Steve Dettelbach, a tall federal prosecutor with tousled brown hair and a boyish face, stands before a jury. Across the courtroom, Nate Gray, former best friend of ex-Cleveland mayor Michael White, sits at the defense table, wearing a jowly frown.
“You’ll see, with your own eyes, Nate Gray in action,” Dettelbach promises the jury. “You’ll see him count out the money: 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 dollars. You’ll see him hand it to a public official — not once, but numerous times.”
Dettelbach made almost the same argument at Gray’s first bribery trial two months ago, which ended with a hung jury. But now, Dettelbach is speaking calmly, evenly, showing more reason, less outrage.1“Nate Gray decided to invest in, and eventually buy himself, a mayor,” Dettelbach says. “That mayor’s name is Emmanuel Onunwor.”
And this time, Dettelbach’s secret is out: The federal government suspects Onunwor, the ex-mayor of East Cleveland, may not be the only mayor Gray bought.
Dettelbach says Gray’s conspiracy stretched from East Cleveland and Cleveland to Houston and New Orleans. He suggests that Gray bribed Cleveland’s water commissioner to get a contract for co-defendant Gilbert Jackson’s firm, Camp, Dresser and McKee.
Then he adds something he’s never said before.
“That’s not the last money [they] gave to a public official.” There’s “another important relationship,” he says.
“You’ll hear Nate Gray describe himself as the right-hand man of Mayor White,” Dettelbach tells the jury. “Nate Gray and Gilbert Jackson arranged to have a fund-raiser for Mike White in New Orleans.”
Then, in 2001, came another water contract. “They rigged it!” Dettelbach says. “They redid the scoring so Camp, Dresser and McKee would win the contract.”
The prosecutor is finally hinting at the secret that leaked out this summer: The FBI’s four-year investigation of Nate Gray is also an investigation of ex-mayor White.
No one’s charging White with a crime as Gray’s trial starts on a warm August day in Akron.2 Gray’s lawyer defends White. “The contract the prosecutor was telling you about, [with the] change in calculation?” William Whitaker says. “That decision was made by the mayor. There’s no evidence the mayor got any inappropriate payment. He said, ‘I’m concerned about the cost of the project.’ ”
But over the next seven days, prosecutors will gain a major victory in what appears to be their quest to find out whether ex-mayor White corrupted Cleveland City Hall.
Reports about sealed but leaked court affidavits3 make it clear that the FBI has suspected White and Gray of providing City Hall contracts in exchange for kickbacks, with Gray serving as the “bag man.” One confidential FBI informant claimed he paid Gray $200,000 in bribes for city contracts, that White was present when he and Gray discussed payoffs and that Gray told him the money would eventually go to White, one affidavit reportedly says.
The reports support what Cleveland Magazine first revealed about the Gray case in early June: The FBI has investigated Mike White and his administration. They also support our report that the FBI has investigated the $1.4 billion airport expansion and Gray’s relationships with several airport contractors, that the probe has focused on whether Gray corrupted Cleveland’s minority set-aside program, and that prosecutors believe Gray made millions of dollars that he did not report to the IRS.
The leaked affidavits date from 2002, but investigators are still interested in White’s ties to Gray. FBI agents interviewed former City Hall employees this year about the relationship between the two men and the workings of the White Administration. They’ve also examined White’s daily schedules from when he was mayor.4
Prosecutors turned up the heat on White at Gray’s trial, introducing evidence about a trip White took to New Orleans with Nate Gray in 1997. They asked witnesses about the fund-raiser Gilbert Jackson hosted for him there and about White’s 2001 contract award to Jackson’s company. It suggests the U.S. Attorney may be trying to piece together a conspiracy charge involving Gray, Jackson and White.5
So Gray’s second trial in August became even more dramatic than his first. It made for great theater, full of public confessions from a suave, mostly jail-bound cast. It was also a chance to see and hear Gray in action on a hidden camera and tapped phones, to learn how he really made deals and talked with his friends when they thought no one was listening. It also left a question hanging in the air: If Gray conspired to bribe public officials from East Cleveland to Houston to New Orleans, then what did he do to win contracts in Cleveland when his best friend was mayor?
Emmanuel Onunwor looks almost the same as when he was mayor of East Cleveland. He’s sharply dressed in a nice suit with a handkerchief in its breast pocket. He’s trying to maintain the regal bearing that befits the son of a traditional Nigerian regional ruler, the air of calm authority with which he confronted criminals on East Cleveland’s impoverished streets.
But now, on the witness stand, he’s confessing that he’s a criminal too. He lives in the Lake County Jail, convicted of taking bribes from Nate Gray and others.
“I considered him as a friend,” Onunwor says of Gray. “In fact, we referred to each other as ‘brother.’ ”6
The prosecution plays Onunwor and Gray’s old conversations, secretly recorded with wiretaps and bugs. Onunwor and Gray put on headphones to hear themselves talking.
A grainy hidden-camera video shows Gray giving Onunwor money in an envelope. Onunwor tells Gray he’ll run for a third term as mayor — “to protect our business.”
“Mr. Gray and I had reached what I call a solid business relationship,” Onunwor explains, “which in fact gives me bribes7 through him.”
Why, prosecutor Benita Pearson asks, did Onunwor call Gray in December 2002 and ask, “Did Santa Claus bring anything?”
“I was asking him for money,” Onunwor replies.
Onunwor says Gray, who went to high school with his wife, gave him money in 1995 when he was unemployed: no more than $500, no more than four times in the next few years. But when he became mayor of East Cleveland in January 1998, “I feel our relationship changed,” Onunwor says. The new mayor went by Gray’s office, needing money, and Gray attached a condition.
“The more contracts that come to him, the more money, which is bribes, [would] come to me,” Onunwor explains. He says he and Gray set up a scheme: Three companies doing business with East Cleveland City Hall hired Gray as a consultant, and Gray kicked back cash to Onunwor.8 He says one contractor was the Ralph Tyler Companies, hired as East Cleveland city engineer under Onunwor.
Tyler has not been charged with a crime. Prosecutors have called him “criminally culpable” in the East Cleveland case. A lawyer for Tyler said in May that Tyler’s company “had no reason to believe” Gray was giving money to Onunwor. His current attorney declined to comment for this story, since Tyler was unavailable.
“In my meetings with Mr. Gray, he spoke to me many times about finding work for Ralph Tyler Cos.,”9 Onunwor tells the jury. So Onunwor gave Tyler a small contract with East Cleveland.
Later, Onunwor says, when he needed $8,000 to $9,000 for a trip to Nigeria, he called Gray. “He said he’d talk to Ralph about it,” Onunwor says. Soon, Gray gave him more cash, he testifies.
Then, Onunwor says, he decided to get rid of East Cleveland’s city engineer. “I asked council to make sure we select Ralph Tyler.” (Before Onunwor testified, prosecutors played a tape of Tyler talking to Gray and expressing surprise that he faced competition for the East Cleveland job.)
Onunwor says he started getting more money from Gray after that.
William Whitaker, Gray’s attorney, tries hard to discredit Onunwor, getting him to admit he’s testifying in hopes of a lesser sentence, stressing Gray gave him money before he was mayor, chasing him around about which payments came for which contracts when the details differ from his earlier confessions. But Onunwor sticks to his story: “The more contracts come his way, the more he’ll be able to help me.”
Cleveland City Councilman Joe Jones stands before the judge, Bible in hand, and pleads guilty to mail fraud. He admits he didn’t report a $5,000 loan from Nate Gray and lawyer Ricardo Teamor on a state ethics form. He insists it was a loan, not a bribe.10
Even with Jones gone, the judge lets prosecutors play two tapes about him. On the first, Gray calls Jones and introduces himself as “Councilman Nate Gray.”
“You’re probably the councilman of the whole city; shit, the region,” Jones replies. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know you.”
On the next tape, Gray tells Teamor he’s loaned Jones the $5,000. “Let me tell you something, and Sam11 taught me this: The more you treat ’em like a trick, which is exactly what they are, the better results you’ll get.”
“Exactly true,” Teamor says.
“We give ’em way too much leverage, and way too much latitude, and [we’re] too nice to ’em,” Gray tells Teamor. “Man, Sam treated them like a straight prostitute!”12
Gray’s lawyer counters by playing a tape of Gray telling Teamor not to ask Jones for favors. “Ricardo, please don’t do it,” Gray says. “He got no value.”
Later, a tape from December 2002 catches Gray talking about Mike White. It’s just an aside, when Gilbert Jackson suggests taking Cleveland water commissioner Julius Ciaccia to the Fiesta Bowl. (Ciaccia’s lawyer says Ciaccia watched the game at home.) “We need that white boy, Nate,” Jackson says.
“Gilbert, how’d I go from being the mayor’s right-hand man to being a groupie?” Gray laments.
The prosecutors focus on Gray’s suspected corruption of Cleveland City Hall.
Rony Joel, a former Camp, Dresser and McKee engineer, testifies that his company hired Gray in 1996 on the advice of Ciaccia. “[We asked,] ‘Do we need a consultant to help get access to politicians?’ Because we were new in town.”
Later that year, Joel says, he asked Gilbert Jackson, a vice president with CDM, why Nate Gray’s monthly invoice had jumped from $2,500 to $2,925. Jackson wouldn’t answer at first. “He finally said, ‘It’s to pay for Ciaccia’s daughter’s tuition.’ I said, ‘We can’t do that.’ He said, ‘We got to.’ ”
Joel says he told his boss about the conversation, but the payment went through.
Ciaccia has not been charged with a crime, and he and his attorney have repeatedly denied that he took any money from Gray, or that he ever accepted anything from him in exchange for contracts.13
But prosecutors aren’t just interested in Ciaccia.
“Have you ever attended a fund-raiser in New Orleans?” the prosecutor asks. Yes, Joel says. “Who was there?”
“Mayor White, Nate Gray, Gilbert Jackson, four to six subcontractors. The mayor of New Orleans came in and welcomed Mayor White to New Orleans in Gilbert Jackson’s house.”14
Joel says he helped with the invitations. “I called contractors working with us on city projects and asked them to make legal contributions of the maximum, $1,000.” At the fund-raiser, “Nate came over so we could give him the checks” — about $12,000.
Who’s on trial today, Nate Gray or Mike White? It’s hard to tell, especially when the prosecutors try to prove a Cleveland water contract award was “rigged.”
One of their witnesses, Shahid Sarwar, a Cleveland water department manager, explains how Camp, Dresser and McKee ended up with a $4.7 million contract in 2001 to help upgrade computers at Cleveland’s water plants.
Sarwar explains that his department has a scoring system for companies that compete for engineering jobs. They’re judged on their proposal’s technical quality, their fee and their presentation in an interview. Then the department recommends the highest scorer to the mayor.
Camp, Dresser and McKee came in second in the water department’s scoring for the 2001 contract.15 But the department’s recommendation was rejected, Sarwar says.16
Dettelbach displays an e-mail to Sarwar from his supervisor.
“The mayor says to give it to CDM. See me,” the e-mail reads.
Camp, Dresser and McKee had proposed charging a lower fee. Sarwar says he was told to re-score the proposals, giving the fee a heavier weight. But that wasn’t enough to tip the scoring to CDM, so Sarwar changed their interview score too. CDM got the contract.17
A month later, Nate Gray billed Camp, Dresser for (and eventually got paid) a $10,000 “performance bonus” for his “community relations activities and consultation,” a trial exhibit shows.
“In your entire time at the Cleveland Water Department, has anything like this re-scoring ever occurred?” Dettelbach asks.
“No,” Sarwar replies.
Monique McGilbra, a former department director in Houston City Hall, is tall and thin in a form-fitting gray suit with big, bold lapels and sporting dangly pearl earrings, a gold watch and killer heels. Garland Hardeman, McGilbra’s ex-boyfriend, is a handsome ex-cop and ex-Inglewood, Calif., councilman with a slow, deep voice and a distracted smile, wearing a very GQ dark blue shirt and broad-shouldered suit. They must have looked good together.
McGilbra testifies that Gray paid for her trip to the 2002 Super Bowl in New Orleans, a $1,000 dinner in Miami Beach for her and her family, and a $700 purse — all so she’d help Gray’s efforts to get Honeywell Inc. a piece of an energy contract with Houston. Hardeman says Gray agreed to pay him to be a sub-consultant for Honeywell, if Honeywell got on the contract McGilbra oversaw.18
They sound like a couple from hell. Both fought for a share of each other’s bribes. Hardeman made his proposal to Gray behind McGilbra’s back. When he told her, she demanded half. Hardeman admits he wrote an anonymous letter to Houston City Hall blowing the whistle on his girlfriend, months before their “intimate relationship” ended.
Then prosecutors call in Oliver Spellman, a plain-looking, bald middle-aged man with a moustache, slow and quiet. Spellman, former chief of staff19 for the mayor of Houston, used to work for Cleveland as Mike White’s parks director, and knew Gray from back then. Once, when Gray was in Houston on business, Spellman introduced him to McGilbra. He says Gray kept telling him, “If you need anything, let me know.”
“Once, I said, ‘Can you help me out with a little cash?’ ” Spellman says.
Gray brought him $2,000 on his next visit, Spellman says. Later, he asked Spellman to get inside information from Houston’s mayor about Gray’s chances of winning an airport shuttle contract. Feeling indebted to Gray, Spellman says, he did.
Gray’s attorney Andrea Whitaker cross-examines Spellman. Didn’t Gray also offer you help when you weren’t chief of staff? she asks. Yes, Spellman says: when he called Gray to say he’d resigned.
Then the prosecutor gets the chance to redirect. “You said Nate Gray never asked you for help while in Cleveland,” says Dettelbach. He’s speeding up, getting louder, more aggressive. “Did Nate Gray need your help getting business from the city of Cleveland under Mayor White?”
“Objection!” Whitaker shouts.
“Sustained,” says the judge.
“Nothing further, your honor,” Dettelbach says.
The prosecution rests its case.20
Gray’s defense takes less than two hours. Lou Tortora, a former manager for Camp, Dresser and McKee who supervised Rony Joel, says he never approved any payments to Julius Ciaccia and doesn’t remember Joel ever asking him to, but he has no reason to think Joel intentionally lied.
Then Whitaker calls several character witnesses and asks them all almost identical questions: “Do you know Mr. Gray?” “Do you know other people in the community who know Mr. Gray?” “Do you know about his reputation for generosity?” “Have you yourself witnessed specific acts of generosity on his part?” They all say yes.21
During closing arguments, Benita Pearson writes quotes from Nate Gray on a big sheet of paper: “greasing palm,” “treat like straight prostitutes.” William Whitaker claims the feds have no case. “Fifty-thousand intercepted phone calls, and not in one single phone call does someone say, ‘I’m going to give you this in exchange for one specific act.’ ”22
When I leave the trial, I head south on Interstate 77 instead of north. Newcomerstown, White’s new home, is only about an hour from Akron. I decide it’s time to give the ex-mayor a chance to respond to the prosecutors taking his name in vain. He didn’t comment for my June article, but maybe he’ll talk if I knock on his door.
I drive south into beautiful, hilly country. Off the freeway, past a tiny half-abandoned town, through a valley and up a hill, I find the sign for Seven Pines Alpacas, White’s farm.
A gravel drive leads up a bare slope to a break in a fence. A sign announces that I’m at a wild animal farm, that no hunting or trespassing are allowed, that violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I’m not a hunter, I tell myself.
A half-dozen alpacas stand behind a wooden fence, some white, some black. They’re bending their long necks down and munching on grass. The drive leads down into a deep, tree-filled valley. Beyond that, I see a big house made of dark wood with white chairs sitting out on a deck.
Down the hill, I come to a second No Trespassing sign, and I decide crashing the place isn’t such a hot idea. White doesn’t strike me as the shotgun-toting type, but he does seem like a call-the-sheriff type. And there’s no one in Tuscarawas County to bail me out of jail. I decide to ask for an invitation instead.
I put the car in reverse, back it up the hill, then throw it into drive. Gravel scatters. An alpaca looks up, startled. I drive into town, find a pay phone, and call White.
“Hello?” the ex-mayor answers.
“Hi, is this Mike White?” I ask.
“Yes, this is Michael White.”
“Hi, this is Erick Trickey from Cleveland Magazine. I’m —”
Before I can explain myself, he’s hung up. So I call back. The line’s busy. I go get gas, then try again. Answering machine.
I leave a message: I’ve just come from the Nate Gray trial, where the prosecutors suggested he steered a contract to Camp, Dresser and McKee in 2001. I wanted to give him a chance to respond to that. I’d also like to ask him why his friendship with Nate Gray ended. I came to Newcomerstown in hopes of talking to him, but I guess that’s not going to work out. I tell him he can call me anytime.
The jury delivers its verdict the next day: Nate Gray, guilty on all 36 counts; Gilbert Jackson, guilty on eight.23
The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office call a press conference to congratulate themselves and drop coy hints.
“Everybody intends to follow this case and the leads — as I’ve said many times — wherever they go,” says U.S. Attorney Greg White.
“This is not the end,” says Ted Wasky, head of the FBI’s Cleveland office. A TV reporter elbows his cameraman, excited. Wasky promises the FBI is dedicated to “rooting out any corruption of government.”
“Does that mean Mike White is the next to be indicted?” shouts the TV reporter. No comment, the feds say.
“We’re not offering any kind of deal to Mr. Gray or Mr. Jackson or anyone else involved,” says U.S. Attorney Greg White. “We’re certainly open to listening to what they have to say and evaluating that information.”
Clearly, the government is telling Gray it’s his move. He’ll be sentenced Nov. 16. He reportedly faces about 15 years in prison under sentencing guidelines. At a late August hearing,24 Dettelbach referred to “decisions Mr. Gray’s going to have to make in the next month that will affect the rest of his life.”
If the feds still think Gray was a bag man for White, then they must be waiting for him to confess in exchange for a lighter sentence. But as of early September, Whitaker was still fighting. He says the allegations that White and Gray conspired together are “not true.” He’s filed motions for an acquittal or a new trial and says he plans to appeal the verdict.
So was Cleveland’s longest-serving mayor, the leader of the city’s 1990s comeback, corrupt? When we look at all the projects from the White era that improved the city and rebuilt its pride, from the stadiums to the airport, will we have to wonder if White and his cronies got a piece of it all?
It’s possible that White is innocent, and just chose the wrong friend. One former aide to White, who did not wish to be named, suspects Gray took advantage of the ex-mayor. “I expect Nate Gray made all his money” off his friendship with White, “to the detriment of Mike White’s legacy: ‘My friend is Mike White. Put me on retainer.’ ”
It’s a common problem for leaders who come from poor or working-class backgrounds, as White did, the ex-aide argues. “A whole bunch of people used him. There’s a lot of personal loyalty in the old neighborhoods. They used him to get good jobs or make a ton of money. … The fact that people used him has been clear to me for years and years.”
Perhaps White agreed. Ricardo Teamor and White lawyer Fred Nance both recently said White broke off his friendship with Gray after Gray’s consulting deal with Hopkins Airport contractor Willo Security was exposed in August 2000. Teamor told the FBI that White demanded a list of Gray’s clients with City Hall contracts, and Gray refused.25 That could be a sign that White decided Gray took advantage of him.
If White cut Gray out of his life in August 2000, it may be too late for the feds to make a case. If a bribery conspiracy ended more than five years ago, it falls outside the federal statute of limitations.
If no indictments have come by the time you read this, the silence you hear is the pressure building on Gray to make a deal with prosecutors — and pressure building on the feds. Can they make a case against White?
1 Tone it down, jurors told Dettelbach after the first trial. Dettlebach yelled back then, pointing: “That, that, is Nate Gray!” He even shouted “Red-handed!” in his final argument, holding up a picture of Gray sliding cash across a table. “He got a little dramatic,” says William Herdman, a juror at the first trial, “and we just felt it really wasn’t called for.” The jury deadlocked 11-1, with one holdout refusing to convict Gray.
2 Why did the judge move the trial from Cleveland to Akron? He never explained publicly. He hears cases in both cities. In the first trial, a juror from Cleveland, rumored to have friends in common with Gray, refused to convict him. Gray’s second jury came from more conservative areas: Greater Akron and the rural counties south of it.
3 Published in Scene and The Plain Dealer in mid-July. Now there’s another criminal investigation — into who leaked the affidavits.
4 Prosecutors introduced White’s schedule from two days in 1997 and 1998 as exhibits at Gray’s trial, raising the possibility they’ve combed through everything White did every day for several years.
5 But the feds don’t have much time. A five-year statute of limitations all but forces them to make such a case by early next year. “We’re conscious of the statute of limitations,” U.S. Attorney Gregory White told Cleveland Magazine in August. He declined to say where the investigation is going next.
6 Nate Gray also befriended Mike White in the mid-1980s, was the best man at White’s 1987 and 1998 weddings and volunteered as White’s chauffeur during his long-shot 1989 campaign for mayor. Once his friend won, Gray got a piece of lucrative city parking contracts and became a consultant specializing in getting his clients government work. Prosecutors have used another word to characterize Gray’s relationship with Onunwor: “bag man.” The 2002 affidavits reportedly show that the FBI believes Gray was also a bag man for White.
7 Onunwor uses the word “bribe” over and over. He seems to have been coached to be a better witness since Gray’s first trial, when he stumbled over his words and was unclear at times (in part because English isn’t his first language).
8 When the judge sentenced Onunwor, he ordered him to pay back $5 million to East Cleveland, the cost of the contracts he steered. No one really expects East Cleveland will get the money. Onunwor, who’s headed to prison for nine years, declared bankruptcy in 2003. Gray got $225,000 in consulting payments from the contractors.
9 The prosecutors must love this part. Not only does it help them convict Gray, it helps them put pressure on Ralph Tyler to talk. The FBI also named Tyler as a target of its Cleveland investigation, along with Mike White and Gray, in the leaked 2002 affidavits quoted in Scene and The Plain Dealer. Tyler’s company got $20 million in work from Cleveland between 1995 and 2001, White’s last seven years in office. In fact, Tyler appeared on every competing bid for several projects, from water plants to Cleveland Browns Stadium. Lawyers for Tyler say there’s a simple, innocent reason for that: His company is the city’s most prominent minority-owned engineering firm, with a reputation for quality work.
10 Observers were mystified that Jones pleaded guilty and resigned from City Council, even though he avoided jail. At the June trial, 11 of the 12 jurors wanted to acquit him, and the judge acquitted Gray of bribing Jones.
11 Prosecutors have asserted that “Sam” is Sam Miller, Forest City Enterprises co-chairman and longtime patron of Mike White, and that Gray’s “’em” refers to politicians. The prosecution did not argue Miller attempted to bribe any politician. (Miller declined to comment for this story.)
12 A lawyer for Jones claimed Jones and Gray’s taped references to Jones joining a “million-dollar club” were jokes about a photograph of Gray, Miller and White that Gray had up in his office.
13 Camp, Dresser and McKee got four contracts from Cleveland’s water department worth $24 million while Ciaccia was water commissioner. The firm also lost competitions for seven other water contracts worth $51 million, public records show.
14 On July 18, 1997, Mike White flew to New Orleans with Nate Gray, according to White’s schedule for that day. Gray had reserved $270-a-night rooms at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street for himself, White and Ralph Tyler, who had paid Gray about $29,000 for consulting in 1995 and 1996. White’s first stop in New Orleans was a fund-raiser at Gilbert Jackson’s house. Jackson’s firm, Camp, Dresser and McKee, had just won a $7 million Cleveland water department contract four months earlier, with the Ralph Tyler Companies as its $2 million partner.
Gray was in his second year as a CDM consultant. Apparently he was good at what he did: Three weeks before the New Orleans trip, CDM raised his monthly pay from $2,925 to $4,425.
15 Water officials thought the firm’s proposal had several flaws, and they practically flunked the firm for its performance in the interview, city records obtained by Cleveland Magazine show.
16 The mayor wasn’t legally obligated to follow the water department’s scoring system. Governments can give professional services contracts to pretty much whomever they want to ensure quality work. In fact, before White’s decision, Ciaccia twice e-mailed his staff saying he expected the award to go to CDM because it had the lowest fee. So to cast this as a crooked deal, prosecutors must show that White got something of value in exchange for the contract.
17 White also ordered another change: He upped Ralph Tyler’s subcontract with CDM from 17 percent to 24 percent, matching the share CDM’s competitor had offered Tyler, a public record obtained by Cleveland Magazine shows. White’s decision increased minority participation in the contract — and ensured that Jackson’s company benefited without hurting Tyler’s.
18 Gray worked as a consultant for Honeywell. Brent Jividen, a former Honeywell salesman from Medina, has pleaded guilty to conspiring with Gray to bribe McGilbra and other officials in Houston and New Orleans. Honeywell has said Jividen’s actions violated its business practices and code of conduct.
19 Spellman resigned after failing a drug test. He was fired from his next job, in county government, after being indicted for taking bribes from Gray.
20 So I’m in the hallway with Nate Gray, Gilbert Jackson and their relatives while the lawyers sift through exhibits.
I sit down next to Jackson, whose little glasses rest on a big, bald head that shines in the light. He faces 16 charges. The most serious stem from a phone conversation with Gray. In it, Jackson says he’s going to “flip” a $2,500 check from Gray to Vince Sylvain, who was a top aide to New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial. Jackson, who was moonlighting as a subcontractor for Gray, was trying to set up meetings with New Orleans officials to help Gray win an energy contract for Honeywell. (Sylvain has denied taking any money from Jackson.)
To break the ice, I tell Jackson I’m thinking of taking a trip to New Orleans, his hometown, this winter. (Obviously, I didn’t know Hurricane Katrina would hit two weeks later.)
Jackson smiles, comes up with hotel advice, then gives me his e-mail address. He offers to take me out for a drink when I’m in New Orleans.
“You should take him up on that!” interjects Nate Gray, standing nearby.
Jackson’s invitation tells me two things about him: He’s a born networker and schmoozer. (In fact, he’s facing two bribery charges just for taking McGilbra and Hardeman out to eat in New Orleans during their Super Bowl trip. Prosecutors claimed Jackson was helping Gray bribe McGilbra with a free trip. Jackson’s lawyer said it was just “Southern hospitality.”) Also, Jackson’s letting me know he expects to be a free man this winter. (He won’t be. His sentencing is set for Nov. 16. Sentencing guidelines reportedly call for him to get about six to eight years in prison.)
Now that Gray’s among friends, in the hallway, he replaces his courtroom frown with his warm, toothy smile. “Hey, how you doin’?” he says when we pass in the hall. He’s a jolly, chubby guy, with the round face and paunch of a middle-aged guy who’s lived a life of controlled indulgence.
How are you feeling? I ask him. “I feel wonderful,” he says. “I felt wonderful Day 1, I feel wonderful Day 6.” What makes you feel so positive? I ask. “Big Guy,” he says nonchalantly, pointing up as he turns away.
Lou Tortora, one of Gray’s defense witnesses, starts chatting with Gray. He says he thinks he remembers seeing Gray at Ralph Tyler’s open house.
“No, I haven’t been to the new house,” Gray says.
Tortora lives in Milwaukee now, and he obviously hasn’t been following the case, or he’d know not to ask what he asks next.
“Have you seen Michael White at all?”
“No, I haven’t seen him in a while,” Gray says.
21 This is the core of Gray’s defense: He gives money and gifts to everyone who asks, even the “penniless and powerless.” The problem with this argument, prosecutors say, is when Gray’s friends became powerful, he expected them to be generous in return.
22 Gray and his friends usually turn subtle when they talk about asking public officials to do something. Does this mean they didn’t do anything wrong? That they couldn’t admit to themselves that exchanging favors with friends in office added up to bribery? Or were they (wisely) afraid of being taped?
23 There’s no way of knowing if the jury thought Gray and Jackson bribed anyone for Cleveland contracts. The water department allegations weren’t charged in separate counts, just lumped into the catch-all racketeering conspiracy charge.
24 At the hearing, the judge let Gray remain free on bail until he’s sentenced, saying Gray posed no danger to the community because any public officials who’d let him influence them now would “risk being accused of gross stupidity.”
25 According to Teamor’s confession, leaked to The Plain Dealer. Nance declined to comment for this story.