Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Portsmouth's Red Light District

Law offices of Clayton Johnson, downtown Portsmouth

“And the Marting Foundation said, ‘Let there be lights downtown,’ and there were lights downtown, red lights.”

     According to lawyers for the Richard D. Marting Foundation, who read a prepared statement to the Portsmouth City Council, on December 13, 2004, the Foundation was established for the most Biblical sounding of reasons, “to keep the lights on in the heart of downtown Portsmouth.” If you believe these lawyers, the current name of the Foundation does not begin to suggest the enormous amount of good it is bound and determined to do for the people of Portsmouth. If you believe these lawyers, the Foundation should be renamed the Richard D. Magnanimous Foundation.

I disagree with these lawyers. I say that the Foundation’s sale of the Marting building to the city was not to keep the lights on but to keep the public in the dark. I say the sale was not an act of benevolence, “A Measure of Grace,” to cite the title of a Daily Times editorial, but a scheme to cut the losses of yet another failed downtown business and unload its virtually worthless property off on the public. I say downtown Portsmouth is the city’s red light district, where lawyers, real estate developers, politicians, and kept newspapers practice the world’s second oldest profession – screwing the public. The lawyers representing the Marting Foundation called for an end to the “fighting” and the spreading of “rumors and partial truths” about the sale of the Marting building. I say this “fighting” is really “struggling” for honesty in government. I say partial truths are better than lies. I say these lawyers are geese fronting for a fox and a weasel.

Marting’s lawyers appeared before the Council to promote the idea that the Marting Foundation was established in the spirit of Mother Teresa and Santa Claus. Marting’s lawyers appeared before the Council to promote the idea that in keeping with the charitable spirit of the Christmas season, the Foundation is offering to donate to the city “both the Marting’s properties and the balance of the net sale proceeds,” whatever that balance might end up being, with strings attached. I say this is more Marting Foundation flim-flam and that the Marting building, the outrageous $2,000,000 sale of which Clayton Johnson, Mayor Bauer and the City Council arranged out of the light of the Sunshine law, was worth just what the Foundation is now asking for it – nothing. The city should not accept the Marting building, certainly not with the strings the Foundation is seeking to attach to it. The city should demand all of its money back and not under terms dictated by the Foundation.

Marting Building. "It ain't worth anything." Marty Mohr, June 2004.

I say the last thing the Foundation wanted was to have this white elephant back on its hands. I say what the Marting Foundation is trying to do is get the city to accept the Marting building as a gift, so the Foundation will then at least be able to reduce its losses through a tax shenanigan. I pointed out in an earlier blog that several years ago Clayton Johnson was able to show Frank Waller and Michael Warsaw of Travel World how donating “the assets” of their defunct travel agency to the Ironton branch of Ohio University could be turned into a tax write-off. If Johnson can get the city to accept his white elephant, will he then be able to arrange a much bigger tax write-off for his Foundation?

At the December 13th Council meeting, the Marting lawyers were not the only ones who praised the philanthropy of Clayton Johnson and the Marting Foundation. Councilman Marty Mohr praised Johnson and the Foundation to the skies. He called the Foundation’s offer “A lifetime’s opportunity that we cannot let us pass by.” This is not too surprising, for Mohr was first for, and then against, and is now again for the Marting building, just as he was first against and then for the recall of Mayor Bauer. He told a Columbus Dispatch reporter last June, “At first, I didn’t think (the recall election) was a good idea. Now after several months of continuing lies and deceit, yeah, it needs to be done. It needs to be done in the worst way.” About the Marting building, Mohr told that same reporter, “It ain’t worth anything.” Why is he enthusiastic about the Marting building again? After sessions with attorney Clayton Johnson in the last several weeks, Mohr declared he has seen “the light at the end of the tunnel,” to quote the phrase he used at the Council meeting to describe what he said was an “extremely generous,” a “monumental” offer by the Marting Foundation. Is Mohr like a leaf in the wind, who goes in whatever direction the wind happens to be blowing, or is that too flattering a characterization? Mohr’s meetings with Johnson represents an egregious misunderstanding, if not a flagrant betrayal, of a council member’s ethical responsibility during this period of legal confrontation between the city and the Foundation. The light Mohr sees at the end of the tunnel may be another legal train heading toward the Council in the form of an injunction to stop them from conducting the same kind of out-of-the Sunshine meetings that led Judge Marshall to invalidate the Marting’s deal.

Milking a Dead Cow

To listen to the Marting lawyers at the December 13th Council meeting, the philanthropy of the Marting Foundation knows no bounds, for the Foundation is recommending that some of the city’s money it is so generously offering to return to the city be used to renovate the former Adelphia building so that it can become the new Portsmouth police station. The contagiousness of the philanthropy practiced by the Marting Foundation is infecting everybody. The current owner of the Adelphia building, Herbert Singer, of Los Angeles, acting through real estate developer Neal Hatcher and shyster lawyer Mike Mearan, has offered to donate that building to the city, provided the city accepts it very soon, presumably so he can claim the tax write-off his gift would qualify him for. Even a dead cow can be milked one last time, but Singer still owes back taxes on the dead cow. He failed to pay some $18,425 in taxes this past year. That tax matter, I was told, is now in the hands of a bankruptcy court.

The Foundation’s lawyers said the “revitalization of the Marting properties” and the “redevelopment of the Adelphia Building” is “in the best interest of everyone.” I say using public funds to take empty buildings off the hands of their owners, and off the tax rolls of the city, may be in the best interest of those owners, but it is not in the best interest of the public, which has to pick up the tab for the City Council’s complicity. If businesses were being brought into the downtown, calling it “revitalization,” to use the lawyers’ term, might be justified. But moving government agencies around like checkers, from square to square, or from empty old building to empty old building, is not revitalization. I have not seen such economic stagnation since 1971-1972, when I taught in communist Poland for the State Department, under the Fulbright exchange program. Not since communist Poland have I seen people so lacking in entrepreneurial spirit and so dependent upon the government for handouts. In Poland, “ministries” doled out government money; in Porksmouth it is not only federal and state agencies that dole out the funds – it is also “foundations” and “growth partnerships.” What we have in Portsmouth is a pervasive culture of dependency where even over-privileged people with empty buildings can count on an obliging city government to take those buildings off their hands and fill them with city employees. Yes, the lights would be on in downtown Portsmouth, but the public would be paying the light bills.

If the money is available, it should be used to build new structures designed to meet the present and future needs of the public agencies that will use them, not hand-me-down buildings with no architectural or historical value, buildings that will require extensive alterations and still not be well-suited. A former department store for a city hall? A former cable office for a police station? I am sorry to tell you, Virginia, that Santa Claus and Mother Theresa are not on the board of the Marting Foundation. To characterize the Marting proposal with the word “Grace,” as the Portsmouth Times did editorially, should be viewed as profanation by those who view this as a holy season. We are not blessed with enlightened and philanthropic civic leaders. We are cursed with sly lawyers, greedy real estate developers, a corrupt City Council, and two newspapers that try to outdo each other in prostituting themselves to the Chamber of Commerce. If any lights should be kept on in downtown Portsmouth they should be red lights because there are more prostitutes in downtown Portsmouth than there ever are up on John Street.