This Week in the CLE
A review and analysis of the week's news in Northeast Ohio
5 months ago

This Week in the CLE: Special Episode June 3, 2019

Listen to Cuyahoga County officials defend their actions -- months before a criminal probe began: Special episode of This Week in the CLE

We did not realize it at the time, but a meeting we hosted at the offices of cleveland.com on Nov. 17, 2017, turned out to be remarkable for the insights it offers into the continuing criminal investigation of Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish’s administration.

Budish brought his top cabinet members to our offices to talk about recent items in the news, items that ultimately became part of the criminal investigation. But this meeting was more than two months before anyone in the Budish administration knew about any criminal probe.

We recorded the conversation, and we publish it today in its entirety, along with a transcript of much of it. We think the people who live in Cuyahoga County deserve to hear what their government leaders were thinking as they performed their jobs on the eve of a criminal investigation, before they had any inkling that they might have to defend themselves against potential felony charges.

To understand its importance, you have to consider the timing. County Auditor Cory Swaisgood recently had called out the Budish administration for paying $1.7 million in overtime to salaried county employees, something Swaisgood saw as illegal. They are called salaried workers for a reason. The Budish administration disagreed and came over, in part, to explain to us why. (Even though, it turns out, the administration was wrong and did not have the authority to pay the overtime, the County Council later adopted rules allowing it henceforth.)

You can hear in the recording that we clearly were not buying their explanations, but rather than summarize what they said here, we leave it to you to digest it and form your own conclusions.

With Budish were his then-chief of staff, Sharon Sobol Jordan, then-Law Director Robert Triozzi, then-director of Employee and Labor Relations Edgillo Morales, then-Chief Economic Growth and Opportunity Officer and current interim chief of staff Matt Carroll, Chief Communication Officer Eliza Wing, Director of Communications Mary Louise Madigan and Chief Talent Officer Douglas Dykes.

Dykes is one of the first people to be charged in the criminal investigation, and the recording we publish here could be central to his case. Prosecutors allege that Dykes broke the law – committed theft – by giving Jim Hay, a top executive whom Budish was recruiting, a $15,000 signing bonus. There’s no allegation that Dykes benefitted from what prosecutors say was a crime, and we cannot remember another instance of someone who did not take anything being charged with theft.

In the November 2017 meeting, Dykes sat next to Budish, Triozzi and Jordan – the top three officials in the county at the time – and heard them make vigorous arguments that everything they and Dykes did was legal according to both the county charter and state law. Consider that: The county’s top lawyer argued vehemently, with Dykes at the table, that the administration had full power to determine compensation. Dykes might want to play this recording for the jurors who ultimately consider his case.

The most enlightening part of the recording, however, is the audacity of Budish and his cabinet members as they argue that they are above parts of the law. We now know that they did not have the authority to provide the recruited executive with a signing bonus. (He’s paying it back.) We now know what we argued back then, that the administration is required to adhere to the personnel manual adopted by the County Council. But for a little over an hour in November 2017, one member of the Budish team after another made the case that they could make their own rules.

Another interesting moment comes when Morales argues that unlike in the private sector, salaried workers in the public sector have hourly rates of pay for a good reason. He said governments do this to be accountable to taxpayers, so that taxpayers can rest assured that all county workers are putting in the full hours for which they get paid. Morales says all this while Jordan sits nearby. Jordan, we later came to learn, was spending a lot of time during work days in Columbus back then, completing a degree program at Ohio State University.

The first 46 and a half minutes of the recording focus on the overtime issue, but then the Budish team shifts into a discussion about the writing of policies that they thought allowed them to give the bonus to Hay. We discovered before the meeting that the policy document had two dates on it. One of those was after television reporter Paul Orlousky produced a news story about county bonuses. The other date was before the news story appeared. We wondered whether the county had fumbled a sleazy effort to backdate a document, to make it appear that the polich had been changed before the television report aired. As you can hear, they emphatically state they did not backdate the document.

The third issue discussed, which starts at about minute 53, involves a request we made for a list of the top paid county workers. The discussion is pretty dry, and you might want to skip it (as we do in the transcript), but don’t stop listening just yet. At a bit past one hour and 3 minutes, we come back to the overtime-for-salaried workers issue, and the question we ask leaves the administration fumbling for an answer.

We recommend listening to the recording, rather than reading the transcript, because when you do, we think you’ll hear a fervor in how the county officials speak. At that moment in November 2017, they seemed to believe they had every right to do what they were doing, even if they did not. What I don’t think you’ll hear is any kind of criminal intent.

A bit more than two months after this meeting was recorded, the Budish administration received its first subpoena in the criminal investigation.

Participating in the conversation at cleveland.com were me, editorial writer Sharon Broussard and reporter Karen Farkas. Sharon and Karen have since retired.