Cranley-Black fight explodes into suggestions of ethical violations, alcoholism

Cranley-Black fight explodes into suggestions of ethical violations, alcoholism
City Manager Harry Black and Mayor John Cranley at a press conference earlier this year (FOX19 NOW)

Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black complained Wednesday that Mayor John Cranley meddled in economic development projects and may have promised a developer a deal in exchange for a campaign donation.

According to our media partners at the Cincinnati Enquirer, he explosive claims appear in several documents Black made public as part of a memo he wrote to City Council members about Cranley's behavior.

The release of the memo escalates an already intense feud between Black and Cranley, the two most powerful figures at City Hall. It also came after Cranley told reporters that Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld recently suggested Black "should go to" Alcoholics Anonymous.

Sittenfeld did not deny the statement, later saying through a spokeswoman that he "always tries to respond to people's struggles with compassion."

Black then accused Cranley of making a baseless personal attack. "I am disheartened that the mayor insists on conducting himself in an un-Christianlike and mean manner," he told The Enquirer.

In his memo to City Council late Wednesday afternoon, Black said the real reason Cranley wants him out is his objection to the mayor's interference with the city's economic development department. He also accused Cranley of enlisting the support of union leaders to help get rid of him.

"Because I have pushed back on the Mayor on these matters my office is under siege by him along with select union leadership who have and continue to collude in a manner that has created a hostile and retaliatory work environment for my office," Black wrote in his memo to council.

Cranley said it's part of his job to be involved in economic development and it's his responsibility to refer legislation to City Council.

"I am proud to have made a difference in bringing jobs to the City," Cranley said in a statement responding to Black's allegations. "I have to be involved and should be. I am fully ethical and transparent and reject any insinuation otherwise."

One of the deals Black questioned was under discussion in 2016 and involved a local company's relocation of a South American operation to Cincinnati.

In a "to file" memo Black wrote on Oct. 27, 2016, the city manager said he spoke to then-Economic Development Director Oscar Bedolla about the potential deal, known as "Project Reshore," and was alarmed by what he heard.

Black said Bedolla told him about a conversation he had with lobbyist Jim Benedict, a vice president with Government Strategies Group, about Project Reshore. According to Black, Bedolla said Benedict "confided in him what was really going on."

"Apparently the owner of the company held a fundraiser for the Mayor at his home," Black wrote in his memo. "As part of this fundraiser allegedly the Mayor made promises to this business owner that he would receive development air rights to build on top of the CET garage" on Central Parkway.

Benedict said Black's memo is untrue and called it a "hearsay allegation."

Black said the company considering relocating a South American operation to Cincinnati was a subsidiary of CNG Holdings Inc. in Kenwood.

Campaign finance records show CNG Holdings' political action committee donated the maximum $2,700 to Cranley's mayoral campaign on June 30, 2017. They also show that the company's CEO and vice president of marketing and their spouses each donated the maximum $1,100 to Cranley on the same day. That's a total of $7,100.

The second example of meddling cited by Black occurred in July 2017, when, according to Black, Cranley's campaign manager and former aide sent an email to Bedolla about a development project on Elm Street.

In the email, the campaign manager, Jay Kincaid, said he was following up on a conversation about the project and attached a formal request from developer Kingsley and Co. to lead the project.

"Please let me know if you need anything else from us," Kincaid wrote.

Black kept the email and, six days later, scribbled a handwritten note on it that outlined his concerns about Kincaid's involvement with the possible deal.

In the memo, Black wrote that he "thought it was strange" Kincaid was involved and advised the development department to talk to the City Solicitor's Office.

"This concerned me in terms of both the technical ethics implications, as well as the optics in that Mr. Kincaid is the former chief of staff to the mayor, and key person working on the mayor's campaign," Black wrote.

Kincaid denied Black's allegations Wednesday. "I did nothing wrong, and the city manager knows that," he said.

Black told The Enquirer he has become so concerned about the mayor's interference that he told Cranley in mid-March to stop coming to weekly meetings about economic development.

"I have grown increasingly concerned with the Mayor's intrusive role in the economic development process from an operational as well as ethical perspective," Black wrote in his memo to council.

Questions about Cranley's connections to developers also arose during the 2017 mayor's race. Both he and challenger Yvette Simpson received a large proportion of their campaign contributions from developers, a September analysis by The Enquirer found, but Cranley received much more.

The Enquirer also raised questions about a deal to give two big Cranley campaign donors an exclusive shot to buy city-owned land in Oakley. Cranley said there was no link between the contributions and the proposed land sale, and he wasn't aware the sale was in the works.

Still, city officials decided the 4.25 acres near Ridge Road – land left over from construction of the Kennedy Connector – would be bid out instead.

Black told The Enquirer he has become so concerned about the mayor's interference that he told Cranley in mid-March to stop coming to weekly meetings about economic development.

The tension between Black and Cranley erupted into public view that same month, when Cranley asked Black to resign. The mayor accused Black of unprofessional behavior, including retaliating against city employees who challenged him and making late-night phone calls to him and other city workers.

Black has refused to quit with eight months' severance pay, which is all council has authorized for him. And Cranley hasn't been able to get the five votes he needs on council to fire the city manager.

The standoff between Cranley and Black has divided City Council and has continued even as the city wrestles with serious issues, such as the FC Cincinnati stadium deal and a 911 system that has been under fire since a teenager died in his van last week.

The Enquirer's Mark Wert contributed to this report