Cleveland health clinic conspiracy?

The City of Cleveland officially ended last week any plans to give $2 million to the Northeast Ohio Neighborhood Health Services (NEON), a network of health clinics that provides medical care and other services to residents throughout Cleveland.

NEON, which has a trail of well-documented financial and management trouble, was counting on the money for a number of things, including helping it reopen the anchor medical center in Hough that burned down two years ago. The city’s explanation was minimal. It cited the end of the pandemic health emergency that initially fueled the decision to share the money from the city’s portion of the American Rescue Plan Act, which set aside federal COVID-relief money for cities.

Documents obtained by Signal Cleveland show that NEON CEO Willie Austin had been arguing that the city owed NEON money for other projects and contracts as well. The city denied this was the case, according to the documents.

In April, Austin emailed Council Member Stephanie Howse, whose ward includes Hough, claiming that people were conspiring against the nonprofit.

“Thank you for being concerned about vicious and unwarranted attacks against Northeast Ohio Neighborhood Health Services by public and private assassins,” he wrote in the email. “The only problems NEON is having is one by outsiders who want to see the demise of the organization. They believe the community is weak and the time is right for attack without any consequences.”

He then denied that the organization is under any federal scrutiny and said it is the actual victim.

“While the documents I promised you are being gathered, I am sending you proof that NEON is not under investigation by the FBI or anyone else,” he continued. “Just know that NEON is providing quality care as [it] pursues its 57 year mission.”

Austin attached a March 30, 2023, letter from the local U.S. Attorney’s office to NEON. It says the nonprofit is a potential victim of a crime uncovered in an ongoing investigation into developer Arthur Fayne. In recent years, Fayne has faced embezzlement charges related to his work on an East Side project managed by an unnamed nonprofit, whose description in court papers matches NEON.

For weeks, Austin has ignored Signal Cleveland questions and repeated requests for a copy of NEON’s tax returns and list of board members. He did not respond to questions about the city’s latest actions or his conspiracy-laden email.

City hall friends with benefits

Cleveland officials this week touted the city’s new community benefits ordinance, which requires developers who receive at least $250,000 in assistance (grants, loans, tax abatements) to meet certain goals for hiring minorities and residents and for working with minority- and women-owned businesses.

One of the architects of the plan was missing from the news conference on the topic staged on the steps of City Hall: Tessa Jackson, the recently fired head of the economic development department. When asked about her removal, Mayor Justin Bibb offered generalities, saying he wanted the department to be “more responsive to the business community” and wanted to go in a different direction.

Jackson had quickly earned a reputation for her direct manner and for scrutinizing developers who have a hand out. One of several top hires to leave their City Hall post since Bibb took office in January 2022, Jackson made her presence known on Twitter. Slighting the mayor, she gave a shoutout only to Council President Blaine Griffin. “Council President Griffin, your courage and leadership making this happen was truly inspirational,” she wrote.

Blocking sunlight

Among the many items tucked into the state budget that have nothing to do with the state budget is a provision that could block some public records currently available. 

Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project and a professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, is circulating a letter about his concerns, arguing the changes will dramatically affect efforts to uncover misconduct by prosecutors and police departments. He said the budget bill expands the exemptions and exceptions for access to police records and prosecutors’ work papers.

Godsey says the new definition of their “work product” is “so broad it could be interpreted to cover literally every document in every criminal file (as well as the files of civil and administrative investigations).”

“It is also concerning that the bill has a new exception for prosecutorial work product that expressly states it never expires,” he writes. “It is hard to think of any legitimate reason prosecutors should be able to shield the work taxpayers have paid for them to produce for a longer period of time than the CIA gets to keep classified documents under wraps.”

Cleveland’s hot street

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb walks the parade route along Kinsman Road during the 2022 Labor Day parade in Cleveland.
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb walks the parade route along Kinsman Road during the 2022 Labor Day parade in Cleveland. Credit: Mark Naymik/Signal Cleveland

At a City Club of Cleveland forum this week, a Bibb administration official said Kinsman Road, a main artery of the city’s East Side, is undergoing a “public works surge.” Jeff Epstein, Cleveland’s chief of integrated development, said the city’s Public Works teams are repairing curbs and streetlights and painting hydrants and signal boxes in the traditionally underinvested neighborhood. He noted that the city has directed $15 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to the Southeast Side, including the Union-Miles, Lee-Harvard, and Mt. Pleasant neighborhoods. 

He said the city is looking at each neighborhood and figuring out “what is the type of incentive it needs.”

This forum, part of the City’s Club’s summer series at Public Square, drew several people with questions about public transit. Epstein said the city and its partners are working to draw tourists to neighborhood experiences outside of downtown–and making sure transit is available. 

He also said transit planning is ongoing with regard to Bedrock’s plans to develop land along the Cuyahoga River, behind Tower City Center. One goal, he said, is to make the RTA station there more accessible and more visible as well as to bring the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad up into Cleveland and downtown.

Take note

Documenter Clarence Hood notes that the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections is looking for a new operations center and has reviewed four potential sites: a warehouse at East 72nd Street; the former St. Vincent Charity hospital; the former Plain Dealer building on Superior Avenue; and a location near downtown’s Reserve Square. You can find more discussion on this and other elections board matters in Hood’s notes here.

Signal background

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Managing Editor, News (he/him)
Mark is a veteran journalist with experience in alternative media, print, digital and television news. For 19 years, he was a groundbreaking reporter and metro columnist with The Plain Dealer and Most recently, Mark spent three years as an investigative, enterprise and breaking news reporter at WKYC-TV, where his "Leading the Land" series on Cleveland's 2021 mayoral primary race earned a regional Emmy.

Copy Editor (she/her)
Mary Ellen, a member of the original Cleveland Documenters team, reviews all notes and stories for clarity. She previously worked as a staff editor at The Plain Dealer and at the now-closed Youngstown Vindicator.