The Watchdog Sleeps: Defies Logic to Defend Armond Budish


Armond Budish speaks at Blockland. - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Armond Budish speaks at Blockland.’s undulating editorial posture toward Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish and the ongoing corruption investigation boggles the mind.

In a schoolmarmish declaration Sunday, the editorial board professed to be “dismayed” by the way Budish handled a public records request. His office had provided a letter to concerning health care issues at the beleaguered county jail that did not include two key paragraphs from an original draft sent to county council in June.

The deleted paragraphs dramatized the ways in which Budish prioritized revenue above all other considerations at the jail, (including quality health care), and just sort of cast him in a dickish light.

“It should also be noted,” Budish wrote to council in one of the deleted paragraphs, “that we must operate under a very tight, balanced, budget. So along with your generous offer to provide additional funds for jail healthcare, I look forward to your suggestions as to which programs should be cut to pay for it.”

I look forward to your suggestions. Sheesh. Not exactly a slam-dunk deployment of sarcasm, seeing as the letter was delivered shortly before the first of eight deaths at the facility in the second half of 2018.

Budish’s spokeswoman said that the version sent to council was not the “final, official formal” draft of the letter, and that paragraphs had been excised in the version sent to to “adjust the tone.”

No kidding. Well, wouldn’t be suckered by that BS, (the obvious explanation being that Budish’s people deleted the paragraphs because they knew it made him look bad). Or, rather, was willing to be suckered, but just this once!

“If this is a blunder,” the editorial cautioned, utterly ignorant of its toothlessness, “and not an intentional effort to keep secrets from the public, so be it. But such a blunder must never be repeated. And we will be watching.”

Huzzah!!! At ease, ye defenders of transparency and democracy! Our trusty sentinels have issued an ultimatum that will surely have Budish and his handlers yessirring as they quakingly, penitently soil their shorts!

Except, not. Why on earth would Budish interpret’s threat as anything other than performance art — such a blunder must “never be repeated!” — when only one week prior, in an even more prominent Sunday editorial, the board called on Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to shut down the corruption investigation because they didn’t believe Budish was a criminal.

“We urge [Yost] to immerse himself in the details of what we believe to be an unreasonable criminal investigation,” it read, “because once Yost fully understands the details of what appears to be an overreach of prosecutorial power, we think he will reach the conclusion a fair-minded analysis demands: Shut it down.”

Say what?

The editorial board appeared to be aware of the gravity of their stance, saying they “don’t often take positions on investigations before all the results are in.” But this particular investigation, in their view, was “misdirected,” a “crusade almost.” editor Chris Quinn, parroting Budish’s lawyers during his regular appearance on WCPN’s Reporters Roundtable the Friday prior, had said that there didn’t seem to be much “there there” in the Budish investigation. And in the editorial, (on which we presume Quinn was the lead, if not exclusive, author), he explicitly defended Budish’s firing of whistleblower Gary Brack, who’d alerted council to insufficient health care at the jail, and broadly characterized Budish’s actions as “bad decision making,” not crimes.

It was jaw-dropping to read. So boldly did the editorial defy journalism’s watchdog mandate — while also undercutting the persistent work of reporters Courtney Astolfi and Adam Ferrise, who have been watching, assiduously, reporting on all the gory details that led to the inhumane conditions at the jail — that even elected officials were stunned.

“Of course I read it,” county councilman Dale Miller told Scene, when we caught up with him by phone last week. “In 40 years of public service, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The editorial was historically bad and irresponsible for a number of reasons, not least because it contravened a fundamental tenet of journalism, and did so in direct opposition to values that Quinn and his editorial board had been championing as recently as the week before, when they called on Cleveland City Council to hold oversight hearings on a number of important city issues.

Transparency is good. More information is better, etc. And presuming Quinn is on Budish’s side and genuinely believes the investigation will find no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, his position should be: Bring it on! Even if he objects, as Budish did, to the publicity of the raids, Quinn should be saying that if Budish has nothing to hide, he should be welcoming the investigation.

And yet, this: 

“What we see as an unreasonable investigation serves to cripple progress in a county working of late to build a robust economic future.”

What nonsense! The investigation has been ongoing for months, and was viewed by, incidentally, as totally legitimate and exciting, every subpoena and jail update breathlessly autopsied as they were announced or leaked. But when the investigation turned toward Budish, all of a sudden it started crippling the county’s progress?

We're not that dumb.

A criminal investigation will result in criminal charges or it won’t. The fact that Quinn and the edit board suspect it will not result in criminal charges is insufficient cause to abandon an otherwise valid investigation, which, we shouldn’t forget, has already resulted in the indictment of three county administrators. The reasoning here is absolutely bizarre. We won’t dwell on the tone, other than to say that its oozing self-regard is unlikely to land favorably with Yost. And its standard defense of power is unlikely to land favorably with anyone who cares about truth, for example Gary Brack. 

Moreover, Quinn and the edit board continue to insinuate that the investigation, (that is, the investigation of Budish), is a political attack. A “crusade almost.” Yet they have not identified who is leading the almost-crusade, or why.

In a marquee report that appeared above the fold in the Sunday Plain Dealer on Feb. 17, reporter Peter Krouse validated Budish’s charge that the raid was a politically motivated stunt.

“[Dave] Yost is a Republican and Budish is a Democrat represented by former U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach, who ran against Yost last year,” Krouse wrote in the sentence immediately following Budish’s allegations that the raid was political.

But these insinuations ran aground in the editorial in question, which revealed that Yost had never spoken to the two Cuyahoga County prosecutors conducting the investigation, “and was unaware of one of the two search warrants” executed in February — either of Budish or of his communications director.

Yost didn’t even know about at least one of the raids, so how could he have been orchestrating this political attack? And if Yost wasn’t the one almost- crusading, who was? These questions remain unanswered.

Lastly, if the edit board were to assess the situation honestly, it might occur to them that the very same “blunder” they’ve now warned must never be repeated actually supports the idea that a raid was necessary.

Quinn has said — again, parroting Budish's lawyers — that Budish was fully cooperating with investigators. He downplayed the county executive’s request for an extension to furnish material sought by a subpoena.

But the extension request might have raised red flags with investigators. Who knows? They might have believed that Budish, who we know is extraordinarily sensitive to his public image — “I’ve worked my entire life to build a reputation for integrity and honesty and I will be damned if I will let a political attack destroy that,” he told the night of the raid — might be inclined to delete emails or doctor documents before he provided them to the authorities.

If something that resembled criminal activity occurred, we now know it’s not unreasonable to think that Budish might have wanted to “adjust the tone.”

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