Bad Minds, High Places: one author’s story caught in a whirlwind of Cleveland’s corruption

Corruption is all too common within government, and its general toxicity has been festering for years, Cleveland included.
C04Russo 11/3/98 Independence, OH Frank Russo left, and Jimmy Dimora celebrate their wins at the Hilton South. Russo was reelected as Cuy. County Auditor and Dimora was elected County commissioner. PD Larry Hamel-Lambert PLAIN DEALER FILE PHOTOGRAPH Ten years ago this month, Frank Russo, left, and Jimmy Dimora celebrated their election wins – Russo as county auditor and Dimora as county commissioner. Now a federal investigation threatens to upend their power – they both still hold the same offices – and leadership at Cleveland City Hall. Photo credit: The Plain Dealer

For average citizens (especially myself, a white, cisgender male), knowing the inner workings of the legal process is a foreign concept. Unfortunately for others, it can be a harrowing series of unfortunate events that can leave you on the verge of poverty and questioning the power and authority of the higher powers in the United States government. It’s even more disheartening and downright disgusting when those within the corridors of power don’t allow you, a common citizen, to have a fair opportunity to defend yourself.

Corruption is all too common within government, and its general toxicity has been festering in the United States since early as 1758 during George Washington’s campaign for the Virginia House of Burgesses. Sometimes, those detached from normalcy pay for their crimes – look at President Donald Trump being arrested and booked on charges relating to mishandling of classified documents.

But others, like Richard Nixon (Watergate), Warren G. Harding (Teapot Dome Scandal), Ronald Reagan (Iran-Contra Affair), Henry Kissinger (Genocide of Cambodia and more) and plenty more, never faced justice, primarily due to their status. Again, it seems unfair to read it sentence by sentence – but that’s how corruption works. The game is stacked against you before you even think of rolling the dice. If you want a chance, you must become complicit in the corruption. Sure, it doesn’t mean you win – many more influential people are always ahead. But you have a better chance.

It can even happen locally, a recent instance being the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal that burst in July 2008. Over 100 federal agents fanned out across the county, armed with search warrants, and raided government offices, homes and businesses. In what is now dubbed Operation Airball by the feds, Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, auditor Frank Russo and many others were exposed in arguably the biggest corruption scandal Ohio has ever seen.

Dimora and Russo treated Cleveland and Cuyahoga County like their personal kingdom with all the trappings of a corrupt enterprise. They took obscene amounts of money in bribes, kickbacks, home improvements and trips while doling out county jobs and influencing county contracts. The pay-to-play system Dimora’s inner circle, dubbed the A-Team, put in place had languished for years. But, like Ozymandias, those in power always face inevitable decline, with their pretensions to greatness and grandiose visions clouding their perspective.

Photo credit: DJ Johnson

When Dimora and Russo fell, county voters soon elected to change the form of government from commission-based to one with a county executive. While that change is good, many still suffered under the A-Team’s rule. One person who suffered across multiple states due to the magnitude of corruption was Robert Grundstein, the author of Bad Minds, High Places. The story Bad Minds, High Places takes place from Grundstein’s perspective and how he was impacted by the corruption established in Cuyahoga County.

Grundstein is subjected to fraudulent charges, arrest, extradition, jail and coordinated aggression on a national basis after he published an editorial critical of Bedford judge Peter Junkin. Recently, Grundstein sat down and spoke with Right Down Euclid about his journey in Bad Minds, High Places, his feelings years after the fact, and, most of all, advocate for wholesale change in America’s legal system so that no one ever has to experience his story ever again.

Right Down Euclid: Was there a specific moment early into your story you knew how corrupt Cuyahoga County was?

Robert Grundstein: “I called some very prominent attorneys and said, ‘Look, I wasn’t even in Cleveland, can you help me?’ He goes, ‘Sure! No problem! There are people much worse than you.’ So, I sent him some money and two weeks later, he sends me an email saying, “I’m sending your money back. Lose my email. Forget my phone number. Never call me again.’

“There was another guy who was a former prosecutor and was one I often called and said, ‘Listen, I got this problem. It’s a real mess.’ He goes, ‘Oh, God! It’s not a big deal. This is really nothing. Don’t worry about it.’ So, I send him $700 and he soon sends the $700 back. He sends an email saying, ‘I cannot represent you. Please don’t contact me anymore.’

County-wide they organized against you. It’s wild!”

RDE: Do you feel like you were personally targeted?

RG: “I absolutely was! I would’ve had no trouble in Cleveland had I not written that editorial and passed it out on the steps of Peter Jenkins’ courthouse in Bedford Municipal Court. Bedford is a very small jurisdiction, it only has two judges. When you look at that, and all that has happened within the past 20 years, Jenkins must’ve been offended, and he called someone since they all talk to each other.

“He must’ve called Bill Mason. Mason must have assigned a corrupt police officer, and I was told the name of the detective was a guy named Mackey, who brought false charges to the grand jury. He said on April 28, 2003, I did something wrong in Cleveland. Well, I wasn’t there. I had ATM receipts. I had proof I was in New Hampshire and Vermont.

“… By law, you get this process. But once they don’t like you, they don’t give you that process. After I got the No Bill in June 2007, a case came out shortly thereafter. You cannot re-present. It’s a malicious prosecution to do so. They re-presented it and continued with the case. Once you’re going to be accused of something, you get what’s called a preliminary hearing. It’s a mess for everybody. They never gave me my rule eight preliminary hearing. They just made motions to have it. Judge Michael Russo ignored the motions. I did that for my alibi. My defense. According to the Superintendent’s rules for Ohio courts, they have to rule on a motion within 120 days. Russo never rolled on my motion. I went there 12 times. Every time was a 1,500-mile round trip.”

RDE: Is it terrifying to think that the judicial system can be so corrupt and completely ruin the lives of anyone?

RG: If you’re put in jail and extradited from another state on falsely accused felony charges for exercising your first amendment rights to expose incompetence and corruption, and if you’re in prison for that, that’s a standard that hurts everybody. The idea is you cannot hold the government accountable. If you try to play the game with any good attorney, you don’t win. You don’t expose bad judges.

“I’m dying on my feet, not on my knees. Does someone have to say what’s going on? If it’s me and I’m the canary in the mine, so be it. They can’t do any more damage to me. I’ve lost everything for doing the right thing.

RDE: Did you ever think sharing your story will ruin those that are complicit in the corruption within the system?

RG: “No, they don’t care because I am an acceptable death to them. No one cares about the legal system in Cleveland, it’s an interest group. The cost of killing me is acceptable, and no one will come to my defense because the cost of affiliating with me and associating with me is too high in terms of income. The public sector is to provide income for people who can’t make it in the private sector. They warned me about it and it’s politicized but I never expected this.”

RDE: Do you think the FBI cleaned up the corruption in Operation Airball?

RG: “Bill Mason was forced to resign. In 2011 or so he returned, and now he’s a legal counsel to the County Administrator. So what do you do? You can’t you can’t do anything. I mean, it’s part of Cleveland’s DNA. And the corrupt people have learned to control the system.

It was a police action. Police actions arrest and bring charges and or punishments. They are post-violation actions and are brought when conditions become catastrophic. They inhibit corruption for a period of 5-10 years but never eliminate it.

“It still lingers today and will get worse as the middle-class declines. Cleveland has been beset by low income for several decades now and the cost of doing the right thing has become too high. The public sector prioritizes income, security and position at the expense of competence and ethics. The code is never to expose defects among your income group. Or you get cast out or arrested.”

RDE: Based on the longevity of the corruption within Cleveland’s legal system, are you surprised it took so long for the FBI to conduct a raid?

RG: “Not surprised and I do not blame the FBI. The FBI did not take so long. It’s a slow process and very expensive. The FBI started its investigation eight years prior to the initial arrests. There are so many corrupt counties in the U.S. and the FBI was not designed to correct corruption at this scale.”

UNITED STATES – MAY 14: Southwest façade, Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, Cleveland, Ohio (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

RDE: Do you agree with the voters’ decision with county voters electing to change the form of government from commission-based to one with a county executive? Or do you think more needs to be done?

RG: “It won’t make a difference. Elections are controlled, and the same interest groups that control politics will have the same influence on who is allowed to run and what agendas will be pursued. Real information is secret, and voters don’t know it. We can’t see who really runs Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. It’s a small group; we can’t see it or know what it discusses. Local government doesn’t exist to provide high-quality practice, it exists to employ people (a good thing), to provide a minimal level of municipal services and infrastructure for itself.”

RDE: What can the government, at least locally, do to regain the trust of its citizens and the community?

RG: “Stop electing judges.  Judges enforce the police power without which no one would follow the law. They are bought parties who are kept in power by large institutions and keep lists of their contributors. Former Justice O’Donnell on the Ohio Supreme Court used to vote in favor of his election contributors at the rate of 92%.

“Second, rotate the judges from county to county every two years. Don’t let them make partisan relations with local attorneys, electors and businesses in a county on a lifetime basis.

“Third, have public administrative reviews every five years based on mandatory, machine-scored evaluations submitted by every attorney after a case. If you get below a certain score or score very low on a particular category, the judge should be subject to public hearings and corrective activity or sanctions.”

Read about Robert’s story amid Ohio’s biggest corruption scandal in his book Bad Minds, High Places. The story of a bought system and Ohio’s discreet judicial failure will disabuse the reader of any notion that the First Amendment protects an individual.

Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.

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