NEWS

Judge ignored his building employee’s bribe demands

Housing judge O'Leary led Cleveland's building department while it was being investigated by the FBI for contract corruption

Mayor Frank Jackson told EJBNEWS he did not know employees under his supervision were obstructing the city’s official business while assisting federal agents in entrapping demolition vendors.

More details are emerging about what appears to be at least a 5-year federal investigation of local government officials, landfill operations and contractors tied to demolition, tax evasion, misappropriation of block grant funds and environmental crimes.

The investigation appears to have been launched when Steve Dettelbach was ex-President Barack Obama’s U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.

The name of Cleveland Housing Court Judge Ronald O’Leary surfaced in connection with the federal investigation during his 2017 judicial campaign while he was still employed by Mayor Frank Jackson as the head of the city’s building, housing and demolition departments.   At a campaign event on Lorain Avenue in 2017, O’Leary told this writer he knew about Taylor and was cooperating with the federal investigation of his department.  Jackson shared with this same writer that he did not know city employees were cooperating with federal agents.

O’Leary’s Housing Court biography reveals that on August 2014 Jackson appointed him as the building and housing department’s director.  Since 2006 he’d served as the department’s assistant director,

In both positions O’Leary’s bio shares that he “supervised the building, residential building, mechanical, plumbing, electrical, safety, and elevator inspectors.”

He further explains that, “these inspectors inspected all work for construction and code violations.”   The following biography reference explains O’Leary’s role with the corrupt “demolition bureau” connected to the federal investigation.

“Judge O’Leary also supervised Building & Housing’s Demolition Bureau. In the 10 years that Judge O’Leary was with Building & Housing, the Department demolished nearly 9,000 blighted structures throughout Cleveland’s neighborhoods.”

Rufus Taylor pressured demolition contractors to borrow money from them; and tried to convince some to pay him for extra services

O’Leary supervised retired bureau manager Rufus Taylor along with Damian Borkowski.  It was Borkowski, not Taylor, who oversaw the assignment of emergency demolition contracts to contractors.  The information in the U.S. Department of Justice’s indictment of Taylor giving him this duty is inaccurate.

This writer is a former mayor and special assistant to ex-Mayor Michael White of Cleveland: so the functions of the department that employed O’Leary, Borkowski and Taylor are administratively familiar.  The writer’s background includes twice-managing a direct entitlement city’s federal block grant program.  It includes employment as project planner in the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority’s federally and HUD-funded construction division.

The federally-required signatures on demolition contracts and purchase orders tied to the use of federal funds are ex-community development director Michael Cosgrove’s, Jackson’s and the finance director’s. Locally, Cleveland’s administrative purchasing ordinances must be obeyed; as well as the appropriate state public spending laws.  So O’Leary and Taylor’s signatures, as well as the inspectors they supervised, would be required to meet state and local spending requirements for the byproduct of their work in exchange for federal dollars.  Part of federal spending laws requires local governments to comply with their own local spending laws. O’Leary would have “charged back” funds his department used for demolition connected to services his department provided to Cosgrove’s.  Time allocation sheets are federally-required to support the charge-backs.

Jackson, in his capacity as mayor, relied on Ed Rybka to ensure that O’Leary’s supervision of the employees assigned to him were obedient to and enforcing the city’s ordinances, state and federal civil and criminal laws connected to the “lawful” process of demolishing blighted structures and spending federal, state and local public funds.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen Anthony may have kept information from Mayor Frank Jackson about his corrupt employees, but he almost had no choice. FBI agents have decades of files on the corrupt activities of Cleveland officials. There’s more than likely a file on Jackson, his brothers Anthony and Nick in their official capacities as police officers, city and school officials. Jackson didn’t reform city government. He maintained the status quo of individuals and interests constantly-investigating federal agents knew were already in place. So when Jackson maintained the same players whose names were already in FBI files, he put himself in a position to not be trusted. This writer as a former mayor may not agree with not being given the opportunity to take action. But Anthony’s silence is understood based on Jackson’s own past inability to identify and prosecute corrupt employees.

It was O’Leary’s job to ensure that all of the state and federal statutory and administrative requirements for assigning and awarding emergency demolition contracts was done in the manner specified by local and national laws.  Rybka, O’Leary and Cosgrove were required to ensure their signatures on purchase and contract requests validated to Jackson and the finance director that all of the legal requirements connected to their official acts had been met.

In connection with the federal investigation it was O’Leary who was charged with the duty of overseeing the legal and fair distribution of emergency demolition to vendors; and not oversee an environment that may have led “some” to “unknowingly” engage in criminal acts.

Here’s the story EJBNEWS has uncovered from piecing together information gathered from a wide variety of sources and official records.

Rufus Taylor had been known within the demolition community of contractors to ask to “borrow” money throughout his time as an inspector and ultimately the city’s demolition bureau chief.  He claimed his wife liked to shop and kept over-extending their finances.  Contractors complained.  

Rufus Taylor was disciplined by building official Thomas Vanover for failing to properly supervise inspectors contractors were complaining about not showing up for inspections.

Taylor joined the demolition bureau May 2011 after Borkowski decided to retire on January 31, 2011.  Prior to supervising the demolitions bureau he supervised a 7-employee board-up crew.  Right before he was promoted in 2011, Taylor was disciplined in 2010 for using comp time without requesting it.  Doing so left his 7-member board-up crew without a supervisor.

Damian Borkowski has been chronically accused by contractors of favoring the “big boys” over the smaller companies; and steering work to them. Borkowski, not Rufus Taylor, assigned the majority of emergency demolition projects to the contractors.

Borkowski returned after retirement as a double-dipper and Rybka and O’Leary got Jackson to pay him $1 more in wages although he and Taylor were supposed to be equal.  Taylor, according to sources, was pissed about the wage differences. 

Borkowski, under O’Leary, also had a longstanding practice of not placing smaller demolition contractors on the “emergency board-up” list federal agents wrongly-accused Taylor of controlling.  O’Leary was non-responsive to contractor concerns that Borkowski catered to the “big boys.”

Borkowski, an alcoholic who recently returned to work from a 45-day rehab stint, was supposed to handle demolition projects on the west side.  Taylor was supposed to handle the east side.  Borowski, instead, assigned emergency demolitions for the entire city when on-scene firefighters called for board-ups of possibly dangerous properties.  Taylor handled the duty in Borkowski’s absence.  

Both were supposed to ensure that clean-hole inspections of completed demolitions were done so contractors could be paid.  A “clean-hole” inspection insures the contractor didn’t bury the debris in the basement and that the electric, gas and water lines are capped or disconnected. The hole is supposed to be cleaned as if returned to its normal earth-like state and filled with “clean fill” dirt.  That’s where the opportunity for bribery was created.  The final close-out is to make sure the hole is filled, posted and seeded.

Building commissioner Thomas Vanover disciplined Rufus Taylor in 2013 for failing to discipline inspectors who failed to show up when contractors called for the service. He has his own “favoritism” issues.

Borkowski when called for clean-hole inspections by smaller demolition contractors was accused of not responding.  The same for Taylor and the inspectors he supervised.

The personnel records the city released about Taylor show he was disciplined again on June 18, 2013 by Thomas Vanover for failing to discipline the inspectors under him who were not performing inspection duties when contractors called.  Borkowski didn’t meet the same fate.

Contractors were paying workers to wait for hours and losing money.  Borkowski and Taylor are known as demolition experts, so contractors saw their inspection hold-up as intentional.  It created an avenue for Taylor to offer to inspect demolition projects in exchange for money. 

Borkowski was further accused of showing favoritism and responding to the three companies owned by William Baumann, his son and grandson that all, individually, received emergency demolition work from the department O’Leary supervised and Cosgrove oversaw. T&T is a black-owned demolition contractor Borkowski responded to for clean hole close-outs when called.  Borkowski’s name appears on T&T’s website as a city official who appears to be misusing his public office to endorse and recommend the city vendor he’s accused of favoring. 

As an observer this writer sees Jackson as creating a problem for himself when he disconnected the relationships he had with individuals and contractors outside city hall before his election as mayor thinking they were looking for favors.  Cutting his access off to people who’d been close to him, and who had an “outside” perspective of his administration, also cut Jackson off to the secrets they could share with him that employees like Cosgrove, O’Leary, Borkowski and Taylor may have been and were hiding.  The fair bidding process Jackson told contractors existed was only in his mind.  Rybka, Cosgrove, O’Leary, Borkowski and Taylor were working their own agendas.

The FBI, IRS and HUD’s inspector general raided the community development department Michael Cosgrove led on December 6, 2017. On December 8, 2017 Mayor Frank Jackson announced Cosgrove was leaving for a new job.

Jackson’s management practices also created low department morale and resentment from black workers.  Jackson’s decision to hire and pay more to O’Leary and other white employees, and expecting the black workers who’d applied for the jobs they held to train them, didn’t work.  Employees who would have spoken up kept quiet.

In light of the federal investigation there are now concerns O’Leary’s alleged negligent and reckless refusal to respond to their complaints about Borkowski and Taylor’s criminal and obstructive acts was done by the city official to force unsuspecting contractors into a bribery situation.  Even complaints that Taylor was criminally harassing vendors for money were allegedly ignored by O’Leary.  

This writer reviewed a complaint from Cameron Farley that detailed how Cosgrove authorized the Detroit Shoreway Corporation’s Adam Rosen to be paid from time allocation sheets that contained fraudulent information in exchange for federal funds.  Farley’s well-documented complaint exposed 180 separate incidents of Rosen working on internet personal projects while on the non-profit’s time.  Rosen claimed to have been working when he was online planning his wedding.

Cosgrove ignored federal time allocation laws and policies; and did not refer Rosen’s alleged theft to the city’s prosecuting attorney.  Detroit Shoreway is led by Jeff Ramsey and attorney Joe Tegreene.  Tegreene, Dennis Kucinich’s ex-finance director, was one of several people questioned about the August 20, 1983 murder of Colleen Shaughnessy in the state office tower.

Cosgrove and O’Leary approved a $10,800 demolition contract for Velimir Lucic, a Serbian immigrant, to demolish his own E. 79th Street property. Lucic was allowed to demolish his next door neighbor’s property for another $10,000 although its owner had an unexpired permit to renovate it. Instead of being paid to demolish her own property, Frances Caldwell was given a $10,000 for the work Lucic had done knocking hers down without the legality authority to do so.

What should concern Jackson is how O’Leary authorized the Baumann’s to be paid and charged to Cosgrove’s department without the “red” final closeout stamp.  If O’Leary requested and Cosgrove authorized draw-downs of HUD funds without the Baumann’s meeting all federal administrative requirements, the federal agency is mandated to recapture the dollars from the city’s general fund.  The problem for Jackson is not knowing all the corrupt acts his employees committed that federal investigators already know.

While the feds are investigating, some think Cleveland city council should launch its own Congressional-like public investigation and hearings to learn the full extent of harm done the city and possibly property owners like Frances Caldwell by Cosgrove, O’Leary, Borkowski and Taylor’s obstructive acts. 

Council would not be obstructing the federal investigation to learn the impact on the city’s budget of the acts committed by the city’s corrupt community development, building and housing workforce that are ultimately under Rybka’s supervision; and to mitigate the damage.  An adequate and strictly-enforced whistle-blower’s ordinance that comes with prosecution would have given complaining vendors an avenue to go public and above O’Leary’s recklessly negligent head.

Caldwell used R.C. 149.43 to request public records that showed how officials O’Leary supervised chose her home to be demolished after giving her an unexpired permit to renovate.  The only records connected to her demolition are an invoice to a company owned by a Serbian immigrant named Velimir Lucic; the E. 79th  Street property owner of the property next to hers. Lucic is a restaurant owner who intended to campaign for Cleveland mayor and fire council.   

O’Leary and Cosgrove authorized Lucic to be paid $10,800 to demolish his own home and another $10,000 to demolish Caldwell’s though he owed over $23,000 in delinquent property taxes and hers were less than $1500 and current.

The irony of federal agents raiding his department on December 6, 2017, and Jackson announcing Cosgrove’s resignation on December 8, 2017, creates a compelling narrative that he may have also been helping federal agents obstruct the mayor’s delivery of legitimate block grant services to vendors behind his back. 

O’Leary and Cosgrove’s relationship with Lucic should not be lost on Jackson.  He may ask himself, “what other strange shit did his employees do?”

Mayor Frank Jackson may want to ask housing court judge Ronald O’Leary why he had city workers get a home he owned at 11714 Larchmere boarded-up while he supervised the building, housing, demolition and board-up department.

Jackson may want to ask the city prosecutor to investigate O’Leary using city workers to get a home he owned at 11714 Larchmere boarded up. It’s something else O’Leary, who is now the city’s housing court judge, did behind his boss’ back.  Jackson should seriously consider Caldwell’s claims. 

Dozens of Cleveland property owners like her have accused O’Leary and the employees he supervised of using sham processes to demolish their properties.  It’s a sickening thought to think O’Leary’s control over a team of corrupt inspectors led to properties being taken using sham proceedings to be demolished as an emergency for profit.

Frances Caldwell’s home on E. 79th was mysteriously demolished and placed in the city of Cleveland’s land re-utilization program.

As a former mayor, and I know Jackson is reading, this writer can relate to learning people you trusted betrayed you and should not have been trusted.  When your eyes are opened the reality that all your so-called “friends” were just people using you shakes everything you thought you believed in about them.  

Mayors have no peers nor friends in their city’s government.  Even Jackson’s federal law enforcement “partners” left him “alone.”  His past inaction on other matters of public importance, however, gave federal agents no choice.  Jackson’s trusted appointees weren’t protecting federal funds.  The same FBI agents investigating Jackson’s crooked police department were investigating his crooked building and housing department because neither he nor council investigated any department.

Taylor’s first federally-discovered incident of bribery occurred in 2013.  Jackson has a team of highly-paid “best minds” who should have busted Taylor when he first “acted” like he was going to steal if his administrative management and oversight was “tight.” 

Throughout his entire time as the department’s bureau chief contractors complained about Taylor hounding them for money; and no one on Jackson’s high-six figure upper management team heard.  If a petty thieving employee wasn’t detected by O’Leary, Vanover, Rybka and Cosgrove; the big thieves are having a field day at the expense of Cleveland taxpayers.

The federal government had to step in to protect its money.  Jackson and his people weren’t.

 

Eric Jonathan Brewer
Author, Investigative Journalist, Speaker, Politician, Consultant

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