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May 9, 2008

Councilor Santiago is challenged by newspaper stories

Cleveland--The city’s daily newspaper launched an all-out assault on Cleveland’s first openly gay city council member on May 2, rehashing a number of allegations of his support for “problem” bars.

The series of articles also notes three anonymous sources who claim to have been interviewed by FBI agents in a probe of Ward 14 councilor Joe Santiago’s support for the establishments and other businesses.

The three people insisted on anonymity, claiming fear of reprisals.

Santiago was the target of a recall campaign headed by his predecessor, Nelson Cintron, last year.

While the recall backers had enough signatures to force a vote, when the ballots were counted, 205 fewer people voted to recall Santiago than the 703 that signed the petitions.

Santiago also held onto his seat by a larger margin than he originally won it in 2005.

The Plain Dealer pieces began with a large feature that covered most of the May 2 front page. They pointed to the bars La Copa, El Tropical and Envy Lounge, which have had problems with noise complaints, violence and other violations.

Reporters Mark Puente and Henry J. Gomez, who were ejected from a Cuyahoga County Commission meeting in April, also noted that Santiago has a statue at his house that was formerly at the nightclub Moda. The West 25th Street dance club closed in 2006 after the owner was convicted of laundering drug money through it.

The newspaper reported that Santiago lobbied on behalf of the owner of Hush Heaven and Earth to open a new club in the Moda location, in the northeast corner of his ward.

According to Rialto Development partner Paul Cirjak, whose company owns the former movie theater, the matching male and female Romanesque statues that graced Moda’s front doors were going to be thrown out, so the statue was given to Santiago. He noted it on his Ohio Ethics Commission form as a gift worth more than $75.

However, Santiago listed the donor as “anonymous,” while Cirjak says that Santiago did indeed know who gave it to him.

“We were in the process of having to trash that,” he told Puente and Gomez. “We said, ‘You can have it.’ ”

The articles have little new information that was not publicized during the recall campaign. But they do show conflicting statements by Santiago, who is in his first term of elected office. The statements concern his level of contact with bar owners and whether damaging information about opponents came from his office.

The stories also point to a $500 money order donation from Kal Shah of Tony’s Market on Clark Avenue, which Shah said was for a Cinco de Mayo parade, but which went into a campaign account.

Santiago said that he does not solicit donations for Cinco de Mayo parades, since his office does not put one on.

Wally Saleh, a co-owner of Tony’s Market, told the Plain Dealer that he told Shah to donate the money to Santiago’s campaign on his behalf. However, donating money to a political campaign in another person’s name is against the law.

“If there was something illegal, I would have not put that contribution on the report,” Santiago told the Plain Dealer reporters. “They might be confused. I couldn’t tell you who would have given me a money order.”

Santiago sent out an open letter to residents of his ward on May 5 maintaining his dedication to his constituents and his innocence in any wrongdoing.

“Once again, I find that I must defend my integrity and honor,” he wrote. “Let me state unequivocally now . . . I have done nothing wrong. I have nothing to be ashamed of. And I intend to represent you today and into the future!”

After theorizing that the Plain Dealer’s anonymous sources were people involved in last year’s recall campaign, he said the newspaper has a record of attacks on elected officials.

“Although we should expect better from the PD, we know that it has a history of ‘going after’ political leaders it disagrees with,” he noted. “Like many of you, I recall how it libeled our then-Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar using anonymous sources in a false story, and I recall how Mary Rose later sued the Plain Dealer and won.”

The paper settled with Oakar in 1999, ending her libel suit over a 1992 story on alleged abuses in the House post office.

“We all know how the PD has been on a crusade for years to defeat our current Congressman Dennis Kucinich seeking to drive him from office,” Santiago continues in the letter. “But we know Dennis--and we how the Plain Dealer operates--and we will return him to Congress again.”

Santiago was unable to return calls by press time.  


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