Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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The China syndrome

SINCE time immemorial, government officials have been steering lucrative public contracts to their political supporters or indirectly to the family and friends of supporters. That is what appears to have taken place in the case of the Lucas County Improvement Corp.'s failed $18,000 deal that was supposed to foster trade with Chinese businesses.

This raises troubling questions for Pete Gerken, the county commissioner and LCIC executive board member, who admits brokering the unbid contract, which went to a consulting group that included the son of one of Mr. Gerken's longtime supporters.

The upshot of revelations about the contract, reported by Blade staff writer Joe Vardon, was the immediate resignation of the LCIC's executive director, Shawn Ferguson, who signed the pact with a hazy consulting entity called Rictor International.

Rictor's business address just happens to be that of a Toledo pastor, the Rev. John E. Roberts, who Mr. Gerken characterizes as "a friend, a mentor a leader in the African-American community." And yet Mr. Gerken professes not to have known that this friend's son was one of two Rictor principals, Jeff Roberts, a man whose background is not in foreign trade issues but as a jail guard, meter reader, and court bailiff.

Moreover, Jeff Roberts served as a volunteer on Mr. Gerken's 1997 campaign for Toledo City Council. And county Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak, a fellow Democrat, says she knew of the father-son relationship. How could a veteran politician like Mr. Gerken not have known?

It very well may be that Pastor Roberts, a respected clergyman, never asked Mr. Gerken to steer the contract to his son but, in the world of politics, questions like that don't need to be asked. Money, often in the form of public contracts, is what greases the machinery of politics, and its practitioners know this intuitively.

Details of the Rictor deal might not have come to the public's attention were it not for the persistance of Commissioner Ben Konop, who wasn't told about the contract before he journeyed to China last spring with an eye to drumming up trade possibilities and later criticized Mr. Ferguson for concentrating on job retention rather than creating new jobs for the community.

Why didn't Mr. Konop know? Because neither Mr. Ferguson nor his fellow commissioner, Pete Gerken, bothered to tell him. Why not? That question hasn't been adequately answered.

What, if any, useful service was supplied to the county for the $18,000 consultant's fee remains unclear. Even Mr. Gerken grudgingly admits that.

In any event, none of this strange episode is easily explained away. And Mr. Ferguson's forced departure doesn't put it to rest. Lucas County now needs a new and more capable LCIC chief, and Pete Gerken has some burning questions to answer.

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