East Cleveland prosecutor fired after mayor finds letter he wrote that called for his investigation
Sources see Norton's decision to fire prosecutor as "obstruction of justice" since Winston was believed to have been meeting with FBI agents
EAST CLEVELAND, OH – Mayor Gary Norton fired Prosecuting Attorney Michael Winston after a search of his computer last week uncovered a letter he’d written at the beginning of the year that asked Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney Timothy McGinty to initiate a corruption investigation of the city’s troubled leader.
Winston’s dismissal came on August 5, the day protesters led by activist Don Bryant drew attention to Cleveland Challenger’s revelation that Norton told the prosecuting attorney not to pursue criminal charges against 13 Cleveland cops for murdering Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.
A source with knowledge of the controversy said media hungry Norton didn’t want Winston to charge the cops because he was seeking a second endorsement from East Cleveland’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) union for his re-election, and was worried that prosecuting the 13 Cleveland cops would offend the city employees he’s supposed to be managing.
Law director Ronald Riley initiated the search of Winston’s computer after Cleveland Challenger exposed the existence of his March 1, 2013 memorandum. The city failed to respond to Cleveland Challenger’s request for the public record, but delivered the memorandum instead to a FOX8 reporter and other local news stations. Norton told the reporter that he ordered the law director to determine if charges should be filed against Russell and Williams’ killers.
What Norton told FOX8 and also WKYC TV3 reporters is not consistent with the information Cleveland Challenger obtained from a source with knowledge of the “inside” story that Norton is trying to hide from the public.
Insiders think the FOX8 and WKYC story was “planted” by Norton because both make reference to Winston as if he were still on the job even though he was escorted out of city hall the same day. Reporters for both stations did not interview Winston and accepted only Norton’s version of events in the controversial issue.
“This is Gary Norton. He runs to the media for everything. Now he wants the public to believe he kept his mouth shut about plans to file charges against the 13 Cleveland cops since March 1?” the source asked. ”No one with any common sense believes it.”
Immediately after Cleveland Challenger’s records request and Winston’s memorandum were read by Norton, Riley and aide Michael medley last week, the mayor and his team initiated “damage control.”
According to a source close to Smedley, he and Norton created an after-the-fact “story” and a “memo” that the mayor was “contemplating” the filing of charges against the 13 cops, and that he’d ordered city lawyers to explore the topic. They wanted to create the illusion that Norton, not Winston, had initiated an independent review of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s 294 document investigation.
Riley orchestrated a search of Winston’s computer and identified a letter that he did not know existed. Winston’s letter shocked him because it pointed to illegal acts that he and deputy law director Deborah Gooden Blade had engaged in to appease the mayor. Riley was instrumental in bringing Winston on board as a city employee.
According to a source with inside access to the involved parties, Norton had ordered Riley, Gooden-Blade and Winston to find a law that would allow charges to be filed against the city’s former mayor for publishing what Norton believed was an underground two-page newsletter called the East Cleveland Tattler. Over 30 issues of the East Cleveland Tattler are available online at photojournalist Jerry Strother’s 44112 News website.
Norton sought to criminally harass the former mayor because he was angered over published revelations about his alleged sexual relationship with the police chief’s secretary, Vanessa Veals. He was also furious and terrified that inside information about his and Smedley’s allegedly corrupt activities was being published in the underground newsletter and forwarded to the FBI.
The first edition of the newsletter appeared last March and revealed that East Cleveland cops caught Norton and Veals in a compromising position at Forest Hills Park. Rumors had surfaced about the two being lovers after Norton gave Veals a more than $8000 pay raise following a complaint by Konni’s supermarket owners that she cashed two city payroll checks on the same day. One of the checks was stopped by the city’s finance department because Veals claimed it had been lost. By then Konni’s employees had already given her cash for both checks.
Konni’s owners were angered at losing money over Veals’ duplicity. They were also intimidated because she was the police chief’s secretary and the mayor’s alleged lover. Norton’s decision to give Veals the pay raise after the theft was a signal that she would not be held accountable for it. The long time city store owners closed shop and left town.
Riley, despite Winston’s protests, led the city’s lawyers for three days on a search of various criminal statutes to file charges against the former mayor. Winston, a source with knowledge of their illegal acts said, warned Riley and Gooden-Blade that they couldn’t dig up and assign criminal charges against an American citizen just to please the mayor. The source said Riley finally backed off but Gooden-Blade continued. Norton, according to the source, had promised her the $85,000 a year law director’s job upon Riley’s anticipated end of year resignation.
With Winston’s letter in hand, Riley called to confront him and said he’d never seen the March 1 memorandum that expressed his employee’s opinion about charging the 13 Cleveland cops. Riley’s admission discredited news reports that he authored it, as reporters were told by Norton.
The source said Riley asked Winston if he’d spoken to the Cleveland Challenger before the article was published, and made the prosecuting attorney aware that he possessed his letter to McGinty. According to the source, Riley had not yet made Norton aware of Winston’s letter to McGinty.
What Riley didn’t know, said a source close to the mayor, was that Norton already knew about the letter. The source said Norton communicates with McGinty’s chief of staff, who worked with the mayor during his days as an aide to ex-Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, and claimed Platten confidently shared Winston’s letter with her former co-worker.
The source said Winston’s 30-day suspension was part of Norton’s scheme to claim he was a “disgruntled employee,” and to distract the public’s attention away from his prosecutor’s criminal investigation request. Norton wanted to discredit Winston before his letter to McGinty surfaced.
Norton further hoped to discredit Winston’s campaign for Cleveland municipal court judge, according to the source. Winston is campaigning in a judicial competition for an open seat that includes Norton’s lodge brother. Norton allegedly sought to eliminate his friend’s competition.
The source said Norton was at first afraid to fire the city prosecutor out of fear that Winston might be talking to the FBI and go public with what he’s learned about the dealings inside his administration. What Norton didn’t know, the source said, is that Winston had already held discussions with federal agents about him.
Dismissing Winston could be viewed by federal investigating authorities as an act of obstruction since the only reason for it would be to eliminate a whistleblower and a source. U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach interpreted ex-East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor’s decision to abruptly cancel a no-bid $3.6 million a year contract with OMI/CH2M Hill after FBI agents arrested him in 2004 as evidence of his “guilty state of mind.” Whistleblower’s are protected from suspension, demotion or termination under 4113.51 of Ohio’s revised code.
The McGinty letter spells danger for Norton’s re-election efforts because it legitimizes growing allegations that he and Smedley have turned city hall into their personal piggybanks. The letter clearly spelled out that the city’s prosecuting attorney had concerns about Norton and Smedley’s unchecked corruption.
The letter’s presence also shows the willingness of public employees like Riley and Gooden-Blade to ignore the disciplinary rule restrictions placed on lawyers. Both have failed to report Norton’s misconduct to council or the prosecuting attorney as Winston has done. Riley and Gooden-Blade’s own conduct could end up being investigated by the disciplinary commission of the Supreme Court of Ohio. Investigating FBI agents could also produce evidence that connects them to Norton’s criminal activities.
“Documents have been quietly delivered to FBI agents over the past few months. There’s all types of bribery, especially with the land bank and the money Hank Smith and William Fambrough got from ATS (American Traffic Solutions),” the source said. ”Norton is out of control and the lawyers are in on it.”