By Dennis Kucinich
Once they were as gods, but the deities of the American banking system are now in ruins, plunged from their pedestals into the maw of taxpayer largesse. Congress voted to give the banks $700 billion, lifting them temporarily out of their sepulcher of debt, while revealing a deep truth about the condition of America’s financial powers:
They never had the money they said they had as they constructed their debt-based monetary system which now lies in ruins. Their decisions on behalf of depositors, shareholders and investors were lacking in basic integrity and common sense. Green gods bailing out with their golden parachutes.
There was a time when their power was real. Come with me to Cleveland 30 years ago today.
Dec. 15, 1978, Cleveland, Ohio
I awoke to find a curt payment demand that was dropped on my front step by a grandfatherly man who supplemented his Social Security delivering the morning newspaper. The headline plastered across the front page:
Cleveland Trust: Pay Up. Bank would relent if Muny Light were sold, Forbes believes.
One of America’s largest banks, Cleveland Trust, led local banks in demanding immediate payment from the city by midnight, Dec. 15, of $14.5 million in short-term loans.
I regarded the headline skeptically. Having lived in 21 different places by the time I was 17, including a couple of cars, I had come to an encyclopedic knowledge of dun letters, sent to my parents by battalions of bill collectors seeking immediate payment for televisions, cars and a variety of household appliances that never seemed to work. I first came to regard these credit alarms with trepidation, later with impassiveness, with the expectation that as our family grew to two adults and seven children it would soon be on the move again, incurring new delinquencies with each new address. Lack of access to money, housing and credit seemed to be a permanent condition.
Now, having fought through a thicket of consequence to become America’s youngest mayor, elected on a promise to stop the privatization of the city’s electric system, I was faced with paying off loans taken out by the previous mayor, for the financing of municipal projects of dubious value.
The banks refused to extend terms of payment and connived with City Council members to block alternative payment plans, such as the sale of city land or tax revenues. The banks knew the city couldn’t otherwise pay. They demanded instead the sale of the city’s electric system, Muny Light, to an investor-owned electric company, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. (CEI). The president of the Cleveland Council, George Forbes, had met with the head of Cleveland Trust bank, who insisted on the sale of Muny Light as a precondition for extending the city credit. This was a case of the bank blackmailing the city, pure and simple.
The alternative to accepting the bank’s blackmail was default. Cleveland could become the first city since the Depression to default on its financial obligations. Cities rely on credit for everyday operations and for meeting long-term financial obligations, such as infrastructure improvements. If banks called in their loans, the city would head toward dire straits. No one knew that better than the law firm of Squire Sanders and Dempsey, which had served as bond counsel for the city of Cleveland while the city entered fiscal peril and was simultaneously, though not coincidentally, the principal law firm for the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. Through Squire Sanders and Dempsey, CEI had access to the intricacies of the city of Cleveland’s financial records.
Under the previous administration, the city began using bond funds for general operating purposes. As mayor, I inherited $40 million worth of debt that had to be refinanced before the end of my first year in office. Under my predecessor, the city had illegally spent money it did not have, and yet it had the key to every bank in town and the confidence of the bond rating houses, at precisely the same time it was preparing for the sale of the municipal electric system to CEI.
Cleveland Trust and another bank demanding the sale of Muny Light, National City, were principal stock owners in CEI. Several members of CEI’s board sat on the boards of local banks as interlocking directorates. There was a myriad of bank-utility business relations. Cleveland Trust bank, which handled CEI’s demand deposits, pension funds and other assets, would directly profit from the sale of Muny Light. In a way, the banks were the private utility. With the sale, CEI would have an electricity monopoly in Cleveland and would be able to name its price for electricity and get it. Everyone in the Muny Light territory would receive at least a 20 percent rate increase as the rates would be raised to CEI’s levels.
The city was self-sufficient with Muny Light for many years. Muny provided power to 46,000 homes with low electric rates, which contributed to the economic growth of the city. That was until the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when a series of suspicious mechanical failures and power outages diminished the system’s reliability. At that time, under heavy lobbying from CEI, the Cleveland City Council delayed the passage of legislation for $9.8 million in repairs to Muny Light’s generators, thereby forcing the city to purchase power at a premium from its competitor, CEI. The city became increasingly dependent on an interconnection between CEI and Muny Light, a high-voltage line over which power could be transferred from CEI to the city, to ensure reliability. The city’s power system began to experience more unexplained power failures. CEI began to make public overtures to purchase Muny Light. The sale of Muny Light to CEI was soon supported by most of Cleveland’s media, business, political and labor interests.
In November 1976, the City Council passed legislation authorizing the sale of Muny Light for a fraction of its value. I was clerk of Cleveland’s Municipal Court at the time and I objected to the sale. I was advised that there was no way to stop the sale, but I saw it differently. Cleveland had a long history of municipal power. I could sense a terrible injustice was being visited upon the people of the city by its leading institutions, which were conspiring to deprive the city of its public power system.
I organized a petition drive that attracted support from city neighborhoods served by Muny Light. A full civic campaign was born with an intense effort made under brutal weather conditions to gather the signatures necessary to put the issue on the ballot. There was much at stake besides the monetary value of the system: The people’s right to own an electric system. And the historic position of Muny Light, one of America’s first municipal electric utilities, founded 70 years earlier by Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson. Muny Light provided electricity to about one-third of the homes and businesses in the city at a peak savings of 20-30 percent over the rates charged by CEI. Additionally, Muny Light provided millions of dollars annually in savings to taxpayers by serving 76 city facilities. It also provided Cleveland’s street lighting. High electric rates and higher taxes would follow if Muny were sold. The private sector was forcing the sale for its own profit at the expense of the community.
On Jan. 4, 1977, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), in an antitrust review required of any company applying to operate a nuclear power plant, ruled that CEI had conspired to put Muny Light out of business. CEI tried to force Muny Light into price-fixing and blocked Muny expansion, stopped the installation of Muny Light pollution-abatement equipment and forced the city to buy power it didn’t need. In addition, the ASLB uncovered a CEI budget planning report for 1971 that spoke of a five-year plan “to reduce and ultimately eliminate” Muny Light.
The ASLB determined that CEI deliberately caused a Christmas-season blackout on the Muny Light system and sent salesmen into Muny Light territory offering “reliable CEI service.” The private utility illegally tripled the cost of purchased power, thereby driving up Muny Light’s operating costs. CEI illegally blocked Muny Light’s access to power from other companies, all in violation of federal antitrust law. As a condition of receiving its license to operate a nuclear power plant, CEI had to provide Muny Light with access to cheap power. Documents showed that CEI executives believed the purchase of Muny Light would increase CEI’s earnings by $2.732 a share, eliminate a competitive threat, and push the company’s growth rate to 10 percent, further enhancing investment.
Documents in the case also demonstrated CEI’s successful attempts to subvert media editorial policy through cunning use of the company’s large advertising budget. Over the years, several local reporters lost their jobs after writing reports unfavorable to CEI, and CEI bragged internally about placing verbatim company-written propaganda as general media editorial content.
Confronted with the federal finding that bolstered a previously filed $330 million antitrust damage suit, the Cleveland city administration’s response was incredible: “Now CEI has to buy Muny Light!”
At the same time the campaign to sell Muny Light accelerated, a high-powered rifle shot ripped through my house, just missing my head.
A cavalcade of media editorials commenced favoring the transfer of Muny Light to CEI.
During an ensuing legal battle over the validity of the referendum petitions, I became a candidate for mayor. I promised that if elected I would save the system. I won the election. My first act in office was to cancel the sale of Muny Light. I next had to pay off a $14 million CEI electricity bill that the previous administration owed and wanted to satisfy through the sale of the light system.
I had been in the mayor’s office barely a year, facing a municipal horror story of huge snow storms, massive water main breaks and a police strike. I had cut city spending by 10 percent through eliminating corrupt contracts, payroll padding and attritional cutbacks. Through the year, I struggled with a recall attempt for firing a police chief. The recall was backed by banks, utility and real estate interests with a last-minute appeal printed by the Plain Dealer to sell Muny Light. Credit rating agencies, which had looked the other way while CEI was attempting to gain Muny Light in the previous administration, downgraded the city’s finances.
Another Muny Light-related attempted assassination was averted when I was rushed to a hospital vomiting blood from a profusely bleeding ulcer. Some years later, a congressional investigation produced information from an undercover agent of the Maryland State Police that the assassination attempt was to occur while I was the grand marshal in a local parade. A local television investigative report claimed the assassin’s services were purchased because I refused to sell the electric system.
One month later, I was back at work trying to find a way to save Muny Light. The utility’s financial difficulties, though contrived largely through interference with the system by CEI, were depicted as so overwhelming that only the sale of the electric system itself would save the city from financial catastrophe. I held several meetings with bank officials. and it became clear we were heading for trouble on the question of refinancing. The banks were going to try to force me to sell the electric system. I went public with a plea for an income tax increase to protect the city’s solvency.
On Dec. 15, I made a last-minute appeal to Cleveland Trust. It was 8 o’clock in the morning. I met with Brock Weir, the chairman of Cleveland Trust, Council President Forbes and our host, a local businessman. I had the intention of protecting Muny Light and avoiding a default.
“There’s just one thing you’ve got to do,” said the Council president, who strongly favored the sale.
Weir, the bank CEO with the stern visage: “If you sell Muny Light, we’ll roll over the notes. I can get you $50 million in new financing. We’d get other banks to participate.” It was a bribe.
My thoughts went to the street just outside the boardroom. Some 20 years earlier, a few blocks from where this meeting was taking place, I slept with my brothers and sister and parents in a car, homeless. I remembered an apartment where my parents sat underneath the pale yellow light of a kitchen wall lamp, counting their pennies on an old porcelain-topped table. The pennies dropped, click, click, click. Pennies to pay the utility bills.
It matters how much people pay for electricity. It matters if the public owns its own system and has political and financial control over rates. I could hear the pennies dropping, click, click, click, as Mr. Weir insisted on the sale of Muny Light. I remembered my family and the struggles of people like them. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sell. Not for $50 million, not for anything.
“I’m not going to sell, even if it means my career,” I said, as Council President Forbes looked on in surprise.
“Why do you want to end your career? Sell the system. Get rid of it!” he said.
“Is there some other way we can work this out?” I asked Brock Weir.
He shook his head “No.”
Throughout that day, every media outlet in Cleveland echoed the sentiment of Cleveland Trust’s chairman, including the morning newspaper headline, with such depth of coverage and intensity that it seemed the city itself would crumble unless I agreed to the sale, which also included a provision dropping the $330 million antitrust damage suit.
The objective condition of the city’s finances received no honest review. The sale of Muny Light was depicted as the only way the city could avoid fiscal disaster. The majority leader of the City Council held a news conference live on the 6 o’clock news. He declared that if I sold Muny Light, “the chairman of the Cleveland Trust bank has informed the council that his bank will purchase $50 million worth of city bonds. So, in effect, we have a plan sitting on the mayor’s desk that will absolutely end the city’s financial problems, if he will put his signature on it.”
The $50 million bribe had been brought out into the open in a manner that now suggested it was a legitimate offer, a fake solution to a fake crisis. I refused to sell.
As Cleveland television stations covered the event live, with a countdown clock that looked like a twisted version of New Year’s Eve, midnight struck. Television networks of several countries recorded the grim event: The city of Cleveland became the first American city to go into default since the Great Depression. The default was over just $14.5 million dollars in credit.
When I called for a congressional investigation a few days later, Cleveland Trust denied it wanted Muny Light, CEI denied it wanted Muny Light, the council president denied the chairman of Cleveland Trust wanted Muny Light, and the majority leader said he was mistaken when he said live on the 6 o’clock news that the bank chairman offered $50 million in credit for Muny Light. Muny Light was no longer the issue. It was the mayor and his obstinacy that caused the crisis. So went the waltz into a netherworld devoid of truth, justice, reality or morality.
Though the people of Cleveland supported keeping Muny Light by a margin of 2 to 1 in a referendum a few months later, and passed an income tax increase by the same margin in order for the city to pay off the defaulted bond anticipation notes, the state of Ohio intervened and put the city into fiscal receivership. I lost the mayor’s race in 1979. The banks renegotiated the defaulted notes, at a profit. The city lost its antitrust suit against CEI in 1981, in a hung jury. An appeal failed.
I was out of major public office for almost 15 years until, in 1993, Cleveland announced an expansion of Muny Light (now called Cleveland Public Power). At that time, the City Council and others decided that I had made the right decision in refusing to sell Muny Light. The city and its residents had saved hundreds of millions of dollars through Muny Light’s reduced electric rates and the savings the taxpayers enjoyed from Muny’s lower-cost power for street lighting and city buildings.
I attempted another political comeback and this time succeeded, getting elected to the state Senate with the motto: “Because he was right.” My campaign literature showed a radiant light bulb behind my name. Two years later, I was elected to Congress, with the slogan “Light up Congress.” Today I am the chairman of the House Government Oversight Domestic Policy Subcommittee, which has broad jurisdiction over most government departments and agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and electric utility matters generally.
The Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. is now a subsidiary of First Energy Co., which was fined by the NRC for various safety violations and, a few years ago, was found to have primary responsibility for the 2003 blackout that left 50 million people throughout the northeastern United States without electricity.
Cleveland Trust no longer exists. No other bank involved in the default survives, except for National City, which next week faces extinction through shareholder approval of a takeover by PNC bank. I have spent much time trying to save National City.
One newspaper, the Cleveland Press, which advocated that CEI be Cleveland’s sole electricity provider, ceased publication. The other strong proponent of the sale of Muny Light, the Plain Dealer, struggles to survive.
The city’s electric system endures and this past year celebrated its 100th anniversary.
AP photo / Kevin Wolf