The Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corporation was created in 2006 to deal with the nationwide foreclosure crisis that hit Cuyahoga County with a vengeance. Commonly known as the Land Bank, the mission of this quasi-governmental organization is to eliminate vacant and blighted properties. It does so by having tax-burdened properties transferred into its name. The transfer wipes out the outstanding tax obligations. Properties are then transferred and sometimes sold to new owners who obtain the properties free of the tax liens and back taxes. The Land Bank is mandated to put property into the hands of owners who will make it economically productive, produce tax revenues, create jobs and rejuvenate neighborhoods.
That is why it is so important for the Land Bank to thoroughly investigate prospective applicants before transferring properties. That is why questions have now arisen as to the decision last August to transfer property located at 12735 Kirby Avenue in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood to Level 5 Global Corporation. Level 5 Global, its Ohio subsidiary North Coast Natural Solutions and its front man, Tierney R. Williams, have in recent weeks come under fire regarding the propriety of their business dealings. The question is, did the Land Bank unwittingly become the first of many Clevelanders scammed in what is likely to become known as the Hempgate Scandal?
The Land Bank, like many others in the community, saw great promise in the proposed hempcrete factory, touted as an economic engine that would rejuvenate Glenville. The project received the immediate support of two prominent members of Cleveland’s black clergy. Their support may account for the rapidity with which the traditionally lengthy and arduous process of obtaining land from the Land Bank was apparently short-circuited.
In rapid succession Williams got the land he needed to get the project off the ground. In March of 2018 the property went from a private owner to the State of Ohio. On August 28, 2018, deeds were filed that transferred the title of the property from the State of Ohio to the Land Bank and then to Level 5 Global — all in one day. That’s particularly interesting considering Level 5 Global had just filed to become an Ohio corporation on July 17, 2018.
When Williams came on the Cleveland media scene last fall, he was thought by some to be something akin to the second coming of Christ for Glenville. But now, amid allegations of broken promises, unpaid wages, bounced pay checks and a recently filed 19-page federal lawsuit that alleges multiple violations of state and federal employment laws and allegations of fraud, his halo has started to tarnish.
Williams’ original plan touted the creation of 650 entry level jobs, paying $17 an hour and the bonus of job training, free childcare and transportation back and forth to work. A self-proclaimed corporate consultant and financier, Williams is a native Clevelander but lists his main offices in Bethesda, Maryland. His claims of an ecofriendly, durable and biodegradable product made in Glenville was a dream come true. The pot was sweetened with his claims of $46 million dollars to finance the project.
Rev. E. Theophilus Caviness, pastor of Glenville’s iconic Greater Abyssinia Church, and Rev. Aaron Phillips of the Cleveland Clergy Coalition, were the prime movers and shakers in support of the project. Caviness, president of the Cleveland Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, frequently mixes preaching with politics, having served in Cleveland city council in the 1970s. He has profited from long-time friendships with local elected officials and especially with Ohio Republican governors, even though he claims to be a Democrat. Caviness and Philips — a disbarred lawyer turned preacher — stood by their man. Caviness even sponsored a job fair at his church, where prospective employees could fill out job applications.
With such solid backing, Tri-C opened their doors for training programs and local vendors extended credit. Believing the job prospects were for real, prospective employees quit jobs, and the unemployed bought into the dream of secure employment close to home.
The problem is, Williams has a few holes in his story. His global array of offices would rival BP America worldwide. A Google search of the address of his main corporate office shows that more than 500 corporations use the same mailing address — a modern-day version of a post office box. He shows no academic credentials — not even a degree from Trump University.
A quick check of the website of the clerk of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court shows that Williams had three encounters with the felony court between 1986 and 2003, As a result he did some time due to theft offenses to which he plead guilty. We would all like to believe that is the prodigal son, returning to the city of his birth to lift his people out of economic bondage. The reality is he is beginning to look more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Property in the Land Bank is kept there in a public trust. That puts a heavy burden on the Land Bank to make sure that transfers go to legitimate businesses. One wonders if doors were opened at the Land Bank and the process of acquiring the Kirby Avenue property fast-tracked. Did the Land Bank fail to do its homework? The information available about Williams and his corporate record and criminal background is all available online. It didn’t take much to find it.
Williams’ corporation now has title to land and a building valued at $146,000. With the clouds that hang over this project, this transfer of property looks like ill-gotten gain. The Land Bank needs to recover it. If not, they are putting their own credibility and years of good work are on the line.
The governing board of the Land Bank, which includes County Executive Armond Budish — longtime friend of Rev. Caviness and recipient of the SCLS’s 2018 humanitarian of the year award — Council President Dan Brady and members of Cleveland city council should ask serious questions as to how this transfer was approved. The public and taxpayers deserve an answer. Unless the public gets some quick response, Hempgate will become the next scandal facing the county and the Budish administration. This community needs more jobs and economic development, not more scandals.
C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and treasurer of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.