(Originally published in Beacon Magazine on Nov. 15, 1998)
The old arrogance is long gone. These days, the man with once-grandiose dreams — and an even bigger ego — is aiming his sights considerably lower. Sitting on a sofa in his small Fairlawn condo, he declares: “I wish I could swallow water.”
James V. Barbuto is not well. Throat cancer. He feeds himself through a plastic tube sticking out of his stomach.
Still, Barbuto creates the impression he is better off today than he was 18 years ago, when his rise to the top of the local power structure ended with a thud heard ’round the nation. With the voice of Geraldo Rivera ringing in his ears, Barbuto was carted off to prison for abusing his power as a judge.
If you think the current scandal in Summit County government is juicy — bribes, tax evasion, resignations — you should have been around in 1980.
“An Italian judge ... an African-American hit man ... and a Jewish-Puerto Rican shock journalist! Next, on Geraldo!”
ABC didn’t bill it that way, of course, but the network saw enough drama in the story to ante up 37 minutes of national prime time, an eternity by television standards. And those 37 minutes rocked Akron to the core.
It was a tale of sex and perversion, power and corruption, money, guns and the media — all played out for the entire country to see.
The attention focused on an incredibly popular probate court judge known as Jim Barbuto — or, in Rivera’s vernacular, the “Italian stallion.” But by the time the smoke had cleared, Summit County government lay in ruins. Seven county officials were eventually tossed from office for criminal violations.
In the tumult that followed ABC’s visit, the growing investigation eventually uncovered wrongdoing by not only the probate judge but the county sheriff, county auditor, county engineer, county coroner, the coroner’s chief investigator and a retired police captain. Not all of the cases were related, but the bottom line was the virtual dismantling of the county’s leadership.
The rubble was so widespread that the Beacon Journal — widely criticized for moving too slowly to uncover the abuses — led a movement to transform the structure of county government. The unusual charter form in place today can be traced directly to the Barbuto scandal.
That change was touted as a way to reduce the possibility of widespread corruption. Apparently, it still needs work. Thus far, former county welfare director John Keenan and a county contractor, Michael Smith, have pleaded guilty to bribery. The former No. 2 man in county government, Bill Hartung, has been charged with eight counts of bribery. Another ex-county official and two contractors have been accused of bribery or are under investigation. But today’s scandal has attracted little notice outside of the immediate area — which was certainly not the case on April 17, 1980.
When ABC’s broadcast hit the air, nobody in Akron was particularly surprised, because Rivera and producer Charles Thompson had been making waves all over town. Confrontational interviews and a boisterous press conference preceded the broadcast by several weeks. Moreover, ABC wasn’t breaking the scandal; Barbuto had already been indicted on 26 counts, most of them sex-related.
But the 20/20 segment, called “Injustice for All,” was jarringly graphic — and it empowered the proceedings with a sudden blast of legitimacy and momentum.
The network’s primary allegation: that Barbuto was, as Rivera recently put it, “running a whorehouse” in his chambers.
The broadcast featured interviews with three women ABC claimed had been sexually involved with Barbuto. Four more women were mentioned. Most were reported to be prostitutes who granted sexual favors for lenient sentences. One was an employee who said she caved in to Barbuto’s demands so she could keep her job. As an added TV bonus, one of the women said Barbuto liked to dress up in women’s underwear and be beaten.
To try to keep all of this under the rug, said Rivera, Barbuto relied on a personal enforcer named Bobie Brooks, an ex-con with a manslaughter conviction who went around town intimidating potential witnesses.
This was not exactly the image Akron wanted to project into 39 million households. Already saddled with a gasping economy and a growing “Rust Belt” reputation, the community was embarrassed and disgusted. Law enforcement and the local media finally shifted into high gear.
Stars of the show
Barbuto was an up-by-the-bootstraps Democrat, a guy who grew up on welfare on North Hill, struggled through the University of Akron’s law school and served as a legal rep for the United Rubber Workers. He entered public service as Akron’s law director, then was elected county prosecutor and, later, common pleas judge. Weak on linguistics but strong on schmoozing, he was considered a man of the people. But by the mid-1970s, he was a man for himself, full of himself. He had become, in his own current words, “an egotistical ass.”
Barbuto was locking horns with another man not known for excessive modesty. Geraldo Rivera was also street-savvy and, like Barbuto, wore that background as a badge of honor. Through quick wit, relentless drive and incredible gall, Rivera rose quickly through the ranks of his profession, winning the patent on what came to be called “ambush journalism.”
The third member of the 20/20 troika, Barbuto’s “enforcer,” never did manage to transcend the streets. He was William Gordon Brooks, widely known as “Bobie.” After Rivera was finished with him, he was widely known as a “hit man,” a “pimp” and a “street-knowledgeable jive turkey.” Today he is less widely known as Inmate A195767 at the North Central Correctional Institution in Marion.
In an effort to see what the passage of time has done to their perspectives, we tracked down the three main players. We also talked with seven others who played key roles in the 1980 scandal, hoping that hindsight would be, if you’ll excuse the expression, 20/20. We wanted not only to clarify the events of that wild period but perhaps even offer a bit of insight into Summit County’s current problems.
At age 77, Jim Barbuto lives alone, as he has for a long time. The scandal cost him his marriage and most of his friends. Once a fledgling member of Akron society — even, for a time, president of Fairlawn Country Club — he instantly became a social leper, restricted to a tiny circle of lifelong buddies.
The walls of his condo provide a constant reminder of how far he has fallen. There are autographed photos from John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, folks he knew personally from political campaigns. Another photo is inscribed, “To the D.A. ... Best wishes, Frank Sinatra.” Prominently displayed on a shelf in his living room is an old office plaque: “Judge James V. Barbuto.”
The plaque, in particular, seems strange and inappropriate. Because of his felony convictions, Barbuto is banned from practicing law or holding public office. In 1990, when word leaked out that he was seeking a pardon from lame-duck Democratic Gov. Richard Celeste, all hell broke loose and the request was ignored. Barbuto is still resented by much of the public, still viewed as a blight on the city’s history.
The pardon request wasn’t the only time Barbuto misjudged a situation. He says his first inkling that he could be in real trouble didn’t come until visiting judge George McMonagle was actually sentencing him in the summer of 1980.
One-to-10 years for intimidating two sheriff’s detectives who were investigating sex-related rumors about him in 1978. One-to-five for gross sexual imposition for the 1974 attack on a courthouse clerk in the judge’s chambers.
Barbuto’s memory bank is not as tidy as it once was. He forgets an occasional name or place. But ask him about the old penitentiary in Columbus, where they locked him away for 78 days before giving him shock probation, and his synapses still deliver vivid, detailed pictures.
He remembers the shackles and chains around his hands and feet when the local authorities dropped him off. He remembers having to walk through tall grass to a little-used part of the prison. He remembers the taunts and threats from fellow inmates who knew who he was.
“Then they take me into this room where all these inmates are and you completely disrobe and they put this disinfectant powder all over you,” he says. “And then they give you some paper sandals. And they give you a coverall. And they put you in the cell.”
The words sound surreal coming from this man with the tube in his stomach, this old man with the long white hair and the pasty face who is sitting on his couch in a quiet neighborhood in Fairlawn.
“They brought me a cup of coffee, a black cup of coffee, and an orange. I wouldn’t eat that orange right away, but I would dream about it. I’d look forward to eating it to occupy my time and to think about the future. What was I going to do when I got out? I had to get out. You can’t keep me there. I made decisions with that orange.”
Because he was a former judge, and therefore a prime target for physical abuse, he was kept apart from the general population in an older portion of the prison that was scheduled for renovation. The only other prisoner in the entire cellblock was a two-time killer.
“This murderer helped me survive,” Barbuto says. “The rats and cockroaches would come at night. You can hear them. He gave me a newspaper and showed me how to intertwine that newspaper on the floor to keep the cockroaches from coming on me, and also the rats. We were right next to a field. When it rained, the rain used to come through the windows because they were all broken out.”
Then he says something that stuns you. “But you know, it was refreshing. It was different. Something like that, you make something out of it. You would think good thoughts, you see.”
Apparently, those good thoughts had some basis in reality, because after his release Barbuto came home and turned into a successful businessman.
With the help of a couple of well-connected friends who stood by him, he bought Dodie’s restaurant in Highland Square. Washed dishes, scrubbed the floor, worked seven days a week. Business boomed. He paid off the $425,000 mortgage in 4› years. Started with three employees, wound up with 18. He cashed out in 1986 and took over Dale’s restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls before retiring in 1990.
Barbuto’s voice is strong, but talking is hard work. He has to expectorate constantly into a handkerchief. He is determined to tell his side of the story, though. He doesn’t think his side has ever been told. And he wants desperately to be viewed as a man who has been rehabilitated, who has conquered his demons and emerged a better person. He was crushed when a public outcry in 1993 forced him to give up most of his volunteer work with groups like Victims Assistance.
Before long, though, Barbuto stuns you again. When you ask him why he would return to Akron to face the whispers and stares, rather than live anonymously somewhere else, he replies: “I think you have to start off with the premise that I didn’t do anything.”
“I could get up in the morning and look in the mirror and not be ashamed of myself.”
He will admit to some moral turpitude. He will confess that he was responsible for messing up his marriage. But he insists the whole thing should have been an issue only between him and his wife. In a legal sense, he says, he did nothing wrong. He was jailed simply because of who he was, by a judge “who had two sons running for judgeship. He was involved politically.”
Barbuto’s closest pal goes a step further. Bernie Rosen, a prominent Akron attorney, says: “I attended the McCarthy hearings in Washington, and this was more frightening. There was a frenzy.”
Rosen and Barbuto have known each other for 50 years. Rosen was the best man at Barbuto’s wedding.
“You can’t understand what the times were like,” Rosen says. “Somebody was going to roll, and Jim, who had challenged the authorities all of his life, paid the price.”
Animal droppings, responds Geraldo Rivera. Or words to that effect.
“He was the chief justice of the pimp court,” Rivera says of Barbuto. “All I know is that Barbuto went down for exactly what it was alleged he was doing. I mean, as I always say, data talks and bullshit walks.”
But Rivera says he has no doubt that Barbuto is telling his vision of the truth. “I believe in his mind what he was doing was like a little white lie. I don’t believe he saw it in a malicious way. He was a man who said, ‘Ah, they’re hookers anyway. Why don’t they just give one more trick?’ ”
Rivera identifies Barbuto as “one of these classic closet cases. There are so many of them in Washington now, where they have this weird quirk that allows them to condemn exactly what it is that they themselves are doing. I’m sure he’d make articulate speeches about the need for virtue and family values.”
As a matter of fact, Barbuto fought hard to prevent the opening of Hair at the Akron Civic Theatre.
“And I’m sure that if you give him a lie-detector test or some kind of sincerity meter, he would pass it,” Rivera continues. “It never ceases to baffle me how people who are social conservatives can so often be covering a gross hypocrisy.”
Of the three central players, Rivera, of course, has emerged in the best shape. Late last year he signed a deal with NBC and sister network CNBC that pays him an annual salary of more than $6 million. He kept his nightly CNBC talk show, Rivera Live, and added a daily news show, Upfront Tonight. And, in his greatest claim yet to journalistic legitimacy, he is also serving as a correspondent for NBC News.
Rivera has always been a lightning rod for media critics. And he has always shrugged off the heat. So don’t expect him to blush when the subject turns to chasing Bobie Brooks through downtown Akron.
Despite several cordial meetings between the two men —one at the Tangier restaurant, where Geraldo was photographed with his arm around Brooks at a table filled with beer bottles — Brooks declined to talk on camera about his relationship with Barbuto. So Rivera simply ambushed him at the Cascade Holiday Inn (now the Radisson) in downtown Akron. When Brooks realized a camera was rolling, he sprinted up Mill Street with Rivera sprinting after him, yelling rhetorical questions about Barbuto’s “hit man.”
“I think of the story with fondness,” Rivera says. “My Bobie Brooks pursuit down the street was one of the first of those. The Barbuto allegations were outrageous and true.”
The same apparently cannot be said of the allegations leveled against Akron attorney Robert Blakemore. Among other things, Rivera charged that Blakemore, a powerful former chairman of the county’s Democratic party, profited financially from his longtime association with Barbuto.
To make matters worse, Blakemore’s only on-camera appearance was another ambush interview, leading viewers to believe he flatly refused to talk. In reality, Blakemore had agreed to talk — off camera, but on the record. They met in his office. But Rivera didn’t want to discuss specifics if Blakemore wouldn’t go on camera.
Unbeknownst to Rivera, Dave Lieberth, a Blakemore associate who worked on Barbuto’s 1978 campaign, secretly tape-recorded the meeting and later mailed a transcript to ABC News boss Roone Arledge.
After the broadcast, Blakemore sued. He insisted that every syllable about him on 20/20 was false. And three years later, ABC wrote him a check for $85,000. It marked the first time in 20/20’s five-year history that the network settled a libel suit.
Rivera dismisses that development with a verbal back-of-the-hand. “The insurance company forced the settlement. I had nothing to do with it and I never would have settled. I think the reason they settled with him is he was a lawyer and could afford to litigate until the cows came home.”
Actually, it is doubtful an Akron attorney would have more legal resources than the American Broadcasting Company. More likely, ABC threw in the towel after a preliminary ruling that Blakemore was not a public figure. That meant Blakemore only had to prove that ABC was sloppy, not necessarily malicious.
Lieberth insists that ABC’s problems went much further. He says Rivera lied — not only to his viewers, but his bosses — and the tape recording confirmed it.
Today, Blakemore and Lieberth consider Rivera a bigger monster than Barbuto. “I have no respect for him at all based on what we saw of him,” Lieberth says. “ ... This was truly what we all fear from the media.”
The only thing Blakemore will say on the record is this: “I wouldn’t respond to anything that Mr. Rivera says because I wouldn’t sink to the same gutter that he thrives in, where he lives, because he’s such a scumbag.”
Rivera has grown accustomed to negative reviews. But one volley he couldn’t ignore was a legal shot fired by the alleged “hit man.”
Bobie Brooks filed a $40 million libel suit that claimed Rivera’s portrayal of him was untrue and ruined his life. It caused his friends to flee, he said, and turned him into a cocaine addict.
The case banged around in the court system for an incredible 13 years. Early on, one judge ruled that Brooks’ reputation was too rotten to be ruined. That was overturned, forcing Rivera to attend a trial in Cleveland that lasted 26 days. He won. But Brooks appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally closed the door in late 1993 when it refused to hear the case.
Rivera also won a long legal war with Sandra Boddie, one of the women linked to Barbuto. She claimed Rivera invaded her privacy by secretly taping an interview with her. That case hung around until 1989 and cost ABC another bundle.
But it was the Brooks lawsuit that got to Rivera. “That was — you can quote me — my all-time biggest pain in the ass at 20/20.”
Still locked up
The man responsible for Rivera’s aching posterior currently lives in Marion, where he is serving time on an unrelated felonious assault conviction — unrelated, at least, in terms of the law. Brooks still says otherwise.
If you went looking for the middle of nowhere, you could do worse than Marion. The town is hunkered down in the countryside between Mansfield and Columbus, accessible mainly by two-lane roads through fields of corn. On the outskirts of town is a big spread of another kind of crop: prisoners. Acres and acres of prisoners.
Brooks’ North Central Correctional Institution houses 2,300 inmates. Right beside it is another medium-security prison, the Marion Correctional Institution, home to 2,300 more. And a youth facility is under construction at the same site.
Bobie (pronounced BO-bee) Brooks walks into a small, barren conference room and quickly warms to the topic. Oddly enough, when it comes to Rivera, this lifelong criminal sounds a lot like Lieberth and Blakemore.
“He’s a liar,” Brooks says of his old Tangier drinking buddy. “He’s a very, very racist and inhuman person. He has no principles, no scruples, no nothing.”
Brooks’ thick hair is curled even more tightly than the razor wire wrapped around the fences outside. He has a deep voice, which echoes around the stark room, as well as deep brown eyes and a deep pot belly. In his 52nd year, his big mustache has turned salt-and-pepper, but the hair is still mainly black. It sticks out from a dark blue cap worn above a lighter blue, short-sleeve work shirt. His expensive watch and ring seem jarringly out of sync with his prison garb.
You don’t have to spend much time with Brooks to realize he’s articulate and bright. You wonder what he could have become if, way back when, he would have zigged instead of zagged.
But zag he did. Early and often. Broke into a bar at age 16. Killed a man in a bar fight at age 23. Shot at a cabdriver at age 39. Threatened a barmaid with a gun that same year. And that’s not counting the Barbuto stuff.
Brooks says he first met Barbuto during the 1968 riots on Wooster Avenue on Akron’s west side. Barbuto, then a prosecutor, was checking out the situation when he encountered Brooks and others who were trying to get people off the streets. Half an hour after Barbuto left, Brooks was arrested for a curfew violation. As he was being booked at the county jail, Barbuto showed up. Brooks appealed for Barbuto’s help, and Barbuto confirmed that Brooks had been trying to keep the peace. He was released.
Years later, when Barbuto was a probate judge, he did Brooks another favor. Brooks wanted to get married before his wife-to-be faced a trial in Pennsylvania. So he went to the Summit County Courthouse, where he was upset to learn about the standard 10-day waiting period. The rule could only be waived by a judge. Barbuto came through again.
During that same conversation, Brooks says, he mentioned to Barbuto that the FBI and sheriff’s deputies wanted to question Brooks about unspecified “political corruption.” According to Brooks, Barbuto went to his desk and pulled out a list of five women he had been told were going to finger him. Barbuto asked Brooks whether he knew the women. He knew them all. Barbuto suggested that Brooks tell them to contact a lawyer if they felt they were being harassed.
But the legal system eventually came to a different conclusion: Barbuto gave Brooks a list of names and urged him to make the rounds and create the impression that anyone who cooperated with the investigation would face retaliation.
After being indicted on five counts, including intimidating witnesses, obstructing justice and carrying a concealed weapon, Brooks agreed to plead guilty to obstruction and go on probation. He was ordered by Judge Frank Bayer to leave Summit County for 10 years — an odd, Old West-style order that was later overturned.
Brooks still insists he and Barbuto were victims of a conspiracy to bring down the arrogant judge. “This was never about Barbuto and women,” Brooks says. “This was about Barbuto and the powers that be.”
Those powers were aided immeasurably, Brooks says, when a big television network rode into town and conjured up a story full of half-truths. “A judge in concert with an ex-con, ex-manslaughterer who is a ‘hit man.’ Sex, violence and power. Man, Steven Spielberg couldn’t do no better than that!”
Brooks watched the broadcast at the State Road Inn in Cuyahoga Falls, where he was visting friends. “I cried.” In the days that followed, he says, he felt “like I had the plague, man.... Even my wife asked me, ‘Are you a hit man?’ “
He says the authorities offered him deals if he would turn on Barbuto. But Barbuto never did anything wrong, Brooks insists.
As for Geraldo, “I know one thing: The things you do two-by-two, life lets you pay for them one-by-one. The same dirty things that you did, they’ll find their way back to you.”
In one sense, Brooks is like almost every other inmate in America: He’s innocent. In his mind, he did nothing wrong. And he’ll let you know every chance he gets. For 90 minutes, he rips Rivera and the police and some of his lawyers.
The manslaughter conviction in 1970? Just defending himself. The Barbuto case? Just an innocent inquiry for an acquaintance. The 1986 incident where he fired at a cabdriver? Overblown. The other 1986 incident in which he threatened a barmaid with a gun? Why, he was hardly even there. It’s all a conspiracy.
Brooks seems resigned to his fate. Ask him what he wants to do when he gets out in December of 2004, and he’ll say he probably won’t get out in December of 2004. There’s something in his file, he says omniously, something that has already prevented him from getting paroled despite good behavior.
Actually, it’s not something in his file. It’s something on TV. Nearly two decades later, Bobie is still a high-profile guy, the kind of guy whose release would grab headlines.
One of his former lawyers, John Wolfe of Akron, is among many who think Brooks’ sentence is out of kilter with his actual crimes. Wolfe says the only reason Brooks is still behind bars is because of “overreaction” brought on by his notoriety.
Brooks talks constantly about a conspiracy to unseat Barbuto. What better way to do that, he asks, than by associating a white judge with black hookers? But when you ask him who is behind the conspiracy, he draws a blank. No clues, no theories.
You begin to think he’s in total denial. But toward the end of the visit, something changes. You ask him what he would do if he could go back and undo one thing in his past. He starts to answer, then stops. He starts again, and stops again. His eyes well up with moisture. He tries hard not to blink so he won’t trigger a drip. But finally the well overflows.
“I would teach myself better,” he says softly. “That little saying, the Serenity Prayer — somebody should have taught me it. Most of my life I’ve been trying to change things I’ve got no control over. The things I could change, I just let go. I should have been more responsible. I should have seen what was happening and I should have stopped the cycle a long, long time ago.”
That’s a very different Bobie Brooks than the one Helmut Klemm remembers.
On the edge
“The last time I saw Bobie was the day his suit against ABC News was dismissed,” says the former police detective. “I was scheduled to be the first witness. I was seated outside the courtroom and all of a sudden there was an uproar in the court and the doors flew open and the federal marshals came out with Bobie in the middle. And the judge was saying, ‘Take that man back where you got him!’ And Bobie looked at me and says, ‘(Bleeper-bleeper), you ain’t dead yet?’ ”
Klemm laughs. He has known Bobie since the late ‘60s, when Klemm was walking the beat on Wooster Avenue and Bobie was a regular. Today, Klemm is the victim services coordinator for the county prosecutor’s office. But in 1979, he and Ed Duvall Jr. were gung-ho partners in Akron’s detective bureau. And they, more than anyone else, were responsible for exposing the corruption in Summit County government.
Klemm and Duvall were trying to figure out why guns that were supposedly confiscated and destroyed by authorities kept turning up on the street. That led them to Barbuto — who from 1970 to 1979 was a common pleas judge whose cases often involved weapons — and, later, to the sheriff’s department. The more they investigated the gun trafficking, the more they realized that guns were just the tip of a big, smelly iceberg.
The detectives faced serious resistance. Although they had been given a free hand by police chief Robert Prease, they had trouble drumming up outside support. They talked with reporters at the Beacon Journal, but the newspaper didn’t think the cops had provided enough hard evidence to warrant a story.
The Beacon Journal wasn’t the only institution later accused of responding too slowly. The detectives didn’t get any encouragement from the county prosecutor, either. Stephan Gabalac, another Democrat, insisted he didn’t have sufficient evidence. Eventually, a special prosecutor — appointed over Gabalac’s objections — managed to find plenty of evidence. And when the next election rolled around, voters showed Gabalac the door. (He moved to Toledo and became a personal injury lawyer.)
In January 1980, out of frustration, Klemm and Duvall wrote a letter to 20/20. That letter would prove to be even more effective than they imagined. Within a couple of years, the list of miscreants read like an index of officeholders:
• Sheriff Anthony Cardarelli was indicted on four felony charges of stealing guns and four misdemeanors for dereliction of duty and obstructing justice. In a deal with the prosecutor, he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanors and agreed never to run for office. Cardarelli died in November 1996, maintaining to the end that he had been a victim of political railroading.
• Auditor John Poda Jr. accepted illegal campaign contributions and served 8 1/2 months in a federal prison in Pennsylvania. (Ironically, his vacancy was filled by Tim Davis, today’s embattled county executive.) Poda formed his own real estate company in Cuyahoga Falls.
• Engineer Stephen Dubetz was using county employees and materials for his personal property. He was nailed on six state theft-in-office charges and three federal charges, and was sentenced to a year in federal prison. His top aide also pleaded guilty to a felony. When Dubetz got out, he continued in engineering and in 1990 was named president of the Akron-Canton section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He lives in Stow.
• Coroner A.H. Kryiakides, who dealt in precious metals on the side, resigned in 1983 after ripping off silver coins from the estate of a man on whom he performed an autopsy. Afterwards, he went into practice at St. Thomas Hospital. Today he lives in Bath.
• Kryiakides’ chief investigator, James Crano, and retired Akron police Capt. Clyde Longacre were convicted of theft in office or dereliction of duty in the gun trafficking.
All of this became possible, Klemm says, because of ABC.
Naturally, Geraldo Rivera concurs. “We did a good job,” says Rivera. “We told the story that needed to be told in a way that was vivid and dramatic.”
Unlike his former producer, who said in a local TV interview that the Beacon Journal had “suppressed the news,” Rivera thinks the local newspaper was simply gun-shy. “Sometimes you need an outsider to take a look at something. You get so entrenched.” He says out-of-town media can function like a special prosecutor — there’s no ax to grind, no constituency to worry about.
Beacon Journal reporter Keith McKnight has a vastly different interpretation. McKnight, who helped cover the scandal, said the newspaper’s sources simply hadn’t delivered the goods, and any rush to print would have been irresponsible.
“Nothing ABC did in town had anything to do with journalism,” McKnight says. “It was tabloid stuff. Substance didn’t matter. Geraldo came sweeping into town on his great white steed, and I resent it deeply. He’s in show business.”
Responds Rivera: “I’m sure he did resent it deeply. And I’m sure that resentment influenced everything he said or wrote or perceives about what I did. Upon reflection and all these years later, I stand by the story absolutely.”
This media war became almost as much of a spectator sport as the scandal itself. The bad blood even made it onto the front page of the Wall Street Journal, where the Beacon Journal’s assistant managing editor at the time, Tim Smith, declared that Rivera ran “a generally sleazy operation.”
Rivera’s critics enjoy showing off the old photo of Geraldo and Bobie drinking at the Tangier. But Rivera scoffs. “I take pictures with everybody. We were trying to get him to cooperate and he refused. I was schmoozing him like I schmooze everybody else. I have pictures on my wall of me and John Gotti. I chased him down the streets of Little Italy a few days later.”
Unlike the famous mobster, Barbuto’s time in prison was relatively brief. But that doesn’t trouble Rivera. “It was really the destruction of his power base that was the important sentence. The humiliation — assuming he was sensitive enough to be humiliated. I was satisfied with that, with his disrobing and disbarment.”
Similarly, officer Klemm has no trouble swallowing the fact that the judge — indicted on 26 counts — was found guilty of only two. “I only needed one,” Klemm says.
Klemm points out that a charge of attempted rape was dismissed only because it may have exceeded the statute of limitations by a month. In fact, nine of the charges were tossed out because time limits had expired. And two other felony charges were dropped earlier in a plea bargain in which Barbuto copped to two misdemeanors involving confiscated guns.
Although the gun trafficking was overshadowed in media reports by the sex, Klemm and Duvall were horrified that more than 300 guns were illegally returned to the street. Says Duvall: “Those guns were used in shootings, suicides and robberies.”
Still, after nearly two decades, there is no real consensus as to what the Barbuto scandal was all about — much less how it might relate to the current scandal.
Former Blakemore associate Lieberth, who now specializes in divorce mediation, recalls a “sense of hysteria” and wonders what would have happened had more people spoken up for Barbuto. “Nobody will ever know all the times these guys — Bernie Rosen, Bob Blakemore, Jim Barbuto — spent down in the trenches working with very common, average people. Helping them. There is nobody like that today that I can think of.”
When Lieberth was a law student, he and Barbuto worked together to put on the first televised trial in Ohio. Lieberth says Barbuto was “an innovator and a leader in so many ways.” But he was “hated by people in power.” Without getting specific, Lieberth talks about “powerful interests who would be gratified by Barbuto’s being thrown out of office.”
But former cop Klemm isn’t buying one iota of a conspiracy theory.
“That conspiracy would have had to start and end with Ed Duvall and myself, because we were the two that worked on it,” Klemm says. “And if there was a conspiracy, it was based on the facts that presented themselves in that entire situation — from the street people who were soliciting and accepting favors, to the courthouse personnel who were being assaulted, to the (gun trafficking). Now, if they want to call that a conspiracy, that’s what that was.”
What happened, says Klemm, a solidly built 55-year-old, was that Barbuto thought he was invincible. Klemm trots out a quotation many of us learned in school: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The key, he says, is checks and balances, a system that ensures public officials don’t start to believe they are “the gods of their particular domains.”
That’s exactly what the switch to a charter government was supposed to accomplish. Instead of investing three commissioners with both legislative and executive powers, Summit would separate the two in the form of a county council and county executive.
So perhaps, in the end, this is not as much an issue of government structure as human structure. Lieberth looks at Barbuto and sees “one of those people who took great risks, both in his professional and personal life. I admired him for the risks that he took in his professional life. That’s always been the problem. How do you take a person who lives like that professionally and accomplishes great things, and then suddenly limit that tendency in your personal life? That’s the real test.”
It’s a test Summit County seems to fail with depressing regularity.