COMMENTARY: From Hemp to Church Van

Aaron Phillips

Local media reported this week that the Cleveland-based Fund for Our Economic Future awarded their annual Paradox Prizes to three area organizations to fund innovative programs that will provide transportation for inner city workers to job sites in outlying suburbs. The prize money seeks to solve a longtime problem of connecting urban core neighborhoods with jobs in sprawling suburbs that are poorly served by mass transit.

One Hundred Thousand Dollars will go to Manufacturing Works, a westside Cleveland group, which will work with the Cleveland Clergy Coalition and the American Association of Clergy and Employers to utilize church vans that for the most part lay idle during the week to transport workers from the Lee-Harvard and Glenville areas of Cleveland to jobs in Strongsville and Solon.

For workers who have no access to public transportation, cannot afford a car or are have lost their driver’s license, the program is a godsend. My initial reaction to the announcement, as reported by Channel 5’s Kevin Berry, was very positive. But when the name Aaron L. Philips appeared on the screen as the key player and contact person for the project, my antennae went up.

Phillips’ name will ring a bell to regular readers of CoolCleveland. In May I wrote about the proposed hemp factory planned for Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood.  The project promised the creation of 650 entry-level jobs, with generous benefits including transportation back and forth to work and free childcare. To date the roughly 200 prospective employees, who spent two weeks training for jobs that never materialized, have yet to be paid. Sadly, many had quit existing jobs with hopes of a better salary at the hemp factory. Others remain unemployed.

The central figure of the project was Ty Williams, a self-described business consultant with a dubious past and credentials to match, who grew up in Cleveland. Phillips, along with Rev. E. Theophilus Caviness, pastor of the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church, were outspoken cheerleaders for Williams and his corporation, North Coast Natural Solutions. They were also the apparent liaisons between Williams and local politicians who broke no laws but apparently greased a few skids and opened a few doors in hopes of getting the project up and running in order to help revive the struggling Glenville economy. Phillips and Caviness loaned credibility to a project that went belly up before it even stood up. They both announced the jobs opportunities from their respective pulpits. Prospective workers filled out employment applications at Greater Abyssinia Church. For a while, Caviness even allowed Williams to use an office at the church.

When the promised $17-an-hour jobs never materialized and checks issued workers for the training period bounced right out of the teller’s cages or were spit out of ATM machines, Williams went to parts unknown, leaving prospective workers irate, unemployed and in the hole for late and overdraft fees at local banks. Many have joined in a lawsuit in federal court seeking redress.

Phillips and Caviness were quick to extricate themselves from the project when the smell of the hemp turned sour. Their smiling faces can be seen on photographs taken during the good times when the ribbon was cut for the factory’s so-called opening and at press conferences promoting the project. Today the factory that promised neighborhood revitalization remains empty and the silence from the dynamic duo of Caviness and Phillips is deafening.

Phillips, a former county prosecutor, was convicted in 2003 of six felonies including attempted bribery, attempted obstruction of justice and possession of drugs. After a stint in the Ohio State Penitentiary and losing his law license he went from reentry to religion — from prosecuting to proselytizing. He is now pastor of the Sure House Baptist Church, a converted factory building on Cleveland’s Miles Avenue, where his small flock gathers each Sunday. His status as senior pastor gives him a platform from which he can assert his self-created image as a community leader.

In addition, Phillips has a side hustle doing political consulting. He earns an income ushering mostly white politicians, usually judges, around the black community, assuring the candidates that his influence will garner the so-called black vote.

The Fund for Our Economic Future should be congratulated for taking this innovative step. But they should be cautious. While Manufacturing Works appears to be the fiscal agent for the funds and has a 30-year history of working in the community, the two organizations they are slated to receive the $100,000 to operate the program are new to the game. The Cleveland Clergy Coalition, according to records available on file with the Ohio Secretary of State, was incorporated on September 18, 2017. The business address is that of Rev. Caviness’ church and the registered agent and sole principal on record is none other than Aaron Phillips. According to the organization’s Facebook page, Phillips is the organization’s executive director.

The impressive-sounding American Association of Clergy and Employers, again according to records on file with the Ohio Secretary of State, came into existence on July 31, 2019. The registered agent and sole principal is Miesha Headen — who is neither a member of the clergy or an employer. She is the former mayor of Richmond Heights who was recalled in September of 2014 following allegations of corruption. The address of the corporation is a residence located in Richmond Heights, which county records reflect is owned by Raymond C. Headen, Miesha’s husband. Headen was recently appointed by Republican Governor Mike DeWine to the Eighth District Court of Appeals after a failed bid to win election to the same court in 2018. The good judge has been seen at several public events with Phillips, who is promoting his candidacy to retain his seat in the 2020 election.

Based on Phillips’ past involvement in the failed hemp project, one wonders how his Clergy Coalition and Headen’s corporation, whose ink is barely dry on the corporate papers, were selected as recipients of grant money. Disgruntled workers from the hemp factory jobs and voters who cast votes to remove Headen from the mayor’s office would probably be glad to have voiced their input as to the capabilities of Phillips and Headen to run such a project.

Since his conviction in 2003, Phillips has had no encounters with the law and there are no allegations that he has broken any laws. Headen was cleared of any wrongdoing as it relates to her time as mayor. But the non-existent track record of the two organizations and their lack of experience in this kind of project should give rise to added scrutiny. The public should know what salaries, if any, are paid to Phillips and Headen and what they did to earn them. This scenario begs for public scrutiny.

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 president 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.

 

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