by Bob Fitrakis

Are they or aren’t they investigating Governor Voinovich’s administration?
It’s become a semantics debate. Voinovich campaign contributions, yes; administration, no.

The July issue of the Ohio Observer originally reported that the FBI was investigating charges of contract steering in the Voinovich administration. Then a week ago Sunday, the Cincinnati Enquirer confirmed this and filled in many details surrounding the preliminary investigation. Then the Cleveland Plain Dealer had the feds denying it. But the Enquirer stood by its story. And well they should, since they had, in newspaper biz parlance, “back-up”-usually meaning “we taped it, you idiots.” Plus, the Enquirer had confirmation from multiple sources: two in the FBI and one in the Justice Department.

Yes, there’s a very thin line, indeed, between an investigation of Voinovich campaign contributions and his administration. One that could easily be crossed this election year. Ohio Rep. John Boehner, who regularly publishes the ongoing Washington Union Boss Watch, recently alleged “close links” between a labor leader and both the Clintons and organized crime. Shocking, eh? The House Republicans are planning to hold hearings.

I have a few tips of what to look into while they’re investigating organized labor, politicians and organized crime. Columbus Alive has learned that the original state investigation file contained allegations linking organized crime to our governor’s growing scandal, which is the basis of the federal probe.

Maybe they could ask Voinovich, then mayor of Cleveland, about his presence at the funeral of Teamster Vice-President Bill “Plug” Presser on July 21, 1981. “Plug” was a protege of Jimmy Hoffa and a thrice-convicted labor racketeer. Presser also aided the Nixon White House in compiling the infamous Enemies List and before his death managed to pass his vice-presidency on to his son, Jackie.

Or they could ask what George recalls about the funeral at the Berkowitz-Kumin Memorial Chapel on July 12, 1988 when he gave the eulogy for Jackie Presser. Jackie Presser rose to be Teamster president while simultaneously working for the Mafia and the FBI. Presser’s rise from “car thief to a White House dinner guest” is well-documented in James Neff’s Mobbed Up. “He was a man who loved his fellow man. He made a difference in my life. I will miss him and pray for him,” eulogized Voinovich.

Maybe they could look into the guv’s attempt to appoint ex-loan shark and Mafia associate Carmen Parise to Ohio’s Turnpike Commission. Certain other members of the commission and their activities bear further scrutiny. By the way, it sure is nice that, despite federal advice that it was unnecessary, the state is expanding the turnpike from three to four lanes east and west. Stuff like that in other states is often linked to contract steering and money laundering, but not in Ohio.

House members and federal investigators could look at where small-time player T.G. Banks, holder of the majority of the state’s unbid minority construction management contracts, got the money- big money-to buy Target Construction in 1990. The down-on-its-luck company still held $53 million or so in building contracts, according to the Columbus Dispatch, and had been one of the largest home builders in the United States. One reliable highly placed law-enforcement source alleges that organized crime money out of Youngstown may have been involved in the purchase of Target.

House members and feds could also investigate Paul Mifsud, the governor’s recently resigned chief of staff. Immediately after Voinovich’s inauguration in 1991, Mifsud took control of three key state departments: Commerce, Development, and Transportation. He was involved in refashioning the bidding process for state construction projects. “That’s where the money is,” the source said. So, that’s where the House and the FBI should look.

Investigators should focus on whether or not Mifsud steered state construction contracts to Voinovich political backers and major donors. They could also look into the role Phil Hamilton, the head of Governor Voinovich’s administrative transition team-and lobbyist for the Voinovich family construction company-played as a key connection between Mifsud and T.G. Banks. Allegations have been made that Banks was a minority “front” to funnel contracts to the Carbone Construction Company out of Cleveland. The Carbone family are long-time Voinovich backers.

“Phil Hamilton is the glue that holds it all together,” says the law-enforcement source. So, more than circumstantial evidence exists to suggest that systematic contract steering has been going on in the Voinovich administration since its inception. And ties to reputed organized crime figures and money sources should be sought out.

While the nature of such an investigation may sound farfetched to readers, this isn’t the first time that governors of the state of Ohio or their administrations have been caught up in questionable activities. A re-reading of a Life magazine article of May 2, 1969, “The Governor…and the Mobster,” may provide a certain sense of deja vu. The article exposes how Governor Rhodes used his campaign fund for personal gain, “intervened” to secure loans to pay back cronies, and granted a pardon for mob boss Thomas “Yonnie” Licavoli.

Hemp, Stolen elections, nuclear power, Batchelder, Ohio SOS Brunner’s proposals, death penalty, Iraq war…

by Bob Fitrakis

The rich and powerful still have faith in Tommy Banks
Is this a great country or what? From Les Wright, decked out in her Sunday best at Wednesdays press conference supporting Banks on the near east side, to the Dispatch, which dutifully reported that he paid his debt in a headline. The problem of course is that debt is singular, and Tommy owed plural, multiple mega-debts.

At the press conference, Walter Cates of the Main Street Business Association played the race card. He referred to media coverage of Banks financial problems and his ties to the governor’s chief of staff’s resignation as an onslaught of stupidity and the type of scrutiny that no white contractor would have to face. Walters is just trying to get some low-income houses built before the tax credits expire at the end of the year. So, his comments must be understood against that predicament. Cates acknowledged that Banks was on the premise, but was not available to speak, probably too choked up by Councilperson Wright’s show of solidarity and the anticipated Dispatch coverage.

It seems that Wright and Banks have appeared at press conferences before. The Columbus Call and Post, on October 8, 1992, ran a photo of Les Wright presenting an award to Banks for his $1,000 contribution to a Boy Scout program run by the Columbus Public Schools. Wright called Banks a person committed to doing what is right and giving of himself. Maybe that’s why he gave the Boy Scouts a $1,000 check when he currently owes the state of Ohio and the IRS over $200,000. Speaking of stupidity, Walter, most of us journalists don’t go around writing $300 checks to Les Wright’s election campaign in 1995 or over $2,500 to Greg Lashutka in 1992 -a year the mayor didn’t run-when we owed the government a bundle.

The Dispatch, in its zeal to protect Banks and downplay the major state scandal he’s involved in, touted how the contractor pays overdue city tax. All $12,000! They forgot about the $131,000 his company owes in state Workers Comp premiums-that Dispatch reporter John Futty had mentioned the week before. They forgot the more than $100,000 to the feds and an additional nearly $18,000 to the state in back taxes.

Yes, indeed, Big D, he paid a debt. Someone ought to tell Tommy-preferably Les-that a person committed to doing what’s right would start by paying their taxes.

But, Tommy’s lucky to have friends like Les Wright and the Columbus Dispatch. He’s even more lucky that the Daily Monopoly chose to ignore the forgery of documents central to the Banks/Paul Mifsud scandal.

Again, just the facts. Banks, former meter reader but now the main self-taught construction man to the rich and famous, took out two Union County building permits totaling $210,000: one for $150,000; another for $60,000. Tommy promised to build a plush two-story addition-including a library, office, breakfast nook, two-and-a-half baths, three bedrooms-and a three-bay freestanding 1,450-square-foot garage for boat and car storage for Dr. Kathy Bartunek. Now Kathy was engaged to Pauly, the guv’s main guy. So, while Mr. Banks labored away on the lavish addition and gorgeous garage, Mifsud and Bartunek were married and moved into the abode still under renovation.

Now the facts get a little muddy. Mifsud and Bartunek claim that Tommy promised to build all that wonderful construction for just the bargain basement price of $35,000 and Tommy, being an incompetent idiot, they would have us believe, overran the project by almost three times the amount. Bartunek settled up with Banks by paying him $109,000 or so she says-no canceled checks have been produced to verify.

And poor Mr. Banks, after his purported display of ineptitude to perhaps the state’s second most powerful man, Mifsud, is rewarded with nine of 16 unbid state minority construction contracts.

Thus, the man who oversaw the rewriting of the rules on minority set-asides and unbid contracts, Mifsud, may be delivering for the man who most greatly benefited from the rule changes, Banks. Even more strangely, someone snuck back to Union County, when Andy Zajac of the Akron Beacon-Journal began to ask around about the Bartunek home improvement project, and attempted to crudely forge a different price on the permit. The $150,000 permit was changed to a $50,000 permit. (See, this brings the total job to $110,000.) Fortuitously, Tommy told the Cleveland Plain Dealer the number that the permits totaled, within $1,000, before anyone knew that they had been illegally altered.

Maybe someone ought to alter his Minority Business Enterprise file too. He claims $10-11 million worth of work for the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority. Their files say it’s only $2.7 million. Well, we could ask Melanie Mitchell, Governor George Voinovich’s director of Minority Affairs, about Tommy’s luck, skill or problems. But, the only minority in the guv’s cabinet has her own problems also not highlighted in the Dispatch. A bit odd that a paper that lives for reporting unsubstantiated allegations that perhaps an unnamed Clinton staffer may have done drugs recently, would miss Melanie’s dilemma.

On June 5, Mitchell’s house was raided by police as part of an ongoing investigation against a man alleged to be a major cocaine dealer on Columbus’ east side. James Branch, identified by her lawyer as a dating partner of Melanie Mitchell, was arrested at his Columbus address after a one-kilogram shipment of cocaine from Los Angeles was intercepted by postal inspectors.

The Ohio Observer reports that Branch frequently resided with Mitchell, mail for Branch was received at her residence and according to police they had an ongoing financial relationship. Perhaps Ms. Mitchell’s personal problems kept her from properly overseeing the minority set-aside contracts while she worked for the governor. Mitchell’s daughter, Charmal, was arrested on two misdemeanor counts of possession of drug paraphernalia. Ms. Mitchell has not been charged.

Still, one has to wonder how Ms. Mitchell rose to such prominence in the Voinovich administration. After all, in 1992, as the Observer reports, Mitchell, then known as Melanie Mitchell Lackland, was suspended for 30 days from her position as deputy director of the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT). The suspension occurred after it was discovered that she had her daughter, Charmal, and her sister Lori McBride, hired for summer jobs at ODOT.

The governor’s judgment must be questioned in these matters. His two key appointments-former chief of staff Mifsud and Minority Affairs Director Mitchell-are the ones who are responsible for the Banks scandal.

Building relationships
by Sally MacPhail and Bob Fitrakis

When the governor’s chief of staff announced his resignation June 24, it took many political insiders by surprise. Though Paul Mifsud-whose hard-hitting style had earned him one of the most powerful positions in the Voinovich administration-claimed that he was leaving office to spend more time with his young family, even Republican Senate President Stanley Aronoff expressed shock at the timing of Mifsud’s departure, telling the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he had “absolutely no pre-knowledge of this.”

But while GOP officials and the governor were hailing Mifsud for his years of work and integrity, questions about Mifsud’s involvement with a fledgling Columbus construction company were clouding the pretty picture. A series of stories in the Akron Beacon Journal in the last few weeks has looked at the deal struck between a Columbus builder and Mifsud’s then-fiancee for a two-story addition and garage on her Marysville home.

The contractor listed in the building permits for the project, Banks Carbone Construction Co., has emerged from relative obscurity in the last few years to become one of the most successful minority-controlled contractors in the state. In just five years, Banks Carbone has been awarded over $3 million in no-bid contracts under the state’s Minority Business Enterprise program, according to the Beacon Journal. Banks Carbone has won nine out of 16 large state construction management contracts since 1992, three times more than its closest competition; two of those nine are the $65 million Schottenstein Center arena and the $52.3 million Max Fisher College of Business at Ohio State.

Mifsud himself has since called for the Ohio Ethics Commission to clear him of any wrongdoing in what would appear to be a contract-steering mess.

While Banks Carbone continues to rack up multi-million-dollar projects at the state level, a sister company also controlled by Banks Carbone principal Thomas G. Banks was recently appointed to salvage the troubled South of Main project in Columbus. T. G. Banks Special Projects Division, Inc. was appointed by a receiver to complete the city-funded low-income housing project despite the fact that yet another of Thomas Banks’ companies, T.G. Banks & Associates, Inc. has three liens totalling over $130,000 filed against it for unpaid workers compensation premiums and the city’s division of income tax has two judgments pending against it for over $12,000. In addition, the state department of taxation has filed a judgment against Thomas Banks for non-payment of $17,996.22 in withholding taxes.

Just why Banks was chosen to complete the South of Main work is still a mystery, as several other contractors, many of them minority-controlled, were hoping to land the job. Muddying the waters is the question of political influence. At the state level, Banks was a major contributor to the Voinovich campaign, always staying within the legal guidelines prohibiting contributions of more than $1,000 by contractors doing business with that state official; but Banks, his wife, brother and two nieces each donated $1,000 to the Voinovich campaign in one day.

Locally, Banks has been an equal opportunity contributor, giving generously to Republican Mayor Greg Lashutka’s re-election campaign-over $3,000-and supporting Democratic city council person Les Wright’s bid to retain her seat in 1995.

Wright is the chair of the council’s housing committee, which oversees funding for the South of Main project.

Banks’ ties to the mayor extend beyond campaign support. When a moving company allegedly dropped the Banks piano down the stairs and banged his hot tub in 1995, Banks and his wife hired Lashutka’s wife, attorney Catherine Adams, and Keith Shumate of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey to sue the movers. Adams later withdrew the case without prejudice. Also, Ohio Senator Bruce Johnson, then Lashutka’s chief of staff, cast a vote for Banks to get a piece of the new COSI construction project.

Banks’ generous support of politicians may be surprising considering that the 35-year-old Gahanna resident has come from relative obscurity. Just who is this affable black man that is described by friends and competitors alike as charming? How could his smile and what many have said is a passing knowledge of construction have been parlayed into multi-million-dollar contracts and substantial campaign contributions? How could a 30-year-old relatively lesser light in the Columbus construction business have Police Chief James Jackson, OSU President Gordon Gee, and Mayor Lashutka listed on his 1991 resume as references?

According to the resume on file at the City of Columbus Equal Business Opportunity Commission office, Banks is a graduate of the police academy in Reynoldsburg and the State of Ohio Juvenile College. Banks attended OSU “with a major focus on Business and Criminology.” His construction experience was gained while working “as an aide” to William Banks Sr. in a family-owned business, the resume states.

Banks really began to make his mark after 1990, though, when he formed T. G. Banks & Associates, Inc. a Dublin-based corporation that included a wholly owned subsidiary, Pyramid Construction Systems, Inc.; and Target Construction Co. A 1991 resume on file with the city’s equal opportunity office also stated that Banks was then president of Banks-Tuller Printing & Design, a company that was dissolved in 1991, according to state records.

Banks also was listed as president of Target in 1991. According to the Secretary of State’s office, Target has since been “cancelled” by the state tax department and is now not in good standing with the state.

Banks & Associates was “a quality, minority General Contracting firm holding the State of Ohio MBE [Minority Business Enterprise] Certification. T.G. Banks & Associates has successfully bid and been awarded many minority set-aside projects with The Ohio State University,” the resume states. Banks also cites private sector work for Ameriflora 1992 and housing rehabilitation.

“I got the shock of my life. I was working on the grounds crew at Ameriflora and I saw Tommy,” commented Banks’ brother, Billy Banks. “He told me he built the Fest Haus, the shelter house there. I had no idea he was working in construction. I went to his office to borrow $5 and he had a big picture of himself and George Bush up on the wall. He worked security for him. He knows some powerful Republicans, he was a deputy sheriff,” added Billy Banks.

The Franklin County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that Banks was a deputy sheriff from February 22, 1987 until September 30, 1987. According to his file at the sheriff’s department, Banks was a “parking officer,” or meter reader, with the city, then became a deputy sheriff, but was fired in 1987 after a negative job review. Banks filed suit with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission in 1987 claiming that he lost his job because of racial discrimination. In its October 27, 1988 finding the Commission denied the allegations, but settled the suit with an agreement that gave Banks a special commission with the department allowing him to work funeral services only.

Billy Banks said that he was born in Columbus’ inner city, “Flytown”; his brother Tommy was born in the north end near Kenny Road. Geographically and politically, the two brothers couldn’t be farther apart, according to Billy Banks. “He’s [Tommy] there hanging out with all those millionaires, all those big guys with big houses,” mused the 17th Street resident.

“He’s a pawn for the system,” commented a local black entrepreneur who requested not to be identified. “He’s just being moved around when people need to get things done.”

While not much is known about where Banks acquired the money to begin purchasing Target, Pyramid and the printing company, his star has certainly risen through the three major companies of which he is principal: T.G. Banks & Associates, Banks Carbone Construction, and T.G. Banks Special Projects Division. T. G. Banks & Associates was officially chartered in 1991 with Banks as its sole shareholder, according to the city’s Equal Business Opportunity Commission. As of September 1993, the company listed its estimated gross sales annually at $3 to $5 million, up from gross sales in 1992 of $3.5 million. Just what T.G. Banks & Associates reaps now is a mystery, as the EBOC now outsources MBE certification to the Columbus Regional Minority Supplier Development Council. Michael Gordon, executive director of the CRMSDC, told Columbus Alive Tuesday that he could not share the certification files without the prior approval of Gwendolyn Rogers of the city’s EBOC.

Among the projects that Banks listed in 1993 as jobs his Banks & Associates had handled were:

· OSU’s Postle Hall in 1990, at a cost of $19,500;
· Ameriflora Fest Haus (subcontractor for Ruscilli/Smoot); 1991; $285,000;
· Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority; $10-$11 million;
· State of Ohio; $8 million;
· Martin Luther King Center; $25,000.

Dates were not available for the last three jobs.

Banks reported an annual salary in 1993 of $121,000 as chairman of the company.

In 1992, Banks Carbone Construction Company was incorporated, but within a year the company was under investigation by former Inspector General David Sturtz. Sturtz questioned the division of control by the board of directors-Banks and brothers Ross P. and Vincent P. Carbone, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. To qualify for minority contracts, the company is required to be 51 percent minority controlled, a makeup that Sturtz questioned, the Beacon Journal reported. Banks has since laid the matter to rest, saying that he is majority owner, and that the Carbones are investors, the paper said.

In 1993, Banks, his brother Robert, a maintenance supervisor at OSU, his wife Vanessa and nieces Kelli and Jennifer each contributed $1,000 to a Voinovich fund-raiser. Within the next two years, Banks Carbone won management of six major state projects including the OSU buildings, the $54 million Youngstown prison; and the $101 million Columbus headquarters for transportation and public safety departments, according to the Beacon Journal. Supervision of these and other projects will bring in $3.36 million to the Banks Carbone coffers, the paper reported.

On the smaller, but more significant scale, Banks Carbone was the contractor of record for a 1,200-square-foot addition and 1,450-square-foot garage for Kathy Bartunek of Marysville. At the time of the construction, estimated in building permits to cost a total of $210,000, Bartunek was engaged to Paul Mifsud. Despite the listed estimate, Bartunek and T.G. Banks & Associates agreed to a $35,000 contract for the work in September of 1993. Mifsud’s attorney claims that Bartunek ended up paying $108,287 for the work. Why the estimate, the contract price, and the payment are all at variance is still unexplained, as is the question of why the checks were allegedly made out to Banks & Associates when Banks Carbone was listed on the building permits as the contractor.

Even more intriguing to Columbus insiders is why any Banks company would have been handed the South of Main job when Banks & Associates has a trail of debt and litigation. The project is a city-funded effort to create 50 low-income housing units on the near east side of Columbus. The project went into default last spring as the city cited poor quality work and nonpayment of subcontractors. The director of the project, Shawn Thompson, has since resigned and the police are investigating the development corporation’s finances. Last month, a court appointed Jon Moorehead, former director of Columbus Neighborhood Housing Services, receiver in charge of the project.

Moorehead is not listed in the phone book and could not be reached for comment on why he chose T.G. Banks Special Projects Division to take over the work. The phone number for South of Main Development Corporation has been temporarily disconnected, according to a recording.

Thompson, who said in an interview Monday that she is reluctant to talk, did say that she will “prevail” in a lawsuit she has filed against the city. “The real story is that we were making history, solving homelessness, leveraging funds for the black community, providing jobs, establishing $10 million in assets, and that was stolen. It was destroyed. I don’t really feel comfortable talking right now,” Thompson said, adding on a startling note, “My general manager, Neville Hudson, was executed; shot in the head.”

But Tom Shelby, construction manager with E. L. Walker, who worked on the project with Thompson, insists that there was nothing about the project that would merit the massive police investigation. He was one of the many contractors who he said continued to work in “good faith” even after the city cut off South of Main’s funding.

“It’s not like the South of Main got a big lump sum of money as the Dispatch portrays. It was a pay-as-you-go. The city would come in and inspect and they would be invoiced by the South of Main, which would pay the contractors,” Shelby explained.

Shelby said that Thompson had forewarned the city and KeyBank, which is financing the new construction portion of South of Main, that there was a particular building company that was a problem.

Asked how Banks took over the project, Shelby replied: “He played his cards right. He took care of the right people. Tommy’s not even a construction man; he’s a broker that takes a cut and hires other construction people.”

Banks is known to be particularly close to Police Chief James Jackson, whose division is now investigating South of Main. Billy Banks calls Jackson “my brother’s running buddy,” and several people remarked that Banks liked to keep a photo of the chief in his office. Banks allegedly frequents the Cavaliers Club on 17th Street between Long and Broad, where Jackson and other well-connected black men reportedly network.

On a yellow scrap of paper in Banks’ personnel file at the sheriff’s department were scribbled the words: “Call Tommy Banks friend Jackson.” Below it read: “Jackson said he would call the sheriff.”

Live audience chat with music from Andrew Davis and Rob Jones.