Toledo City Council bribery scandal complicates budget cuts

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Nicholas Tomayko

Screenshot from the July 7 Toledo City Council virtual meeting which lasted less than five minutes. All accused council members besides Yvonne Harper attended against Council President Mark Cherry’s wishes.

TOLEDO Four Toledo City Council members and their attorney have been arrested by the FBI on federal bribery and extortion charges, and for the rest of the council – voting just got that much more difficult. 

“My office has asked for the resignation of the four council members, I see three of them here today,” said council president Mark Cherry. “I’m going to ask at this time that you leave this meeting so the rest of us can…move on as a council.”

According to the Department of Justice, council members Tyrone Riley, Yvonne Harper, Larry Sykes and Gary Johnson and their attorney Keith Mitchell were each arrested for alleged bribery and extortion on June 30 and released two days later on individual $50,000 cash bonds. 

When Riley, Sykes and Johnson all appeared at the July 7 council meeting and refused to leave, Cherry promptly called the meeting to a close – just three minutes into proceedings.

“Since we cannot operate at this point in time with the three of you here,” said Cherry, “This meeting is adjourned.”

The main focus of that postponed meeting were budget cuts for the upcoming year. At the most recent Budget Oversight Committee meeting, the council was alerted to expect noteworthy cutbacks. 

“Due to the COVID-19 virus, we’re looking at roughly $19-20 million in income tax reductions based on the current projections,” said Melanie Campbell, interim director of the Budget Oversight Committee. “We’re looking for $15 million reductions in General Fund expenditures to offset and minimize the change in the revenue estimate.”

Those estimates have since been updated by the remaining council members to reflect upwards of $25 million in expected revenue loss and so far, no cuts have made it to the table for a vote. Though that doesn’t mean the cuts haven’t already begun.

“There were reductions in the council’s District Improvement Program that we were not aware of,” said freshman at-large council member Katie Moline. “It was never brought to our attention that these cuts were indeed happening. I want an explanation.”

This reported $300,000 reduction was not directly voted on and even after Moline pressed, no answer was given as to why this particular program received a cut while others remained untouched. 

“We didn’t go into details about all the different projects,” said Campbell. “Next time, if we’re in this situation again, we can spend a little time going into each of the projects and explain why we recommended it [the reductions].”

The last public comments from the four accused council members were recorded during the June 23 City Council meeting and June 25 Budget Oversight Committee. During these two meetings, Riley made multiple appeals to reallocate funds away from the police and back to his district. 

“I want to withdraw my amendment to take funds from the General Fund related to the Toledo Police classes and submit an amendment to fund a diversity study.” said Riley. “We need to take a bigger look at past discriminations, we need to see what we’re doing today. We can provide the direction and path to equalling the playing field.”

Riley said he was seeking reimbursement for all of the funds taken away from his district or “at least $150,000” for “district development and beautification.” This request and figure was repeated two times during June 25’s 50-minute virtual meeting. 

Various other budget amendments were proposed at that meeting including: additional funding to a grass-cutting ordinance for “nuisance properties” backed by Riley, Moline and Harper; additional Parks and Rec. funding proposed by council member Cecelia Adams and the allocation of $100,000 for a new civilian review board aimed at the Toledo Police supported (to some degree) by all council members.

These quotes represent the most recently recorded requests by ten of the 12 council members including all four members currently charged with federal bribery and extortion.

“Tough times require tough measures and I think we all need to tighten the belt a little bit.” said former police officer and current council member Chris Delaney. “We all need to make some sort of sacrifice and I think we need to do it together.”

According to the Department of Justice, the FBI had been building a case on the council’s alleged bribery and extortion for over two years. If found guilty, the four accused council members and lawyer each face up to 30 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 per each individual charge. As of yet, no court dates have been released to the public.

The next City Council meeting is slated for July 14.