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Published: Tuesday, 8/5/2008

Politics and the election

IN POLITICS, as in stand-up comedy, timing is everything.

That principle was brought to mind by the FBI and Internal Revenue Service raids last week on several locations in and around Cleveland, including the downtown offices of two veteran Cuyahoga County Democratic politicians.

The federal agents a small army of nearly 200 reportedly were seeking evidence of wrongdoing on the part of public officials in the awarding of county construction contracts. Such finagling would not be surprising, given that the patronage-fed world of Cleveland politics has, for many years, been engulfed by a cesspool of corruption.

But it was the timing of the sweeping raids three months before the November election that was curious.

In particular, the feds searched at least six homes and businesses and the offices of Frank Russo, the county auditor, and Jimmy Dimora, one of three county commissioners, who is chairman of the county Democratic party. Carted away were dozens of boxes and filing cabinets filled with documents relating to county projects.

At the least, Mr. Dimora is going to be spending a great deal of his personal time in the coming months dealing with the aftermath of the raids. We wouldn t be surprised if he finds himself the subject of criminal charges.

What he won t be doing as much of is organizing the huge turnout of Democratic voters that is crucial if Barack Obama is to win Ohio and the presidency in the November election.

No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio s electoral votes. And cutting into the Democratic margin in Cuyahoga County is essential to John McCain s chances this year.

Before the partisan howls commence, it must be pointed out that suspicion over just this sort of political shenanigan is justified because of the extraordinary lengths the Bush Administration has gone to pack the Justice Department with reliable Republicans even in jobs that are supposed to be nonpolitical, career posts.

The guns, God + gays operation run by underlings of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is but one vivid example. Another is the sacking a couple of years ago of several assistant U.S. attorneys around the country who didn t show the requisite amount of zeal demanded by GOP operatives in pursuing local Democratic officeholders suspected of wrongdoing around election time.

So it is entirely plausible to suggest that someone in Washington communicated with someone in Cleveland about the need to get going on that pending investigation of local government corruption in Cuyahoga County.

The reaction of Cleveland cognoscenti to last week s raids was It s about time, or sentiments to that effect. Taxpayers, already infuriated at county government s bloat and arrogance, must feel especially disgusted today, intoned the Plain Dealer in an angry editorial.

Indeed, the federal crackdown may well be justified. But it is not beyond the pale to suggest that the timing of the action has as much to do with throwing Democratic politics into disarray in a key Ohio county as ending corruption that s been no real secret there for years.

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