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Shawn Ferguson, the embattled chief of economic development for Lucas County, resigned late yesterday to head off being fired today.
County Commissioner Pete Gerken said he planned to seek Mr. Ferguson s removal after The Blade raised questions about a consulting contract that was signed in March.
Mr. Ferguson at the urging of Mr. Gerken signed the $18,000 contract with Jeff Roberts and his firm, Rictor International, to bring national and international business contacts to the county.
A review by The Blade of county records shows that, two years ago, Mr. Roberts had been a guard briefly at the county jail on the night shift. The year before, he was a city meter reader. Before that, he was a Mississippi preacher and a deputy bailiff at Toledo Municipal Court.
Mr. Ferguson, who headed the Lucas County Improvement Corp., had been under fire the last two months from county Commissioner Ben Konop, who complained he was not aggressive enough in resurrecting the county s sagging economy.
What I ve heard about the deal with Rictor, which I was not involved in, [is that it] appears to fit into the larger practice of not getting results of economic development through the LCIC, Mr. Konop said yesterday. I hope my colleague, Pete Gerken, stepped back and realized taxpayers deserve better.
Mr. Ferguson did not return phone messages seeking comment.
By noon yesterday, Mr. Gerken said it was time for Mr. Ferguson to go, and had called a meeting of the LCIC executive committee to seek his removal.
By late afternoon, Mr. Ferguson had turned in his letter of resignation, ending his 16-month tenure.
Mr. Ferguson s fall has been dramatic, beginning in September with a public spat with Mr. Konop over the monitoring of tax abatements.
Two weeks later Mr. Konop ripped Mr. Ferguson for not recruiting new businesses to Toledo, and questioned the validity of Mr. Ferguson s total compensation package of about $175,000.
At that time the LCIC executive committee rallied around Mr. Ferguson by publicly stating it viewed Mr. Ferguson s performance as highly effective.
Jeannie Hylant, chairman of the LCIC executive committee, said the agency has a different view of Shawn Ferguson s performance as the CEO of our organization.
The Blade made a public-records request to Mr. Ferguson on Sept. 27, a request which in part revealed the contract between the LCIC and Rictor International. It was later discovered, and confirmed by Mr. Gerken, that the contract was entered into with the understanding that a Rictor International associate would help Lucas County develop business relationships in China.
A month after Rictor International received its contract, Mr. Konop traveled to China and returned with ideas of trying to create business relationships with Chinese partners, but was never told about the contract Mr. Ferguson signed with men who could help him with his quest.
Questions still remain about the contract with the former county corrections officer.
A review by The Blade of Mr. Roberts employment application, submitted to the county in February, 2004, shows his only business experiences were as an administrative assistant to a temporary employment firm and when he worked for the former General Mills plant in West Toledo as a mix technician.
Mr. Gerken said he didn t know about Mr. Roberts background until much later. He said there was no bidding process before the contract with Mr. Roberts Rictor International was signed.
I wish I would ve known, Mr. Gerken said about Mr. Roberts background last week. I certainly would ve raised questions on that issue. I just didn t know.
Mr. Roberts and Richard Ricaardo Kahr, a businessman and Toledo-area resident for 25 years, now make up Rictor International, which received a six-month contract from the LCIC after proving to Mr. Gerken they had high-level business contacts at their disposal.
Mr. Gerken said he never met Mr. Roberts until an encounter during lunch at the Park Inn Hotel last winter, even though Mr. Roberts has personal ties to the commissioner.
Mr. Roberts said he was a volunteer for Mr. Gerken s first successful campaign for city council in 1997. And his father, the Rev. John E. Roberts, pastor of the Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, is a man Mr. Gerken calls a friend, a mentor a leader in the African-American community.
According to a Rictor International 2006 filing with the Ohio secretary of state, the company s address is 4164 Emmajean Rd. in Toledo the home address of the elder Mr. Roberts.
Pastor Roberts never asked me to do anything for his son, Mr. Gerken said. He never even included his son in conversations with me.
Mr. Roberts, 51, who listed U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) as a reference on his corrections officer application, said his rapid transformation into a business consultant had nothing to do with his father.
It s a God thing, Mr. Roberts said. My father doesn t know anything about my business.
Mr. Kahr, Mr. Roberts business partner with Rictor International, also said the firm s success could not be linked to Pastor Roberts.
We built this thing on our own, Mr. Kahr said. We shouldn t have to justify what we do or how we do it. We ve been transparent with everything.
Tina Skeldon Wozniak, president of the all-Democratic Lucas County commissioners, said she was briefed on Rictor International s proposals to the county, but wasn t told that a contract had been signed. She also said she knew Mr. Roberts was Pastor Roberts son when she met him last winter.
To the chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party, it all sounds suspect.
Any time someone is awarded a contract who doesn t have a background in that field, it sounds like something s going on behind the scenes, said Bob Reichert, the county s Republican Party leader. It seems to me like [the contract] was a political payoff.
Claim called unfair
Mr. Gerken said such a characterization was unfair because Mr. Roberts, Mr. Kahr, and Lee Russell, a Rictor associate who helped create a link between The Andersons, Inc., and a Chinese business, provided the county with business contacts.
Mr. Roberts said his cousin is Cynthia Butler-Hayden, publisher of the Minorities in Business Magazine and executive producer of the Multicultural Prism Awards. He said she helped him and Mr. Kahr develop some of the contacts they presented to Mr. Gerken.
Through her, Mr. Roberts said, they met international bankers, financial advisers, entertainers, and hotel moguls, who in turn introduced them to other high-level contacts.
Records show that firms like Westwood Capital, a New York-based investment bank, and Belz Enterprises, which specializes in building and managing hotels, were put in contact with Mr. Gerken and other county officials by Mr. Roberts and Mr. Kahr in January.
And Mr. Gerken said he and Mr. Russell had discussions in November, 2006, about developing contacts in China.
With all of those factors working in Rictor International s favor, Mr. Gerken said granting the company a contract was warranted.
Fate of proposals
They opened up doors to us that otherwise wouldn t have been opened, Mr. Gerken said. Government has probably paid $18,000 and gotten a lot less.
Mr. Gerken said the contacts developed through Rictor International evolved into business proposals in some cases, but the county has either rejected or tabled those proposals.
Mr. Russell also said a deal to export soybeans to China by The Andersons has yet to materialize.
The contract between the LCIC and Rictor International expired last month and has not been renewed, although Mr. Russell approached Mr. Gerken and Mr. Konop about a possible new contract last week.
Mr. Roberts and Mr. Kahr said they are waiting to hear from the county about entering a new contract, even though their previous work with the LCIC didn t produce any tangible business deals.
I think [the LCIC] is working through some issues, Mr. Roberts said. They re finding themselves in a situation where there is a lack of communication, and there was a serious lack of communication with us. But it s nothing that can t be repaired.
Contact Joe Vardon at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-410-5055.