The Community Development Department, which helps poor and old people rehab homes, has come under scrutiny of late. Over several years, William Brelo, owner of AA Furnace and Boiler Co. in Warrensville Heights, kicked bribes to inspectors Jackie Pierce and Danny Ferry to secure bids, speed up payments, and make unauthorized changes.
When the feds caught on, Brelo spilled and got slapped with two years of probation and an $8,000 fine -- the equivalent of about 60 bribes. Ferry and Pierce earned 30 months in stripes.
News reports implied that Brelo spent most of his bribery fund just trying to navigate the legendary Cleveland bureaucracy. During Pierce's sentencing, Judge Paul Matia suggested that any poor soul forced to do business with the city might be reduced to bribery, if that's what it took to actually get paid on time. "It's a shame," he riffed, "that the bureaucracy . . . is so horrible that people think that they have to offer bribes in order to get through it."
But the Community Development Department appears to be violating city rules by operating with remarkable efficiency, crooked inspectors notwithstanding.
"We've always been paid on time," says contractor Marsha Robertson of Classic Home Improvement. "We've never had no problem."
"To be honest with you," adds Al Eal of Al's Construction, "they're one of the quickest."
Nick DePiero, who owns BTO Builders, says his payments from the city have been "shockingly timely."
Efficiency in Cleveland? What's next, competent judges and visionary councilmen?
In the bygone days of fierce newspaper competition, reporters made up stories -- in some cases, entire wars -- to boost circulation. The practice became known as "yellow journalism."
Now the Free Times is bringing back this noble tradition in what it likes to call "Greene journalism."
Last week, Punch received calls from several soldiers saying that Free Times writer Joshua Greene's latest cover story was, in a word, bullshit.
For those who missed it, Greene wrote about a soldier who was about to ship out to Iraq. The four-page piece contained exactly one source, the soldier, who was referred to by the pseudonym "Babe." He claimed to be a member of the Army's 101st Airborne Division and to have jumped out of a plane 4,426 times.
Greene didn't respond to Punch's interview requests, but he defended the story in a column last week.
"For days now, I've been barraged by soldiers and others insinuating that I or the soldier or both made the whole story up," he wrote. "Nobody, they say, ever jumped out of a plane 4,426 times. Okay. Maybe it was a helicopter."
To get to the bottom of it, Punch did what Greene was too lazy to do: We called the 101st Airborne. Spokeswoman Jennifer Albert laughed when told of the number of jumps "Babe" claimed.
"Very few people in the armed forces could obtain that," she said. "If a person jumped once a day for seven days a week, it would take over 12 years to obtain that many jumps."
In fact, even the division's name is a bit of a misnomer. "The 101st Airborne has not been an airborne unit since Vietnam," she says. "We have very few people who jump from this post."
But that wasn't the only thing suspicious about Greene's story. At one point, "Babe" claims to have been in a cargo helicopter that was shot down in Iraq in 1997, killing six crew members.
Albert checked defenselink.mil, a publicly available website, and found no record of the incident. "In 1997, there was no statement issued regarding any military helicopter crashing in Iraq or otherwise," she says. "That's where they report all casualties and accidents that occur in the military."
Of course, Free Times readers had plenty of reason to take Greene's reporting with a shaker of salt. In the same issue, he was forced to correct a mistake from his previous cover story. Apparently, he reported that a woman was dead when, in fact, she is very much alive.
The laser mystery
On December 27, someone near Warrensville Heights flashed a green laser into the cockpit of a plane approaching Hopkins Airport. Similar cases have been reported around the country, prompting worries that terrorists are trying to blind pilots, forcing them to crash.
At first, it seemed as if it wouldn't be difficult to find the culprit. Green lasers are mainly used by the military and amateur astronomers, as opposed to the consumer-grade red lasers found in novelty stores. What's making the case difficult is that Warrensville Heights has a reserve military base, a planetarium that trains amateur astronomers, and a company that manufactures laser pointers.
Abledata makes lasers that are worn on the head, the same kind Dr. Evil's killer sharks use. But the FBI isn't considering the company's clients suspects. Abledata's products are mostly used to make life easier for paraplegics.
All of which has made for a frustrating investigation for FBI agent Gary Klein. "We are certainly no closer to locating the source," he says. "There's been suggestions that it might be an amateur astronomer. One person even said it might be a natural phenomenon, like St. Elmo's Fire."
The problem may only get worse. Several websites are offering half-price sales on green lasers, showing pictures demonstrating how far the beam can travel through the night sky. Klein would not comment on whether Dr. Evil or his sharks are considered suspects at this time.
Last week, Plain Dealer cartoonist Jeff Darcy drew a sketch satirizing the misadventures of CBS news and its minor-league affiliate, Channel 19. Andy Rooney is pictured looking at the Thornburg Report, which nailed CBS for a botched report on George W. Bush's military record. He has it opened like a porno mag to a centerfold of Sharon Reed. Behind him sits a framed wire report that says "Sharon Reed finds fellow nudist DeCesare innocent."
A cunning take it wasn't, but it was obvious satire nonetheless. This, however, was lost on the bright lights at 19, who decided to fact-check it on-air as if the cartoon was serious.
Poor Paul Orlousky was given the task. He smugly verified that Reed had never posed nude and that Carmella DeCesare was actually found guilty. No shit, Paul.
Darcy says that the cartoon played on Reed's comments during the DeCesare trial. "Anyone who watched Reed's coverage of that would know she is slanted in favor of DeCesare," he says.
Orlousky also pointed out that Darcy's opinion was biased, since the cartoon appeared on the Opinion page. No shit, Paul.
"I don't work on the news page," says Darcy. "They're separate for a reason. Reed works ostensibly under the guise of news. There was never any moniker suggesting otherwise."