The 59-year-old Eastlake man had just lost his factory job when the letter from USA Mega arrived in late March: Cerne was the winner of $1.3 million, it read. Please call our agents immediately to activate your claim.
Never mind that Cerne had never even heard of USA Mega; with bills mounting and no income, he was overdue for good news.
He called the number for two weeks before reaching an agent named Suzanne, who cheerfully walked him through the details: Simply wire the $5,500 "transfer fee" -- cash only, please -- then deposit the $5,500 check provided in the original letter. "When all requirements are met," a mountain of riches would be his.
Cerne followed the instructions, only to learn three weeks later that USA Mega's check was phony and his money was long gone. (Coincidentally, cheerful Suzanne is no longer taking his calls. Phone messages left by Punch earned no love from her either.)
"We get calls on this every day, with different company names and different addresses and different ruses for having you send money," says Sue McConnell of the Cleveland Better Business Bureau. "They have no conscience and no soul."
And because they move so quickly -- switching locations and phone numbers -- they have no chance of being caught. USA Mega is believed to be based in Canada, though Cerne thought he was dealing with a Vegas company -- and he wired his money to Chicago.
"If I had just torn that check up," he says, "I wouldn't be paying back the bank for the next five years."
Consider it your lovely parting gift, Don. USA Mega thanks you for playing.
The Nine-Year War
Jack Eldridge can finally light a Cohiba on the mound of legal documents he's amassed over the past nine years. "For as well as an old fart can party, I'm gonna be doing it," says the 66-year-old.
Eldridge, along with six others, sued Summit County for wrongfully firing them in 1997. They claimed that corrupt officials terminated their jobs for trumped up reasons ["The Eight Year War," November 9, 2005].
John Keenan, an ex-official for the county, ordered the cuts in light of a supposed $1.5 million deficit. A year after the layoffs, Keenan was found guilty on 14 felony counts of bribery, conspiracy, and tax evasion. That's when it was discovered that there was no deficit, and the layoffs were a result of vendettas Kennan had against the workers.
Since then, the group has won five times in court, but the county perpetually appealed, hoping to avoid shelling out years in back pay and benefits.
But it turns out the county's delays only bloated the final payout, which is now worth over $2 million. The Ohio Supreme Court refused to hear Summit's final appeal and is forcing it to compensate the slighted workers. "They should have just gotten this over with when we first sued," Eldridge says. "They wouldn't have owed us so much."
Eldridge knows he won't be swimming in cash just yet. He and the six other workers must go through a final mitigation hearing -- i.e. the county's last chance to lower the payout. "I don't even care," Eldridge says. "I just feel so good today. What a weight off my shoulders to get my pension back."
The new rush hour
When it comes to rush hour, Cleveland is blessed to not really have one -- at least by the oppressive standards of most cities. But the fine minds at the RTA recently decided that afternoon rush now begins at 2:30, leaving its contractors in a state of extreme pissed-offedness.
Commercial Tile & Stone was contracted to install raised pavers to help blind people navigate the RTA's Shaker Square station. When the project began, the company assumed it would be working its normal hours, from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. But RTA would only allow work during its version of non-rush hour time -- 9 to 2:30 -- which is less than a 6-hour day.
Commercial Tile's Lucinda Noel is livid. The new hours were never mentioned in the bid documents, she says, and they're cutting into her bottom line. Thanks to the union contract -- and her own sense of fairness -- she still had to pay her men for an eight-hour day. RTA recently decided to give her men 45 more minutes a day, but she still comes up short. She figures the new and improved rush hour cost her about $12,000.
"They can't just change the rules in the middle of the game and not compensate us," Noel says.
The most aggravating part was RTA's explanation for the change. Spokesman Jerry Masek has no idea why rush hour now begins at 2:30; he just insists contractors should work around it.
DeWinopolis for Senator?
Mike DeWine made a Cleveland campaign stop recently, crashing the Greek Heritage Festival in Tremont. DeWine, you may remember, is our U.S. senator. Word is he's running again this year against U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Avon).
The DeWine camp definitely brought its A-game. As the senator glad-handed every gyro-eating Opolis he could find, the Mrs. happily handed out free copies of her new cookbook.
Punch also attended the festival, disguised as a guy looking for cheap pitchers of Bud. So when DeWine introduced himself -- like Tom Cruise, the senator's way shorter in person, and kind of creepy -- we gladly took the opportunity to steer him into saying something we could exploit in print, which would make our adventure work-related, which would allow us to expense the Bud.
"So, Senator, are you Greek?" we asked.
"I am tonight!" he responded with a finely tuned Capitol Hill chuckle.
DeWine's next appearance will be at a World Cup party near you, where he'll be rooting for which ever team you are.