Bob Bytes Back Archive: 7/17/1996 Clap If You Believe

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.