As night falls on yet another calendar, and a new year beckons with her come-hither pose, we at Scene like to count our blessings.
'Tis the postseason of Jesus, whose birth ushered in a spirit of peace and goodwill, until his followers decided that shooting each other and blowing stuff up would be way more fun. But it's the thought that counts.
Anyway, Jesus was big on watching out for the wretches. He looked like the bassist from a '70s metal band. People harshed on him too. So he urged us to care for the weak, the sick, the weird, and the incompetent. That's why every year around Christmas, we present our annual Art Modell Awards, a celebration of lowlifes.
In the past, we've honored such pillars of depravity as Butch Davis and Carmen Policy, Dennis Kucinich and FirstEnergy, Mike Trivisonno and George Forbes. Yet 2005 witnessed so much sordid behavior -- especially on the public-corruption front -- that to honor everyone would take a tome the size of the Manhattan phone book. And way too much typing.
Instead, we'd like to look ahead to the big names in corruption in 2006. Which dark horses will rise in the standings? What perennial powers will resort to bigamy and shoplifting just to remain on the leader board? Who, in short, will assume leadership of Ohio's headlong charge toward disaster?
It's what Jesus would want.
#1 Congressman Bob Ney
Only a few months ago, Ney appeared to be a generic downstate Republican, the kind with flame-retardant hair and a smile that seemed to say, "Do not trust me around young girls or household pets."
In previous years, Ney couldn't even break the Corruption Standings Top 50. His game was restricted to taking contributions from bankers in exchange for protecting predatory lenders. Though it was appreciated by his impoverished district, which enjoyed a good foreclosure as much as anyone, it was totally unoriginal. The entire state Senate was running similar scams. Let's show some imagination, people!
Then two Washington lobbyists pleaded guilty to corruption charges. They quickly ratted Ney out. He's now accused of accepting golf outings, vacations, luxury-suite fund-raisers, and other strange things congressmen covet -- you guys ever heard of cash? -- in exchange for helping southern Indian tribes with their casino problems.
As we all know, southern Indian tribes are Ohio's most pressing issue.
His impending indictment catapulted him to the No. 1 slot. If he can somehow figure a way to get midgets or male escorts into the court testimony, look for Ney to walk away with this year's title.
#2 Bishop Anthony Pilla
Overseeing the state's largest pedophilia ring was quite an achievement. Not even Ohio's top serial rapists could match Pilla's decades-long reign over the systematic abuse of children. But many believed the bishop to be a one-hit wonder; this was the only decent crime he had in his quiver.
Then Cleveland's Catholic diocese began quietly lobbying to block legislation that would allow victims to sue even if their cases were beyond the statute of limitations. It was an inside power move not seen since the heyday of the Genovese Family. Not only would Pilla be screwing his victims twice -- take that, ingrate parishioners! -- he'd also be teaching his flock a valuable lesson: "Atonement is good, but let's not get carried away, people" [Psalms 2:19].
Though he'll have to find another move to overtake Ney -- a money-laundering scheme would be nice, or perhaps a tasteful scandal over the St. Ed's Boys Choir -- for pure offense, nobody outplays the bishop.
#3 Attorney General Jim Petro
Petro has long been a dutiful son of the Republican Party, quietly trading state contracts for campaign contributions and patiently awaiting his turn to ruin the state as governor.
Yet 2005 was a breakout season for the attorney general. Not only did he turn a blind eye to the Noe coin scandal; he proved himself a five-tool player, exhibiting a dazzling mix of larceny, ineptitude, degeneracy, shamelessness, and false piety that became the envy of corrupt officials from here to New Jersey. His employee manual, Whoring the Jim Petro Way!, was a must-read at the statehouse. Immorality Today named him a first-team All-American.
Petro's shining moment came last month, when the affidavit of a Columbus lawyer was made public. The barrister claimed that when he tried to hit on Petro fund-raiser Amy Gravengaard at a bar, his overtures were summarily rejected. Ever the public servant, she tried instead to sell the guy state law contracts in exchange for campaign contributions. Gravengaard's pitch was so brazen, she might as well have printed menus with specials for seniors and kids under 12.
Petro crowned the year by running campaign commercials touting his Christianity. You gotta love anyone whose piousness is so inevident, he has to advertise it on TV.
Start digging the loose change from your couch, fellow citizens. If this guy becomes governor, 78 cents might be enough to buy your own $50 million fund investing in celebrity undergarments and vodka.
#4 Ex-Mayor Mike White
The former mayor never liked letting others hog the spotlight. So he returned from exile with a flourish last year to soar to the No. 4 ranking.
If you believe the FBI, White stole his game from the Pilla playbook and screwed his own. He's alleged to have organized a massive scheme whereby minority contractors bribed the mayor's henchmen in exchange for city contracts.
Unfortunately, White chose Nate Gray as his bagman. As human-resource experts will note, it's never wise to hire top aides who enjoy bragging on FBI wiretaps. If Gray decides to roll, White's trial could be the reality hit of the season. This week's challenge: You have 30 minutes to loot the Department of Sanitation.
Expect its debut on the Sci-Fi Channel in April.
#5 Ex-Councilman Tony Benson
While his colleagues were dabbling in white-glove financial crimes, careful not to get their buy-one-get-one-free JC Penney suits dirty, Tony Benson was busting his moves old-school. Last month, the former Maple Heights councilman was convicted of shooting his wife, Kimberly, in the back of the head.
Unlike state officials, Benson didn't leave the dirty work to his yes-men. But he lost major points for pathetic motives. Whacking your wife because she's about to divorce you won't get you an invite to the Pro Bowl. If only he could've pulled off a more respectable murder -- such as gunning down a double-crossing henchman -- he could have challenged Ney for the title.
Instead, he'll spend the next few decades in prison, where the murder possibilities are limited to crack dealers and judges from Youngstown. He'll have to reach double figures in slayings if he wants to remain in the Top 5.
#6 Governor Bob Taft
2005 was a disappointing season for Taft. As commander-in-chief of the state kleptocracy, he was expected to produce. Instead, all he managed was a few misdemeanor convictions and a spread in Time magazine naming him one of the worst governors in America.
Teammates openly grumbled about his lack of scoring. Some believe he was coasting on the Taft name, that he'd lost his commitment to meaningful theft. Others joked that if you invited him over for dinner, he couldn't even steal your silverware.
Taft countered by pointing to the coin scandal, in which he managed to blow $50 million in workers' comp money. But rivals successfully challenged the play, asserting that free rounds of golf don't constitute reputable kickbacks.
All of which makes 2006 a make-or-break season. If Taft can't produce a dramatic score -- like a murder-for-hire plot involving Alice Robie Resnick, or perhaps a decent armed robbery of a parish fish fry -- expect him to be demoted to special teams by June.
#7 Perry County Auditor Larry Householder
As speaker of the Ohio House, no one whored better than Householder. He turned the legislative process into an all-you-can-eat buffet. From corporate protection rackets to legalizing the feeding of old people to wild packs of wolves -- if you wanted it, Larry had it priced to move.
Then those pesky G-men came nosing around. Larry was forced to flee the capital for an auditor's seat in Perry County. For the past year, he's been relegated to hog-rustling and kidnapping church nativity scenes.
Yet most scouts still see Householder as a big-time talent. He's an innovative money-launderer, a big-play strong-arm man, and he possesses the situational ethics of a Lorain Avenue skank. Placed in an offense that better suits his skills -- say, a cabinet post in the Treasury Department -- many believe he could still lead the league in embezzlement.
#8 Secretary of State Ken Blackwell
Like Taft, Blackwell had a subpar 2005 campaign. Though his incompetence has never been questioned -- he shattered state records when he actually sued himself -- teammates have questioned his ability to steal. Aside from a few minor scandals, he has yet to pull off the kind of big-dollar scam that puts fans in the seats.
The knock on his game: He's just too damn dumb.
Yet scouts like his potential. They point to the rich tradition of fundamentalists who blow up the scoreboard with major sex scandals when you least expect it. Blackwell certainly has the pedigree: He's made a name for himself as a bedroom enforcer, constantly banging on homos, sex education, and women's health. Many liken him to Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Bill O'Reilly -- blowhards who can quickly microwave into big-time perverts when the game's on the line.
His theft capacity will always be suspect; he doesn't have the math skills to count bills larger than $5. But if you put him in a Holiday Inn with a gaggle of campaign interns, the smart money says that this guy will chew up major yardage.
#9 Inmate Ronald Dudas
Ronald Dudas is just the kind of man we need leading Ohio. The career con man has a history of forgery and real-estate scams. He's been caught impersonating a lawyer. He's even been accused of trying to hire someone to break the hand of former Judge Thomas Curran.
But Dudas seriously amped up his game last month when he was charged with plotting to kill Judge David Matia. The scheme had "higher office" written all over it.
According to the sheriff's department, Dudas tried to hire a hit man to kill Matia, break the legs of North Olmsted Detective Simon Cesareo, and beat a victim of another crime. Best of all, he wanted it all done for the low, low price of $10,000.
Alas, a jailhouse snitch ratted him out. Dudas is now looking at 60 years.
The plot showed Dudas to be a rising talent. By low-balling the payment plan, he was sure to hire an amateur. And not even County Recorder/Wife Beater Pat O'Malley can claim to have a murder-for-hire under his belt. A man who possesses Blackwell's ineptitude, Householder's larceny, and Benson's flair for violence is bound to go places in Ohio.
Look for one of the contenders to sign him as a free-agent lieutenant governor as the campaign season heats up. If not, he's a shoo-in to become City Council president when he's released from prison in 2066.
#10 Congresswoman Mean Jean Schmidt
Some might quibble with Congresswoman Mean Jean Schmidt's inclusion in the Top 10. To date, her greatest achievement was calling fellow Congressman John Murtha a coward on the House floor. In Ohio, an ability to talk out of your ass may get you elected to the highest offices in the land. But it won't get you a South Beach condo and a concubine named Jorge.
Then again, she's not called Mean Jean for nothing. Her high school class voted her Most Likely to Use Neighborhood Cats as Kindling in Her Fireplace. Insiders say she roots for the Nazis while watching the History Channel. And Schmidt doesn't just bite the heads off rats and small autistic children; she tortures them first, forcing them to listen to bootleg tapes of Billy Ray Cyrus' summer tour.
Schmidt will never be big on the bribery circuit. Like Kucinich, she's a career back-bencher, just another kook we send to Washington to keep her from bothering people on their cig breaks back home. But if you need to, say, bury a dozen nursing-home residents in someone's basement, Mean Jean's porch light is always on.