Cuyahoga County Judge Daniel Gaul deserves a congratulatory man-hug. When Myers University President Richard Scaldini decided to inexplicably plunge the business school into bankruptcy in December — even though he had a buyer at the door — Gaul stepped in. It was a rare moment of activism from the county bench, where the main priorities have always been lunch and bolting by 2 p.m. to get a really early jump on rush hour.
Instead of cashing the school in, Gaul had Scaldini jailed for violating a gag order, then kept Myers afloat in hopes of finding a solid buyer. In the meantime, he's appointed a special master to oversee the school's finances.
Unfortunately, that master is Mark Dottore, whose résumé includes stripping an impressive list of dying businesses to pad his own pockets ["King Nothing," February 9, 2005].
In 2002, for example, a judge placed him in charge of Snyder Brewing, where Dottore canceled employees' health insurance, while he and his cronies requested $800,000 in fees.
That same year, as Dottore was overseeing the bankruptcy of Fortran, he asked for $600,000 in fees for himself and his lawyers. At the time, Judge Nancy Russo had never seen a bill for such work higher than $4,000 a quarter, and said she'd never appoint Dottore again.
Gaul defends the choice, contending he was forced to act swiftly. "Look, this case came to me very, very shortly before Christmas. I had to find someone to bring in immediately. I've known Mark and his reputation. No one is perfect. But he has been a very key guy, without any question."
The judge assures Punch that he'll be closely scrutinizing the school's finances. "I don't want anybody to loot this university," says Gaul. "He will only do what is necessary. The county has a substantial investment in Myers. He is under my supervision and direction . . . I think I'm on the side of the angels here."
Surely he's right . . . as long as Dottore doesn't abscond with the angels' wings.
Up in Smoke Thieves
While Cleveland belatedly tackles its crime problem, the city's ritzier suburbs are dealing with a more sinister crime wave: Someone keeps stealing their smokes.
The reign of terror dates back to August, when nicotine bandits hit convenience stores in Bay Village and Westlake. They used large rocks and bricks to break windows, then quickly filled garbage cans with a small fortune in cigarettes and cigars. "I guarantee you these schmoes are selling these things," says Westlake Police Captain Guy Turner.
The fall seemed to pass without further incident. But last week, police in Mayfield were called to the Village Food Mart on SOM Center Road. It was just like old times. Someone had chucked a rock through the store's rear window, then packed another garbage can with 30 cartons of delicious American tobacco products. The haul was worth about $1,300, says Detective Don Smith.
Just a few hours earlier, a similar theft was reported at the BP on Columbia Road in Westlake. Cameras recorded the break-in, but Turner couldn't make out any faces — just another big honking rock. "It took two hands to lift that thing," he says.
Convenience stores and gas stations in at least five other suburbs have been hit. And while Mayfield's Smith says there are no plans to convene a Joint Cig Task Force, the departments are beginning to "compare notes."
But the crime wave has apparently put officers in Bay Village on high alert. Detective Jay Elish confirmed that another store in the western suburb had been hit, yet refused to say more. The situation has gotten so bad that not even Punch is above suspicion. "I don't even know who I'm talking to," Elish said, shortly before hanging up.
Tony the Lonely Fireboat
Like any large city on a body of water, Cleveland has a fireboat. And considering that our river has a history of catching fire, that's probably a good thing. Now, if only we could use it.
Riverfront Fire Station 21, located on the West Bank of the Flats, houses 18 firemen specially trained to use the Anthony J. Celebrezze firetug, a venerable 47-year-old rig that can spray 6,000 gallons of water a minute. The boat's used for cleaning spills, recovering bodies, rescuing bridge-jumpers, and helping police, who don't have their own boat.
"In terms of a contingency plan for everything along the river and the lake, it's a great tool," says one fireman.
But Station 21 has been "idled" since the new year. Whenever the number of firefighters on duty dips below 187, the station is closed and its workers are dispersed to other stations around the city. Which means West Bank residents, who already see few police patrols, don't have a firehouse either.
Those who work Station 21 believe the current idling is a prelude to a permanent shutdown. Four stations that were "browned out" for similar reasons in 2004 are still closed. "It's a deceptive term," says the fireman. "Those companies won't come back. Those trucks are gone."
And if that happens, the fireboat will be done as well. If there's an emergency, its crew will have to be pulled from stations around the city, meaning their response time will be measured in hours, not minutes. And since fires aren't especially courteous, they probably won't wait till firefighters show up to start burning.
Says one fireman: "If there's a fire and two of us happen to be in some battalion somewhere crawling through a warehouse, and they need us to leave that place and get to the boat — it's like a drill the Chinese fire department would put together. It's silly."
But the decision may have less to do with reason than politics. Last year, when the city tried to close Station 42 on Pearl Road, residents raised hell to keep it open — and the department above budget.
The more industrial West Bank is an easier target, especially since the neighborhood's councilman, Joe Santiago, has supported the idling.
But fire union chief Chester Ashton is confident Santiago will come around. "We're waiting to hear from him about it. I find it hard to believe that a councilman would advocate losing fire protection in his ward."
The Ohio Supreme Court has been trying desperately to rebuild the tattered reputation of the state's legal profession. But since the court is best known for selling its own decisions to the highest campaign contributors, you might say that reform is coming along slowly.
In 2006, the court revised rules on how personal injury lawyers solicit clients. Letters had to be stamped "advertising material" and were supposed to include some sort of victim's "bill of rights." (Unfortunately, the rules neglected to provide a true remedy, such as advising the entire profession to throw itself in front of a cement truck for the betterment of mankind.) But according to an Ohio State student from Lakewood, it appears lawyers are even blowing off these tame new rules. She recently had a car accident in Columbus. She wasn't injured, and her accident report, filed with Columbus police, reflected her good fortune. Yet within days, her mailbox was stuffed with letters from dozens of lawyers.
The gist of the communiqués: Not injured? Don't need a lawyer? I'm just the bottom-feeder to convince you otherwise!
Needless to say, most weren't marked as "advertising material." Lawyers love rules; they're just not in favor of adhering to them.
A Brunswick man was also bombarded after a recent accident. One lawyer even distinguished himself by stapling a $5 bill to his correspondence. "I can get you a lot more than this," the lawyer bragged.
The accident victim promptly chucked the letter, pocketed the five, and then took a long, hot shower to wash off any residue of evil.
Assault on Thugs
As Mayor Frank Jackson launches his crackdown on guns, he has a model to follow in Slavic Village.
Since Captain Joe Sadie, a 40-year veteran, took command of the 3rd District last April, his team of more than 160 officers has been running its own version of The Attack on the Thugs.
In a neighborhood that's become a national symbol of the foreclosure crisis, so riddled with abandoned houses and crime that elderly people were afraid to go outside, Sadie decided to play offense. He sent officers to areas where the crime stats are worst, so they can quickly respond when the next robbery or drug deal goes down. His cops also make traffic stops and do warrant sweeps, rounding up the bad guys before they can kill again.
Such tactics have been used for years in other cities. But it's a novel strategy in The City That Never Works.
According to The Plain Dealer, at least three men were killed thanks to these aggressive tactics. One was shot by police after a traffic stop. Another died after a man fleeing police crashed into his car. A third died when he drove into a telephone pole while trying to escape the cops.
Still, Sadie says the community is applauding his efforts. Residents shake his hand in stores — even when he's on undercover operations — urging him to keep up the good work. "From the people's opinion, things are better," Sadie says. "Their perception is that we've made a difference."
Ironically, his district is slated to close this spring as part of Jackson's consolidation plan. But Sadie's not complaining. "We're here now," he says. "We'll fight the fight as long as we can."
Calling Brad Pitt
It's safe to say that students at Bluffton University had a very bad 2007. Last March, a bus carrying their baseball team plunged off an overpass in Atlanta, killing seven and injuring 28. And if that wasn't bad enough, the bus company's insurers are refusing to pay up.
So the university's marketing director decided students could use some cheering up . . . by getting Brad Pitt to speak at their commencement.
It made sense. Sort of. Pitt's pet project is the restoration of New Orleans. Bluffton, a Mennonite school, sends students down to help New Orleans. And since it's quite fashionable in Hollywood these days to help the downtrodden — especially when it ensures really good photo ops — Robin Bowlus figured she'd take a shot.
So last week, she tracked down Pitt's publicist's phone number and e-mail, then drafted a long, pleading message. A mere two minutes later, she received her reply: "Brad does not do speaking engagements."
Bowlus was heartbroken. But Punch hears that Britney Spears may be available. Now there's someone who could really use a positive photo op.