, but it has to be more than a press release. It has to be something that actually functions. The chips will fall where they fall. It's a good day when you get a conviction. It's also a good or better day if there's someone who's been sitting in prison unfairly and you find that out.
There seems to be a reticence from the prosecutor's office sometimes to admit they got it wrong.
I can tell you I don't have that issue.