The only thing more astonishing than The Plain Dealer's canonization of former Cleveland Mayor Michael White last week was its follow-up editorial the next day. Lauding White's retirement to winemaking and alpaca farming as if he had taken over Mother Teresa's work in Calcutta, the PD paused for only a paragraph to acknowledge reality:
"Say what you will about Mike White's time as mayor. Criticize his performance or his personality if you're so moved. Goodness knows that by the time he pulled the plug on his political career, he had his share of detractors. Speculate to your heart's content on the 'real reasons' for his abrupt and complete exit."
Thanks, we will.
Actually, there's no need to speculate. By the time he left office in 2002, White was an irascible, divisive figure who had alienated every significant group in the city, from the cops to the business community, gone to war with suburban politicians, and dismissed his critics as "fleas and ticks." He was dogged by rumors of bribes and payoffs that exploded three years later when an FBI affidavit came to light (first in Scene) alleging that White oversaw an extortion ring that used city contracts to funnel money to his friends.
Two of those friends, Ricardo Teamor and Nate Gray, were subsequently convicted and sent to prison. Gray is still serving a 15-year term for racketeering and extortion.
White has never been charged with or convicted of any criminal activities. Whether that's because he was smart or innocent remains a popular subject of discussion in local political and media circles. But there is no denying that White betrayed the trust this community placed in him, and left Cleveland in much worse shape than it was when he took over as mayor in 1990.
It's hard now to convey the sense of optimism that accompanied White into office. He ran against City Council President George Forbes, a one-time mentor who was effectively a shadow mayor during the 15 years he ran City Council, bullying and intimidating his opponents and outlasting Mayors Ralph Perk, Dennis Kucinich, and George Voinovich. White represented the changing of the guard, a younger generation that eschewed old-style politics and would bring a progressive, professional approach to revitalizing the city.
Early successes seemed to confirm that view. White was instrumental in the successful development of the Gateway project (which includes Progressive Field and the Q), strong-armed the banks into pumping more money into Cleveland neighborhoods, and helped the city secure the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Great Lakes Science Center and, later, a new stadium for the Browns.
But behind the scenes, his testy personality was taking a toll. In the avalanche of vitriol heaped on Art Modell after he moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1996, no one asked what role White played in the city's failed negotiations to keep the team – until Scene talked to a member of Modell's staff for a 2000 profile on White. "The history of negotiations between Mayor White and the Browns was a history of deadlines set and never met," the official said, detailing nearly two years of promises that White allegedly made but never kept. He also complained about the mayor's go-it-alone style: "We weren't supposed to talk to City Council, we weren't supposed to talk to the County. It was part of his need to control everything."
By the late 1990s, it was an open secret that the best way to get contracts out of City Hall — especially for work at the airport and Cleveland schools, which White took over in 1997 — was through Nate Gray, a close personal friend of White's. According to the FBI affidavit, Gray functioned as a "bag man" who handled the dirty business of shaking down contractors for bribes. FBI agents checked Gray's bank accounts and reported that during White's first year in office, deposits jumped from $73,000 annually to $1.4 million, and over the next 11 years reached as high as $2.3 million.
Friends of both low and high repute benefited from City Hall connections during White's tenure. Fred Nance, a managing partner at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey who proudly proclaimed himself to be the White administration's "primary outside counsel," brought in $7.1 million of work for his firm. This from a city that maintains its own, well-staffed legal department.
Greasing palms became such a fine art during the White administration that it was not unusual to find the mayor's friends on both sides of the bargaining table. During negotiations to buy the I-X Center — a debacle that ended with the city paying $66 million, twice what the facility is worth — Nance represented the city and Teamor was the point man for I-X owner Raymond Park. Park later denied that Teamor had been involved, though as Scene reported in 2006, according to the FBI affidavit, Teamor was paid a 10 percent fee ($6.6 million). And Park got a rent-free, 15-year lease to continue using the I-X Center, which was never torn down to make room for runway expansion, the ostensible reason for buying it in the first place.
Like the PD editorial writers, you can choose to believe that White, a notorious control freak, knew nothing about what his closest friends and associates were doing. Or that "Confidential Source 1" was lying to FBI agents when he told them that Gray said the bribes CS-1 was paying "will eventually be given to White."
That line of thinking hinges mainly on prosecutors' failure to charge White with any crimes. If they had solid evidence, presumably they would have taken him to court. But as the trials of fallen heroes ranging from Michael Jackson to Barry Bonds have demonstrated, winning a conviction against a public figure can be difficult, no matter what the evidence — especially if key players refuse to roll over on their associates.
While White's friends were getting rich and he was salting away money for a fat retirement, Cleveland went into a tailspin that led to it being declared the poorest big city in the country just two years after White left office. His legacy to the city he ran for 12 years was massive losses in jobs and population, economic devastation, and an estimated one out of every three residents living in poverty.
White obliquely acknowledged this when he returned in 2007 to give a speech to the Council on Smaller Enterprises (at the I-X Center!), telling his audience, "The Cleveland we know is gone."
For that, we can thank Mike White. And a daily newspaper that, incredibly, still turns a blind eye to his role in Cleveland's demise.