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Issue Date: December 2012


Last Man Standing

After 14 years as Cuyahoga County prosecutor, Bill Mason stepped down this fall to enter private practice. He leaves behind a dual reputation as a tough lawman and a savvy machine politician. He helped usher in county reform. Yet as he left office, critics asked why he failed to see the old guard's corruption.
Erick Trickey
trickey@clevelandmagazine.com

Bill Mason outlasted them all.

The Cuyahoga County prosecutor for almost 14 years, the last of the Democrats who took over county government in the late 1990s, Mason resigned Sept. 30 to take a job in the Cleveland office of law firm Bricker & Eckler.

It's the end of an era. Mason, known as a strict law-and-order prosecutor, also built Cleveland's last old-school political machine. He and his friend Pat O'Malley became prosecutor and county recorder by building alliances at every level, from city halls to precincts. They came to power just as Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo, Mason's sometime allies and sometime rivals, became commissioner and auditor.

But when Dimora, Russo, O'Malley and sheriff Gerald McFaul fell from grace and from office thanks to investigations and criminal convictions, Mason was left standing. Not only that, he helped plan the end of the 200-year-old government. Mason proved his political savvy by joining the county reform drive in 2009, and helping to write the new charter that ushered every other county Democrat out of office and left his job untouched.

Yet the old guard's downfall ultimately hurt Mason too. O'Malley's several brushes with the law ("Porn, Fisticuffs and the Fall of Pat O'Malley," Oct. 2008), which culminated in a federal obscenity conviction for possessing bestiality porn, raised questions about Mason's political judgment and may have hurt his chances at running for higher office. When federal prosecutors indicted Dimora and Russo in 2010, critics asked why Mason hadn't busted them first. A month later, Mason announced he wouldn't run for re-election this year.

Mason's political connections often distracted attention from his work, where he aggressively prosecuted criminals, frequently pursued the death penalty and pushed to make the justice system try defendants faster. Two dramatic cases bookend his tenure: his victory in the Sam Sheppard civil trial in 2000 and the conviction of serial killer Anthony Sowell in 2011. He chased child pornographers and mortgage-fraudsters with gusto. His cold case unit revived several cases a decade old and beyond — including its investigation of multiple murderer Joseph Harwell ("The Other Serial Killer," July 2012).

Defense attorneys and judges asked whether the tough prosecutor was too tough, charging too aggressively. The candidates for prosecutor in March's Democratic primary responded by competing to be the anti-Mason, assuring voters they'd exercise prosecutorial discretion and not overcharge.

The many political ties of Mason's staff, including seats on city councils across the county, also attracted criticism. It made the prosecutor's office an awkward fit with the ethos of the new county government, in which political connections among public employees are limited by new ethics rules and distrusted. Meanwhile, the Dimora trial this past winter raised the suggestion of a troubling entanglement. J. Kevin Kelley, a former Parma school board president and employee of Russo's, testified that Mason pressured Russo to get Kelley to drop out of the 2003 Parma mayor's race — and that Russo responded by bribing Kelley with a raise.

Just before Mason left the job, Cleveland Magazine sat down with him in his ninth-floor office in the Cuyahoga County Justice Center. His room-length window looked to the north, to Lake Erie. On the sill stood a miniature wind turbine, a reminder of his unfinished side project. As chair of the Great Lakes Energy Development Task Force, he worked to plant offshore electrical turbines in the lake. As he left office, his goal hadn't been met; local wind-power advocates were awaiting word on a application for a $5 million federal grant.

Sandy-haired and square-jawed, Mason looked the part of the straight-arrow lawman at 53, much as he did at 39. When the interview turned from his accomplishments to the county's political scandals, he said he never knew about his fellow officials' misdeeds. He denied any involvement with Russo and Kelley's mayor's-race deal, and he defended his continued loyalty to O'Malley.

CM: Which cases will you look back at and recall fondly?

BM: Sam Sheppard, without question. We were in trial for 10½ weeks, and it was an experience I don't foresee having again, where the whole world was watching and the media were set up with trucks outside. That whole experience will never leave me.

CM: Obviously there was a financial incentive to defend the case. Was there something else as well?

BM: No. It had been decided that Sheppard wasn't guilty. That wasn't the issue. It was that [his son was] looking for compensation for the 10 years that his father served in jail. After I got to know the case, based on what I knew in two to three months, I was pretty sure they had the right guy. Sometimes, even though you're acquitted, it doesn't mean you're not the person that committed the crime. It just means there wasn't enough evidence to convict you. Then the family wants compensation, so you need to put up your best fight to make sure somebody who [may have committed] murder [doesn't get] paid for it from the state.

CM: You recently said you're proudest of the Internet Crimes Against Children task force. What has it done that others in law enforcement can learn from?

BM: When we started the Internet crimes, we didn't have the technology to chase the electronic criminal. We now do. We are undercover, chatting online, looking for sexual predators.

We have our own forensic examiners. It would take forever to get the hard drive read so that you knew what was on it. Now we have our own forensic analysts that do that, and we've trained hundreds throughout the state to do it also.

CM: You have a division that handles foreclosure — a serious issue in the community. What does it take to investigate and prosecute mortgage fraud?

BM: When the mortgage fraud crisis began in '04 or '05, our prosecutors weren't adept to that type of crime. We could do it, but it was a rough fit. The cases are very labor-intensive and paper-intensive. Now we have investigators subpoenaing and chasing records [full time].

Usually the buyer of the house is fraudulent. Sometimes the mortgage company or the broker gave them the money. Some folks didn't even have jobs, or $25,000 jobs, but [bought] four houses with no money down. They would pull all the assets out and not care that it fell into foreclosure.

Uri Gofman was the worst of the worst. He had over 400 houses, $50 million in mortgage fraud. He was primarily responsible for devastating Slavic Village. And we prosecuted him. The most recent guy we brought in, Blaine Murphy, was another king of mortgage predators, buying houses in bundles and fraudulently selling them.

CM: People give you a lot of credit for working on justice system reforms. What are the biggest changes you've implemented?

BM: When I came into office, the average time from arrest to indictment was 87 days. I think it's now 21 days. If it's a jail case, it's 8½ days. The police now send us their information electronically. We have set up rooms in each police department where the officers go electronically in front of a screen to testify before the grand jury.

We used to spend about $10 million for prisoner board and care outside our jails, giving them to other entities: the Bedford jail, the Columbiana County jail. We don't [do] that anymore. So the county is saving about $10 million a year.

Our electronic case managing system allowed us to do open discovery quicker. We now have portals set up with every defense attorney. We send them discovery immediately, so they then can talk to their client quicker. [We're doing fewer trials], because we're giving the information to the defense attorneys and we've eliminated a lot of questions. Generally, [the defendants] plea.

CM: You had a 92 percent conviction rate [on all charged cases] as of 2008, compared to 68 percent nationwide. What did it take to get there?

BM: Before anybody goes to trial now, they sit down and talk to their supervisor about the strengths and weaknesses of their case: "Is this a case that we should be pleading or a case that should be going to trial?" After the case is tried, they go over what happened in trial. I think that makes everybody a better prosecutor.

CM: A couple of years ago The Plain Dealer found your office had a 63 percent conviction rate at trial. I'm told that number is a bit low. I've heard your critics say you're either overcharging or not deploying the best possible talent to court. What's your response?

BM: That's not accurate. In trial, we're about 69 percent. The national average on all cases is 68 percent, so we're doing much better than most. We do a very good job.

CM: Tim McGinty, your successor, has said that Cuyahoga County has a death penalty conviction rate of less than 5 percent since the early 1980s. He said, "I will greatly reduce the charges in the death penalty cases as prosecutor." Did you seek the death penalty too often?

BM: No. I charge people with the death penalty when the crime and the evidence meets the statute. There are other prosecutors who don't do that. Unless it's some horrific offense, they won't charge it. They'll say, "It's not likely we're going to get the death penalty on this, so I'm not going to charge it," and go with something less. In my opinion, if you don't want everybody charged with an offense who does A, B, C and D, then you need to change the statute. Don't ask me not to charge it.

CM: You support a lot of candidates for judgeships and city halls. Whose careers are you proudest of supporting?

BM: Recent ones? Judges Brendan Sheehan, Maureen Clancy, Hollie Gallagher, Pete Corrigan. On the Cleveland Municipal Court, Michelle Earley and Pinkey Carr, two African-Americans I hired and promoted. Gayle Williams-Byers in South Euclid. Dean DePiero was an excellent mayor [of Parma] and a great legislator. Tim DeGeeter has followed him up. They would probably win without me, but I did what I could to help.

CM: I want to ask you a question about Frank Russo. Did you ever meet with him around 2002 or 2003 and discuss Kevin Kelley's interest in running for mayor of Parma?

BM: Never.

CM: Never spoke to Frank Russo about that at all?

BM: I never did, no.

CM: Did you ever make an effort to discourage Kevin Kelley from running for mayor, directly or through someone else?

BM: All that is still pending on the court of appeals, so I don't want to get into the particular facts. I can say this: Those facts aren't accurate. Period.

CM: At the Dimora trial, a limousine owner testified you took a ride in his limousine, arranged by Kevin Kelley.

BM: Again, that whole thing [laughs] is a pending issue. That didn't happen with Kevin Kelley.

CM: In 2004, you gave Pat O'Malley a $250 campaign donation the day after he got out of jail on a pending domestic violence charge. After the FBI raided his home that year, and the press reported that the search warrant showed the agents were looking for evidence of child pornography, you continued to send him about $400 a year in contributions from 2005 to 2007. Shouldn't a prosecutor distance himself from people facing criminal investigations and charges?

BM: I probably made $125,000 in donations to all the elected officials throughout the county. He's a guy that I've known for a long time. He's not just another guy down the street. I've known him, I went to college with him.

CM: Why did you keep giving contributions to him after he was charged in the domestic violence case and after his house was searched?

BM: I don't think one has anything to do with another. I just don't think they do. People make mistakes.

CM: Should a prosecutor distance himself from people facing criminal investigations and charges?

BM: [Laughs] I guess it depends. Did he get charged with domestic violence?

CM: He did. He was not convicted, though.

BM: Well, see, there you have it. Doesn't that mean something to you? You're not guilty until proven guilty. And when you're convicted, then you can probably assess things a little bit differently.

CM: Were you loyal to Pat O'Malley for too long?

BM: No, no. You'll find people who will probably tell you that I'm a pretty trustworthy and loyal guy. Period. It doesn't change because of somebody else's circumstances.

CM: The special prosecutor's case against Gerald McFaul showed that deputies were illegally selling fundraiser tickets in the Justice Center. The Plain Dealer reported that employees were expected to give McFaul cash gifts. Before 2009, were you aware of either of those practices?

BM: No.

CM: Why do you think no one in the sheriff's office came upstairs and reported those things to you?

BM: I don't know. Why would they come upstairs and report it? Why wouldn't they tell somebody internally? They could have gone to the FBI, they could have gone to the federal prosecutors. Why they didn't? I don't know.

CM: Do you think the reputation you built as a political prosecutor kept people from reporting wrongdoing by politicians to you?

BM: I did appoint the special prosecutor to prosecute McFaul.

CM: Sure, but that was after a Plain Dealer report.

BM: Well, it doesn't matter how you got the information.

CM: Why — if it's happening in the building — weren't you aware of it earlier?

BM: I [appointed] a special prosecutor, so I didn't review the evidence. I don't believe that he was selling tickets in the building. I've never heard that.

CM: Given what Jimmy Dimora, Frank Russo and Gerald McFaul were doing, why didn't people bring those things to you? Do you think it's because people thought of you as a political person who would not handle it impartially?

BM: I have prosecuted about 320 public officials — not all elected, but public officials, people who are in the government. I don't know why people would think that wouldn't happen.

[Ed.: Mason's office provided the names of 274 government employees he charged with crimes between 1999 and 2012. The list — online at j.mp/MasonList — includes three elected officials besides McFaul. One was convicted: former Brooklyn Mayor Kenneth Patton, who pleaded guilty to an assault charge. He also charged 75 public employees whose cases have been sealed or expunged.]

CM: Are there things Dimora, Russo or McFaul said or did that in retrospect seem like an early warning sign?

BM: You guys all make me laugh, quite frankly. Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo were not my buddies. They were other elected officials. While I saw them at many fundraisers, that's where it ended.

I have sat back and thought, Boy, was there something, some red flag that came up, that maybe I should have caught and been able to do something with? But no. Putting it in proper perspective, apparently the federal government received some information; they then went and got some wiretaps, they brought in 300 FBI agents to listen to these tapes and secure evidence [200 agents participated in the July 2008 raids —Ed.], and then they were able to put together the case. We don't have those resources. I just don't.

CM: What are you looking forward to in your new job?

BM: Getting under the radar, quite frankly. Just being a regular guy.

What I would like to create the practice around is helping communities either merge services, or agencies merge what they do, to make them more efficient and cost-effective.

CM: You've said you'll stay involved in politics as an activist. What will you focus on?

BM: I'm going to continue to help good people get elected.

CM: Will you ever run for public office again?

BM: I have no sights on that, but who knows. I'm not going to foreclose anything. I don't have any intention to do it. But hell, how do I know what the future holds?


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