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On the Matter of Mister Beam, Part One
September 13, 2004: George Bush and John Kerry have been spending a lot of time in Ohio. Hoping to win votes from what some politicians and pundits call "average Americans". But despite many an invitation, neither candidate has dropped in on George Beam. George Beam lives in Mentor, Ohio. Mentor, pop roughly 50,000, is 30 minutes east of Cleveland. It's the largest city in Lake County, which contains a sizable stretch of Lake Erie shoreline and a lot of park land. George hunts. Turkeys are a particular favorite. He's generally appreciative of animals in the way good hunters can be and sends friends pictures and stories of ones that strike his fancy. An albino bear cub was a recent example-- as was a buck with immense antlers. George has lived in his modest home in Mentor for a number of years and remembers when the area was far more rural.

By 1999 George Beam's home needed repairs. Nearby road work plus development of adjoining properties had caused the level of water runoff around his home to change. His basement was flooding repeatedly. George is not a rich man, so when he heard the city of Mentor could provide home rehab assistance through a program of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) he was interested. HUD's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program provides funds to municipalities in a lump sum-- to be divided in a number of proscribed ways with a good degree of local control. One application is home rehab assistance for low or moderate income home owners. Low income people receive full rehab funding, moderate income people receive partial assistance.

When George Beam sought CDBG assistance with his home rehab it took some time for him to get the application and the funding. George, plus other applicants, found there was some confusion about how Mentor was administering the program. But eventually, Mentor provided George Beam with a list of approved contractors and told him to select at least 3 that would competitive bid for the job. George picked eight. Mentor selected the lowest bidder. A contractor who'd done prior work on a city fire house. By the Summer of 2000 the rehab of George's home was off and running.

Almost immediately Mentor's approved contractor became a case of the cure being worse than the sickness. Perhaps the low bid played a part: when George questioned shoddy work and outright damage, the contractor said he just couldn't hire good help. George took his complaints about the contractor to the Better Business Bureau and discovered he wasn't alone in his dissatisfaction. He also discovered the BBB is no ball of fire. George also complained to Mentor city officials. A city building inspector came to check George's house. According to George the inspector looked at the work and said "Hell, in two years you'll be back where you started." He called the job unacceptable. Later on down the line the inspector didn't recall making the statements and Mentor's chief building official declared that the most serious damage (a cracked basement wall) didn't need to be replaced. Reportedly, George Beam's political ward representative shrugged off complaints saying "Why should you care, it's the fed's money not yours". Apparently forgetting that George lived in a house-- not in a heap of taxpayer dollars.

In January 2001, George went to HUD's regional offices in Cleveland and the Ohio state capital of Columbus. HUD in Columbus agreed to send out an inspector. Eight months later, after many phone calls from George, the inspector arrived. Presumably after stopping for a lengthy lunch break. By August 8th, when the HUD inspector showed up, George and his wife had been living for months amidst the debris and damage of a rehab hanging in limbo. Their yard was filled with construction material and sported an open trench. The steps into the house were missing. Due to cracks and resulting shifts, the wind whistled through rooms. In emails during the cold months, George made black jokes about life in his drafty, tarp draped "medieval castle". And took to using quotes when speaking of his "home".

By October of 2001, an agreement on a resolution of George's problems had been hammered out between officials at the Columbus HUD office, the City of Mentor and George Beam's attorney. His attorney in this instance was Jamie Callender, the Republican state representative from George's district and Lake County's Republican Party Executive. George had decided to hire an attorney some months prior to this occasion and had taken out a home equity loan to cover legal costs. Jamie Callender was recommended by a city council member George respects. George hoped to obtain restitution for the secondary damages to his home and for injuries incurred when clambering over debris in his yard and into his stepless door. George was not present when the agreement on a resolution was made between the Columbus HUD officials, the City of Mentor and his attorney, nor was he given an account of the agreement in writing. None the less, he found the terms acceptable.

When problems first arose with the work done by Mentor's approved contractor, George had called in several local professionals for an assessment of the damage. One was a civil engineer. The agreed upon resolution called for the same engineer to have access to the areas that needed repair, and to oversee and inspect all work that was done. CDBG funds would cover the engineer's fees. The work was to be completed before winter. An important consideration given upper Ohio's notoriously frigid lake effect.

By early December no work had been done. HUD temporarily suspended the city of Mentor's CDBG housing rehab funds, citing "a lack of demonstrated progress and attentiveness" to resolving George Beam's problems. Over the next few months the situation became even more tangled. In March of 2002, the engineer who was supposed to salvage the situation, pulled out. Claiming George Beam had hired another engineer. Which apparently would have been a HUD no-no. George Beam denied having done so and provided HUD with contact info for the engineer he allegedly hired, asking the agency to check out the truth of the claim for themselves. He also instructed his attorney, Jamie Callender, to apprise the city of Mentor likewise. For months, legal correspondence about whether George Beam did or did not hire another engineer flowed between Callender and the city of Mentor. In June of 2002, HUD lifted the suspension of Mentor's CDBG funds, citing satisfactory program improvements. Which seems odd considering that the initial suspension was linked directly to the condition of George Beam's home and George was still living amidst the debris of the unfinished, CDBG funded rehab.

In December of 2002, George Beam filed suit against the City of Mentor and its approved contractor. A few months later, in February of 2003, HUD was back on the scene, threatening Mentor with sanctions if it didn't either fix George Beam's house or refund the roughly $20,000 in grant money HUD had paid for the failed rehab. To which Mentor's city manager replied: "The city's law director has directed that no action whatsoever be taken on the matter of Mr. Beam until resolution of his lawsuit." Mentor then refunded the Beam related, CDBG money to HUD. Of that funding, roughly half had gone to Mentor's original, approved contractor and close to half to the engineer who quit. Smaller sums had been paid to the approved contractor's attorney and to the city of Mentor's law director. After receiving its refund, HUD bowed out. George Beam was on his own. Except of course, for his attorney.

End Part One: On The Matter Of Mister Beam

In Part Two: George Beam goes to court. Bills blossom. Caps are set. His attorney keeps busy. Mentor claims "governmental immunity". George Beam contacts more public officials. George Bush, John Kerry and Bill Clinton reply. But never make it to dinner. Plus: How do claims of local "governmental immunity" effect lawsuits involving federally funded rehabs? Also: Ohio HUD and its other CDBG home rehab problems. Think Cleveland...

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Picture of Mister Beam's "home" circa 2002

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Copyright (c) 2004 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.


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