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Issue Date: June 2005 Issue


Inside the Nate Gray Case

He was once the trusted friend and adviser of former Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White. Now Nate Gray faces 45 federal charges. If they prove true, the trial could unlock the biggest political scandal to hit Cleveland in decades.
Erick Trickey
trickey@clevelandmagazine.com

A month before his trial starts, Nate Gray sits in his cozy Shaker Square office, surrounded by pictures of his son and daughters and a half-dozen plants reaching up from the floor, condolences sent after his mother's death five years ago. A doll in a Negro League baseball uniform sits atop his bookshelf, above "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and "The Power of a Praying Husband."

"One thing I value most is those cards on the wall," he says, indicating a hundred-some cards crowded onto a bulletin board, thanking him for everything from traveling to a friend's relative's funeral to donating ribs to a vacation Bible school. "If I had a piece of chocolate for every nice thing you do for me..." one reads. It's hard for him to say no to people who need his help, he says.

Ask him about any of these things, or the four old Cleveland Municipal Stadium seats in his lobby, and he offers a big, toothy grin. But ask about the 45 federal charges the U.S. Attorney's Office has levied against him and there's little reaction at all. He just stares. A court order keeps him from talking about anyone who "may in any way be related to any of the issues in the indictment," his lawyer, William Whitaker, says.

So Gray can't say where the FBI hid the bugs that showed him handing cash to then-East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor. He won't talk about contractors who sought work at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Or the work he did for his many consulting clients.

And he won't answer questions about Michael R. White, former Cleveland mayor, former state senator, former friend. Gray was the best man at White's 1987 and 1998 weddings, and a mutual friend says they talked on the phone several times a day when White was mayor.

Across the room, tucked into a picture frame, is a ticket to a fund-raiser from the 1980s: "An Evening at the Flats with Sen. Mike White." White cut Gray out of his life a few years ago, a mutual friend says, but clearly the old friendship means a lot to Gray.

Mike White's name appears nowhere in the charges against Gray. The indictment alleges Gray bribed the mayor of East Cleveland, Cleveland city Councilman Joe Jones and public officials in Houston to get government work for his clients. A jury already has found Onunwor guilty of taking bribes from Gray. Four other defendants have pleaded guilty to either accepting bribes from Gray or conspiring with him to bribe others.

"If they testify truthfully," maintains Whitaker, "it will be very clear that Nate Gray has committed no crimes."

The trial may start to answer decade-old questions about Gray and White's friendship. When his buddy was elected mayor, Gray was a neighborhood gas station owner facing tax evasion charges. After White took office, Gray became a trusted mayoral adviser, co-operator of city parking lots and shuttles and consultant for nationally prominent companies seeking government contracts.

How did Gray get to the point where Cecilia Huffman, a former executive assistant for Mayor White, says, "I bet you can't find a black elected official in Cleveland, East Cleveland, or Warrensville [Heights] that hasn't called on him at some point for advice, direction or some kind of assistance"?

Many people doing business with the White Administration paid Nate Gray to consult for them, says Cuyahoga County Treasurer James Rokakis. "There's not anything illegal about that — it happens all the time in Columbus and Washington. People were paying him to get access to the mayor."

However, Rokakis adds, "I am privy to numerous stories about behavior that crossed ethical lines. And I've shared those with prosecutors." He won't tell the stories for publication. "It's not for me to deal with. The feds are taking care of it — finally.

"This has been going on since the early '90s. It took them a while to get it, didn't it? If, in fact, he's guilty."

Gray's trial was scheduled, at press time, to start June 13. But prosecutors have said they may indict more people after Gray's trial. So his current case could be just a prelude.

At least one more public official who has not yet been named is also under investigation. In a 2004 court brief obtained by Cleveland Magazine, a prosecutor describes a conversation recorded before July 2002 in which someone using a telephone at Gray's company "acknowledges that the corrupt activity will continue despite the fact that one corrupt official was stepping down."

White announced in May 2001 that he would not seek another term, and he left the mayor's office in January 2002. If the federal prosecutors are describing White as the official who was stepping down, then they must be investigating White as well as Gray.

If the Justice Department's charges against Gray prove true, the trial could unlock the biggest political scandal to hit Cleveland in decades.

 

Prosecutors recently claimed that Gray had "de facto control" over various public contracts and that he often used Cleveland's minority set-aside program to extort kickbacks from minority contractors, the very companies it was designed to help.

FBI agents reportedly began interviewing some former members of White's City Hall staff this winter. White has not been named in any public court documents. Prosecutors won't say whether White is under investigation. White did not comment for this story despite repeated calls and e-mails.

The FBI is investigating two of the White era's biggest public projects: the $1.4 billion Hopkins Airport expansion and the $750 million renovation of Cleveland's aging water plants, public records obtained by Cleveland Magazine show. The FBI and a grand jury have asked the city for copies of major bids and contracts on the two projects. Also, nine companies that worked on major contracts at Hopkins Airport appear on a federal subpoena used in the Gray investigation. Six of those companies also had contracts on the $300 million construction of Cleveland Browns Stadium, and three had water department contracts.

The U.S Attorney's office says Gray's alleged schemes made him rich. Between 1995 and 2003, he deposited more than $3.5 million, including more than $320,000 in cash, in a bank account he hid from the IRS, according to a prosecutor's court brief.

Cleveland law asks companies that work for the city to include minority-owned subcontractors in their projects, and they can be denied contracts if they don't meet the city's goals. Gray worked as a consultant for big national companies that wanted work from City Hall — and got it — and minority businessmen who got huge subcontracts on city work, prosecutors say. Some of Gray's clients are companies that helped design or build city projects, and at least one was a project co-manager, helping sort through other contractors' bids and proposals and supervise their work.

During White's years in office, contractors bidding on major city projects turned to the same minority partners over and over again, including companies close to White. The key to understanding the pattern may be Nate Gray.

 

Mike White and Nate Gray's friendship began in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood around 1977, the year White was first elected to city council. Gray's uncle, Clifton Gray, had a Shell station in Glenville and was one of White's earliest supporters.

By the late 1980s, "there was nobody closer to Mike than Nate Gray ... with the possible exception of his immediate family," recalls a White associate from the Glenville years.

Gray and White became closer after 1985, when White joined the state senate and did Shell franchise owners a favor by calling for the state attorney general to investigate how Shell was treating its independent dealers.

By then, Gray owned his own Shell franchise on Kinsman Road. Nate's Shell was a neighborhood fixture — "much more than just a service station and convenient mart," White wrote to a judge in 1990. "It is a place where people from many parts of the southeast area come to seek assistance of varying kinds ... a son in jail, gas turned off, marital problems, funding for Little League teams, advice for emerging business persons."

"If someone couldn't afford a repair and wanted a little credit, then we would certainly extend it to them," Gray says. He'd let local kids pump customers' gas for money. "They either pump gas for change or they sell drugs for change," he says. "I think I'd rather they sell gas for change."

Gray, 47, was born in Mississippi and moved to Cleveland at age 5. His parents worked at a barrel company and a hospital. He grew up in the Glenville and Lee-Harvard neighborhoods and graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in 1975.

He could often be found at White's house in the late 1980s, and at almost all of White's events — meetings, protests, letter-writing campaigns — says the White associate. But Gray would keep quiet. "He was not Mike's political ally," the associate recalls, "more a personal confidant." When White married his third wife, Tamera, in 1987, Gray was the best man.

During White's underdog campaign for mayor in 1989, Gray was a key part of a small core of loyal workers. "He was just a lovely person, a dear sweet person, very jovial, a good spirit, kind-hearted," recalls fellow campaign worker Denise McCray. Gray drove White to his campaign appearances and passed out literature. "He always smiled, was always happy," McCray recalls, "even when everyone else's spirits were down."

Gray befriended other politicians early in their careers. He became close to Emmanuel Onunwor in the mid-1990s when Onunwor left a job with East Cleveland and was looking for work. Gray offered Onunwor financial help after he took some low-paying jobs, Onunwor's attorney said at his client's trial. The prosecutor alleged that financial help was really bribes, which began when Onunwor was elected to East Cleveland's city council.

Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed, who went to high school with Gray's younger brother Kenny and met Gray in the late 1970s or early 1980s, says Gray and attorney Ricardo Teamor showed up at his first fund-raiser in 2001, soon after Reed joined council. Both quickly became his friends and mentors, Reed says.

Gray often gives him political advice on how to talk about local issues and stay connected to his political base as he seeks citywide support. Though Gray, now divorced, lives with his girlfriend in Orange, wears Brooks Brothers suits with French cuffs and drives a BMW, Reed says he's still as comfortable meeting at a neighborhood soul food restaurant as he is drinking vodka-and-pineapples on West Sixth Street.

Gray and Teamor "have never, ever asked me for anything," Reed says. "They never asked me to steer a contract, they never asked me to pass a piece of legislation that would be beneficial to them, they have never given me money outside of [a] fund-raiser, nothing like that."

After White was elected mayor, Gray helped him make hiring decisions. Huffman says Gray interviewed her for her executive assistant job. The mayor and Gray "had dinner every week," Huffman says. "They would play racquetball once a week. They talked on the phone several times a day."

The administration often turned to Gray to help "take the pulse of the community" before major decisions, Huffman says. "People like him, they talk to him" — from the down-and-out to the powerful, small businessmen to clergy. "Nate has street smarts" and "savvy," Huffman adds. She says White and his staff called Gray for advice on keeping the city calm in 1991 when they feared riots over the deaths of black men in police custody.

White named Gray to the Northeast Ohio Sports Commission, the city's boxing commission, search committees for new police chiefs and a committee on reforming the Cleveland schools. He was at the mayor's side in 1999 when White watched the Ku Klux Klan rally from atop a city garage and when he announced allegations (eventually discredited) of racism in the Cleveland police. When White separated from his wife in 1995, Gray appeared at the press conference announcing the news. And when White married former Lakewood city council president JoAnn Boscia in 1998, Gray was again his best man, and a minister from Gray's church performed the ceremony.

 

Architect Bernie Zofcin met Gray after his firm submitted two proposals for Hopkins Airport design work in 1999. Zofcin's firm came in fourth and second in competitions, so Zofcin set up a meeting with Edwin Williams, vice president of the Ralph Tyler Companies, one of three firms managing the $1.4 billion airport expansion for the city.

Zofcin remembers asking, "What do we need to do to get us over the top to No. 1?" He expected a technical answer that would help his firm on the subjective rating scales used to choose architects. But he says Williams gave him very different advice.

"Without hesitation, his response to me was, 'You need to see Nate Gray,' " Zofcin says.

So Zofcin visited Gray at the offices of his company, Etna Parking, in Shaker Square. Zofcin showed Gray his proposal and asked how to win a job at the airport.

"His only response," Zofcin says, "was, 'You need to get some real minorities on your team.' " But Zofcin's proposal already met the city's goal for minority participation. It included an 18-percent partner owned by Indian-Americans and city certified as minority owned.

"Whatever was happening, it just didn't seem like the kind of avenue we wanted to pursue to get business," Zofcin says. He says he never followed up with Gray and never tried to get airport work again.

Williams says he doesn't remember talking to Zofcin about Nate Gray and that he never would have told anyone they had to see Gray to get city work. Williams says he'd refer prospective airport contractors to "lobbyists" in town, including Gray, to help them find partners — but he usually did that with out-of-town firms, not local ones like Zofcin's.

Williams' then-employer, Ralph Tyler Companies, is one of several companies with government contracts that paid Gray for consulting work, according to prosecutors. (Williams says he did not know the Tyler Companies and Gray had a business relationship until after he left the company, when he learned about it from federal investigators who interviewed him.) Prosecutors claim Choice Construction, another co-project manager at Hopkins, had unspecified ties to Gray.

The U.S. Attorney's court briefs about Gray often put the word "consulting" in quotes. Prosecutors convinced the jury at Onunwor's trial that Gray passed consulting payments to Onunwor to bribe him for favoring his clients.

But representatives of companies that hired Gray insist they were paying him to market or lobby for them. That's a likely part of Gray's defense: consulting just meant lobbying, marketing, representing, advising.

Gray had "a very legitimate consulting business," says Whitaker, his attorney. "A consultant is somebody who has knowledge and uses that knowledge to advise people. It's a legal, legitimate function, and there is certainly not a major business in the United States that doesn't understand the need for consultants."

What knowledge did Gray have? Whitaker says he has to save that answer for Gray's trial.

At least one other company that worked on the airport expansion also hired Gray: the V Companies, owned by the late Paul Voinovich, the brother of U.S. Sen. George Voinovich. In late December 1999, the city of Cleveland paid the V Companies $172,000 for designing the car-rental facility across I-480 from Hopkins.

The V Companies was nearing bankruptcy when the check came. A week earlier, a jury had ordered the company to pay $13 million for unsatisfactory work on the Jefferson County jail. Airport officials knew they should pay the V Companies quickly; a payment form in city records is marked "express," its due date listed as "NOW." However, former V Companies chief financial officer Tom Woods testified in a deposition that he didn't know of anyone at the company asking clients to hurry payments.

One business day after it was paid, the V Companies cut a $10,000 check to Nate Gray, a court record shows. The company declared bankruptcy two weeks later. Woods and former V Companies vice president of operations Mike Raig say Gray was a consultant for the company, but they don't know what work he did. Paul Voinovich died in 2002, a few months after a federal judge ordered the V Companies dissolved, declaring that its management had "engaged in questionable transactions and some self-dealing."

 

"I know of many people who paid Nate Gray to consult," says Cuyahoga County Treasurer James Rokakis, a city councilman during Mayor White's first two terms. "You'd have to have been deaf, dumb and blind not to know the influence Nate Gray had." Gray's consulting clients included contractors and others who did business or wanted to do business with the city of Cleveland, Rokakis says.

When former Councilwoman Helen Smith was trying to unseat White in the 1997 election, she called a press conference at the unfinished Browns Stadium and charged that favoritism plagued the city's minority subcontractor program.

"There are 522 certified minority- and female-owned businesses registered with the city this year," Smith said, according to The Plain Dealer. "If you look at those that have actually received contracts, you'll see only a small percentage of these businesses represented, with only a choice few receiving the bulk of contracts."

Smith now says the "choice few" included Choice Construction, owned by White friends Fred and Gail Perkins, and the Perk Company, owned by Fred's brother, Charles Perkins.

Choice and Perk had "most-favored-nation status," Smith says. "They seemed to win all the contracts." She saw multiple bidders on some airport projects list Choice as its subcontractor.

"It was well understood that there were some most-favored minority contractors," says John Zayac, co-owner of The Project Group, city council's monitor for the stadium project, airport expansion and water plant renovations. "Those contractors showed up time and again."

Mike Polensek, a city councilman who often challenged White's actions, says that smaller black contractors complained at council hearings soon after White left office "that they were cut out because they were not among the chosen few."

During the White years, Polensek often noticed that two contractors competing for a job would both submit bids that included the minority subcontractor RMC Construction, owned by ex-attorney Ricardo Teamor, a friend of White's. Whoever won the bid, Teamor couldn't lose.

"It only reinforces to me they were wired in," Polensek told Cleveland Magazine in March. He says he thinks someone must have told the contractors, " 'You will have them as their sub, you will use them, or you don't get a contract.'

"From the word on the street, that was all relayed through Nate [Gray]," Polensek says. "You'd constantly hear that Nate was the guy massaging."

In April, when Teamor pleaded guilty to conspiring with Gray to bribe Cleveland City Councilman Joe Jones, his plea agreement with prosecutors also asserted that he paid Gray kickbacks "in exchange for being included in various public contracts over which Gray had de facto control" and that Gray had used Cleveland's minority set-aside program to extort money from minority contractors.

The confession says Teamor gave Jones money in exchange for Jones' help securing more legal work on city of Cleveland bond issues after White left office.

Jones' lawyer says the allegations are false; Jones and Gray are set to go on trial together.

"The government said a lot of things to disparage Mr. Gray, many of which are not true, some of which have nothing to do with the charges that have been leveled against him," says Whitaker, Gray's attorney. "We're very much looking forward to trial, to be able to counter the false allegations."

Four of the five top contract recipients under Cleveland's minority business program between 1995 and 2001 appear on a subpoena used in the Gray investigation: Choice Construction, Perk Construction, Bradley Construction (owned by Mike White's neighbor at the time, Howard Bradley) and Ralph Tyler Companies. They won $54 million, $30 million, $21 million and $20 million, respectively, in city work during that time. Teamor's RMC was also in the top 10 with $16 million.

The subpoena, served on East Cleveland City Hall in 2003, asked for records of contracts between East Cleveland and more than 20 companies, including Gray's. Some of them figured in the Onunwor indictment, but many did not.

And the subpoena has proven to be a reliable guide to where the Gray investigation has gone since. It includes Honeywell International and Camp, Dresser and McKee, whose consulting contracts with Gray were not disclosed by prosecutors until a year and a half later, when a former Honeywell salesman and former Camp, Dresser vice president were indicted with Gray on charges of conspiring to bribe officials in Houston and New Orleans.

Nine companies on the subpoena had contracts or subcontracts on the Hopkins Airport expansion: Ralph Tyler, Choice, Perk, Bradley, RMC, Chem-Ty Environmental, Independence Excavating, McTech and Camp, Dresser and McKee.

Prosecutors say Camp, Dresser hired Gray as a $2,500-a-month consultant in 1996. A lawyer for the company declined to comment. Independence Excavating co-owner Robert DiGeronimo says Nate Gray had no involvement with the company's bid or contract. McTech owner Mark Perkins (son of Choice Construction's owners and nephew of Perk's Charles Perkins) says he doesn't know Nate Gray, has had no dealings with him, and is not aware of his company being part of the Gray investigation. Charles Perkins, co-owner of Perk, declined to comment.

Perk co-owner Charles Perkins, Choice co-owner Gail Perkins, Howard Bradley of Bradley Construction and Ricardo Teamor's lawyer all declined to comment for this article. Gail Perkins' husband, Choice co-owner Fred Perkins, did not respond to letters or repeated phone calls.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for a contractor to get a lot of city work. Some minority subcontractors might get a lot of work simply because there are few other local minority companies who do what they do. Prime contractors might have favorite subcontractors simply because they do a good job, bid low or have expertise. Teamor's RMC, for instance, got a lot of work helping clean and reline water mains, which requires special equipment.

Perk, Bradley and RMC are also among the top 10 minority firms who got work from the Campbell Administration in 2003 and 2004. (Tyler came in 14th, while Choice, which went out of business last year, dropped to 22nd.)

Also, construction contracts are hard to steer because they go to the lowest responsible bidder. (The "responsible" part gives the city a little wiggle room to re-bid a contract or throw out a bid, but not much.)

"Professional services" contracts — including design, engineering and project management jobs — can essentially go to whomever the city wants to ensure talent and quality. So it's easier, but more justifiable, for the city or a prime contractor to favor certain firms. For instance, even White enemies Polensek and Smith say the Ralph Tyler Companies does quality work. The firm also worked on the local headquarters of the FBI and the federal courthouse where Gray is standing trial.

Gail Perkins is serving a four-month sentence in a federal prison camp after pleading guilty last fall to filing a false tax return. Fred Perkins is on probation after admitting he violated campaign finance laws by reimbursing Choice employees for contributing to congressional candidates at the couple's many fund-raisers.

The guilty pleas came four years after federal agents raided Choice Construction's offices in September 2000. They removed thousands of documents, it was reported at the time, including a file labeled, "Property of Nate Gray." A court affidavit shows investigators suspected the company acted as a "front," passing jobs earmarked for minorities to white-owned companies — but the company was charged with only one such count, which was dropped.

Fred and Gail Perkins' former lawyer, James Wooley, says it's not necessarily significant that Fred and Choice appear on the Gray investigation subpoena. "Subpoenas can be very broadly drafted and written. You don't need cause. You can put anybody's name on there," Wooley says. "There's a reason there are no charges related to Choice Construction and Mr. Gray, and the reason is there's nothing criminal there." Fred Perkins' plea agreement doesn't require him to cooperate with other investigations, Wooley notes, and he's not aware of him being subpoenaed to testify against anyone.

 

Nate Gray was in the business of connecting prime contractors with minority subcontractors for city work, confirms construction contractor John Allega. "It was the talk of the town," he says. "People would ask, 'Did Nate Gray ever come to see you?' "

The FBI has been looking into the Allega Companies' 2001 contract to build a new runway at Hopkins Airport, an FBI letter sent to Cleveland City Hall in fall 2003 and obtained by Cleveland Magazine shows. It's the biggest contract Cleveland has awarded in recent memory, worth $129 million. Investigators tapped Allega's fax machine for two weeks in January 2003, a government document shows.

Allega says he believes investigators are interested in three of his subcontractors' ties to Nate Gray.

Gray would "contact me randomly, ask [me] to meet with him," and ask "if I'd be interested in putting together subcontractors for certain jobs," says Allega. The request was unusual — prime contractors and minority subcontractors usually connect without any middlemen — but Allega sometimes listened to Gray's pitches.

"He tried to lead us to Choice Construction, RMC and Chem-Ty," Allega says. Gray also tried to take credit, he adds, for introducing Allega to companies he'd already been using for years, including Bradley Construction. Allega says he never paid Gray for the introductions and never hired Gray to consult or contribute to his construction projects.

After Gray's pitches, Allega says, he took on Chem-Ty and Ricardo Teamor's RMC Construction as runway subcontractors. Chem-Ty's job, mostly running wires underground through ducts, proved to be too big for the company; it only completed $7 million of its $8 million subcontract, and Allega had to pay Chem-Ty weekly so it could keep operating, Allega says.

Three years ago, Teamor and Allega had a confrontation, Allega says. "Ricardo Teamor and Nate Gray came to visit me in my office one day," he says. "Teamor wanted more money for his work on the airport." Allega says Teamor told him he was paying Nate Gray out of his subcontract. He says he refused to pay Teamor any more money.

After that, says Allega, two other subcontractors told him "they did pay Nate Gray money, basically because he was a consultant who got them work on different public jobs.

"Terri Thomas of Chem-Ty was paying Nate Gray 2.5 percent. She told us this a year and a half ago. [She] came in here crying. She didn't have enough money to pay bills." Howard Bradley of Bradley Construction "told us two or three months ago that he made payments to Nate Gray, a consulting fee," Allega says.

RMC, Chem-Ty and Bradley Construction appear, in sequence, on the 2003 subpoena. The FBI letter sent to City Hall about Allega's contract asks the city for the names of Allega's minority and female subcontractors.

Bradley declined to comment for this story. Thomas could not be reached for comment. Chem-Ty no longer appears in the phone book or Cleveland's minority-business registry. Its old offices are empty, its voice-mail box full.

Allega says Gray pressured him for years to use certain minority subcontractors but never asked Allega to pay him or implied his contract bids would benefit if he cooperated. However, he says Gray did make him one offer.

"He'd say, 'I'm friends with the mayor. Maybe I can help you out with some of your problems,' " Allega recalls. Allega says he didn't need influence to get city construction projects; he just had to be the lowest bidder. "I had no problems. I told him, 'I don't need no help.' "

 

Federal investigators are also looking at the massive renovation of Cleveland's aging water plants. This March, a federal grand jury subpoenaed records of Camp, Dresser's proposals for Cleveland water work, including its 1999 contract for redesigning a water plant.

Camp, Dresser actually proposed redesigning three water plants that year. The minority partner on the proposals, the Ralph Tyler Companies, couldn't lose: it also teamed up with Camp, Dresser's two competitors on proposals for each project. Tyler got $5.3 million in work from the three jobs.

Another contractor on one of the winning proposals was CH2MHill, which also had a business relationship with Gray. Gray helped the company get a no-bid contract to operate East Cleveland's water system — through bribes, prosecutors said at Onunwor's 2004 trial. Onunwor was convicted of taking kickbacks that prosecutors said flowed from CH2MHill to Ralph Tyler Companies, then to Gray (with the Tyler Companies, also seeking East Cleveland work, adding money of its own), then to the mayor.

Tyler and CH2MHill have not been charged with any crimes. CH2MHill lawyer Ralph Cascarilla and Ralph Tyler Companies lawyer Geoffrey Mearns say the companies were not aware Gray was giving money to Onunwor. CH2MHill's relationship with Tyler predates its relationship with Gray, Cascarilla notes.

Mearns says Tyler was chosen as a subcontractor on the Cleveland projects "because of the quality of its work" and that appearing on all the proposals was simply part of a "corporate strategy to be included on as many teams as possible to maximize the chances of winning." Mearns says the transactions between Tyler's company, CH2MHill and Gray were "well-documented and totally transparent" and "supported by written contracts and regular invoices."

The grand jury also asked for the personnel file of Julius Ciaccia, Cleveland's water commissioner for years, now its utilities director. Ciaccia confirms that he is the anonymous "Cleveland Official #1" in the Gray indictment, which says Gray bragged, in a phone call the FBI recorded in August 2002, that his relationship with Cleveland Official #1 was "one of my best relationships in the city of Cleveland" and that it had helped him obtain business for Camp, Dresser. But Ciaccia told The Plain Dealer in January, "There was never, ever any quid pro quo for contracts," a quote he confirmed to Cleveland Magazine. Ciaccia and his attorney declined to comment further. City records show the water department used a ratings scale with several evaluators to award the 1999 contracts.

Six companies on the subpoena also worked on Cleveland Browns Stadium, including Choice ($1.6 million, again to help manage the project), Perk ($5.1 million in construction or demolition), Bradley Construction (almost $3 million in work), Chem-Ty ($290,000) and Ralph Tyler ($580,000 to help design the stadium).

How did the companies get so much work? Robert DiGeronimo of Independence Excavation, which included Perk on its $22 million in stadium contracts, offers one explanation: Being a friend of the mayor helps, without anyone doing anything unethical.

Prime contractors look for minority subcontractors who deliver quality work, DiGeronimo says. "They might have friends at City Hall, be people who are approved by the city. If the mayor or council likes this person, yeah, we're going to try to find who those people are." But DiGeronimo says no one with the city told his company to hire certain companies for the stadium project.

 

Nate Gray's friends often talk about his generosity. His minister, Rev. Charles Tyler Sr. of Beth-El A.M.E. Zion Church, says Gray helped pay a young parishioner's private school tuition when her parents couldn't. He also paid for a wheelchair ramp at the church so an ill parishioner could attend services. Attorney and Gray friend Lewis Adkins says Gray has bought a fellow parishioner a refrigerator and helped others with housing payments to avoid eviction. "The person in these indictments and stories that have been covered is not the person I know," Adkins says. "I'm as shocked about this as if Harry Belafonte was lip-synching."

Gray's giving reputation helped him in 1990, when the IRS busted him for filing false tax returns. He'd claimed he'd made $55,000 in three years when he'd really made $201,000, prosecutors charged. He also hid gas station repair receipts from his accountant, "permitted or encouraged" a mechanic to inflate repair bills and charged a higher price for gas than the one he listed, they said. He was found guilty on three counts of tax evasion.

Powerful friends wrote letters asking the judge for leniency: prominent Cleveland minister Otis Moss Jr., then-Councilwoman Odelia Robinson and Gray's friend, the new mayor. "He is one of the most compassionate and sincere human beings that I have ever met," White wrote. "He is a far better human being than I ever will be." White insisted Gray operated his gas stations in an "exemplary," "honest" manner. He wrote about Gray's commitment to his then-wife and two children. "While mistakes clearly have been made, Nate Gray ... should not be locked away," he wrote. Gray got probation, and the IRS slapped a lien on his house.

A year after his conviction, Gray began to get contracts on city-owned parking lots. His company, Etna Associates (now Etna Parking; "Etna" is an anagram of Nate), received a contract with the parking company APCOA to help operate a Hopkins Airport lot. In 1998, when APCOA got a contract to operate a shuttle bus from Hopkins to a new car-rental facility located across I-480, Etna was a $4.4 million subcontractor; its share of the five-year contract earned it about $75,000 a year. City officials let APCOA and Etna expand the airport lot without city council approval.

Then, in 2000, architectural and engineering firm URS Greiner claimed the White Administration was rejecting its proposed solution to a flaw in the airport parking garage it designed in order to benefit Nate Gray by making work directing garage traffic.

APCOA, which operated the garage, hired Willo Security to direct the traffic. White's airport director insisted there was no link between Willo and Gray — until URS gave The Plain Dealer copies of $44,000 in checks Willo paid to Gray's Etna Parking for consulting. The payments began the month the garage opened, four months before Willo got the job. (Willo did not return phone calls for this story. Neither did URS, which later retracted its claim as part of a court settlement. Jack Ricchiuto, a vice president for Standard Parking, which APCOA merged with, says he doesn't know if Gray helped connect APCOA to Willo.)

 

Sometime in 2000 or 2001 — "several months before he left office," Cecilia Huffman says — Mike White stopped talking to Nate Gray.

In May 2001, White surprised the city by announcing he wouldn't run for a fourth term. "You will not see Michael White's name on another ballot," he told reporters.

White's term ended Jan. 7, 2002. On Jan. 16, the U.S. Attorney's office showed a federal judge a still-secret affidavit about an FBI investigation and got permission to tap Nate Gray's phones.

Over the next month, the feds say, they listened as Cleveland City Councilman Joe Jones asked Gray and Teamor for money, as Gray and Teamor talked about asking Jones to "pledge allegiance" and join their "family," and as Jones asked Gray how he could "join that million dollar club."

Since then, prosecutors have brought corruption charges against Gray, Teamor, Jones, ex-East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor, Monique McGilbra and Oliver Spellman (both former Houston officials) and Brent Jividen and Gilbert Jackson, who are employees of Gray clients Honeywell Inc. and Camp, Dresser and McKee. All but Jones and Jackson have confessed to taking bribes from Gray or conspiring with him to pay bribes. (Jackson's lawyer did not return phone calls, and Jividen's lawyer declined to comment. A Honeywell spokesman has said that Jividen's activities violated the company's business practices and code of conduct.)

Both sides at Onunwor's trial last August blamed Gray for corrupting Onwunor. "Nate would exploit his own mother for a dollar," argued Onunwor's lawyer, Jaime Serrat. "Nate Gray was the surrogate mayor of East Cleveland," assistant U.S. attorney Benita Pearson said. The jury convicted Onunwor on 22 counts, including seven charges of taking bribes from Gray. Videotapes from a hidden camera in Gray's office showed Gray slipping Onunwor cash as they talked about East Cleveland's contracts with CH2MHill and Javitch, Block, a law firm that also hired Gray. (A Javitch, Block lawyer says the firm had no idea Gray was paying Onunwor.)

"Did Santa Claus bring anything?" Onunwor asked Gray on one taped phone call. "We'll see what Santa can do," Gray replied.

On another tape, Onunwor told Gray he planned to run for a third term "to protect our business." Gray was heard bragging that Onunwor "don't make a step without me."

He was also heard saying to Ralph Tyler, "I hear you stole my mayor from me."

"Which mayor?" Tyler replied.

Onunwor is now expected to testify against Gray. So are Teamor, McGilbra, Spellman and Jividen, the former Honeywell salesman who pleaded guilty to working with Gray to bribe McGilbra and a New Orleans official for contracts. Prosecutors say Jividen had conspired with Gray since the mid-1990s, and that Gray became a consultant for Honeywell in 1993. Jividen helped negotiate Honeywell's $24 million in energy-efficiency contracts with the Cleveland Municipal School District, awarded in 1994 and 2001.

 

"The investigation will continue," U.S. Attorney Greg White said in early May. "We intend to follow it wherever it leads." He declined to comment further.

A five-year statute of limitations applies to most federal charges, including those alleged so far in the Gray probe. But a federal conspiracy charge can go back further, if a defendant is alleged to have committed at least one act in the conspiracy in the last five years. (The limit is six years for tax cases, 10 for bank fraud.) So to convict anyone of a crime involving White Administration contract awards in the 1990s, prosecutors would have to show they were part of a conspiracy that lasted into the 2000s. That may explain the FBI's interest in the Hopkins Airport runway contract, bid in February 2001.

Gray's lawyer won't let him talk about any of this, citing the court order. Gray just offers his smile, the one that's charmed and disarmed friends and acquaintances for decades.

Gray's supporters say their warm, kind friend bears no resemblance to the fast-talking, payoff-pocketing, bribe-paying influence peddler prosecutors describe in their indictments. Gray is a generous man, they agree. But — if the feds' suspicions and charges are borne out — then it may also be true that to be Gray's friend, or his friends' friend, it helped if you were generous, too.


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