Executive goes from broker to broke

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ELYRIA, Ohio – As a minority businessman, Larry Jones began a computer company and rode the wave of the 1990s to millions of dollars in public contracts.

Governments, eager to dole out contracts to blacks, were happy to hire his business – Erie Shores Computer Inc. of Elyria – to install hardware and software. Jones was friendly, passionate about civil rights and eager to serve on dozens of community and bank boards.

Today, his business is dead, he is bankrupt, and he is at the center of one of the largest public-corruption scandals in Northeast Ohio.

Jones, 57, was charged last month with his friend, former Lorain County Commissioner Michael Ross, and two prominent Cleveland contractors in a bribery scheme involving the Lorain County Justice Center. Jones is expected to be the key witness against Ross and the businessmen: Randall Gordon and Vincent Carbone.

His work as a contractor, which made him rich, helped lead to his downfall.

“He was trusting,” said Larry Zukerman, Jones’ attorney. “For most of his life, he was proud, honorable and successful.”

Jones grew up in North Carolina. He married Barbara Keith, whom he had known since grade school. He attended Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, where he played football.

In 1976, Jones and his wife headed for Ohio. He took a marketing job at U.S. Steel Corp. in Lorain. In 1983, he formed Erie Shores Computers, which sold computer systems and offered support services.

In depositions, Jones admits he knew nothing about programming or fixing computers. But his business took off in the 1990s.

He obtained more than $5 million in public contracts with the city of Cleveland and Lorain County government, as well as with Columbus, Pittsburgh and Cleveland schools. Besides winning public contracts, Jones’ business had more than 200 regular customers, according to depositions filed in civil cases.

He also was committed to his community. When Michael Keys, then Elyria’s mayor, needed someone to raise $200,000 for a recreation center, he tapped Jones.

“When you talked about minority businessmen in Lorain County, Larry Jones was one of, if not the first, names you thought of,” Keys said.

Elyria City Councilman Herman Larkins said Jones was generous with his church and donated computers to neighborhood centers.

When Fannie Moore-Hopkins’ husband did not return from his daily walk on a summer day in 1988, she called Jones for help. Jones was on his way to Cleveland but turned around and headed to Lorain, where he scoured the woods in his suit looking for Charles Hopkins, executive director of the Lorain County Community Action Agency. (Hopkins was later found dead of a heart attack.)

“I just thought he was the most wonderful man to do that,” Fannie Moore-Hopkins said. “He was so willing to help anyone.”

Jones pushed Lorain County officials to look more closely at minority hiring practices and trumpeted young minority men who did well, especially Ross, a young lawyer and accountant.

The two met in the early 1990s, and Jones admired Ross’ charm, vision and brains, he told friends. In 1997, with Jones’ help, Ross was elected Lorain County commissioner. He was the first black man to win election to a county office.

As soon as Ross became commissioner, he voted to give contracts to Jones. During Ross’ term in office, from 1997 to 2000, Erie Shores Computers garnered more than $1 million in county work.

Elyria businessman Karl Baker also sold computer services.

“We were shut out of bidding,” Baker said. “County people said, ‘Don’t even bother – 100 percent is going to Larry Jones.’ “

Jones told authorities that he and Ross were silent partners. The men worked at a variety of schemes to fleece taxpayers, prosecutors said. Their biggest involved the building of the Lorain County Justice Center, according to indictments filed last month.

In 1999, authorities said in court documents, Ross and Jones obtained $600,000 in bribes from Carbone, the president of R.P. Carbone Construction, and Gordon, the former president of Collins Gordon Bostwick Architects, in exchange for work on the Justice Center. Gordon handled the architecture on the building, while Carbone’s business served as the construction manager.

Both men have denied wrongdoing, and their attorneys declined to comment.

Michael Nelson, Ross’ lawyer, said Jones is cooperating with prosecutors to get a reduced prison sentence.

“Larry Jones is trying to get the best deal possible, and he will implicate anyone he can to get it,” Nelson said. “He is trying to cast as wide a net as possible. His credibility is the real issue here.”

Zukerman, Jones’ attorney, scoffed.

“Michael Ross has been the Teflon Don of Lorain County for years,” Zukerman said. “Finally, something, if not everything, will stick.”

Jones’ county contracts dried up after Ross was voted out of office in 2000. Zukerman said computer contracts industrywide began to shrivel after Sept. 11, 2001. Jones’ skills as a businessman were questioned in 2003, when Microsoft sued Erie Shores for piracy.

Jones hired Ross as his attorney, but Ross failed to help his defense, Jones told a friend. A federal judge later ruled that Jones owed Microsoft $250,000, which has not been repaid.

By then, Erie Shores was shuttered. Jones and his wife, Barbara, who works for the Lorain County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, each filed for bankruptcy protection, claiming a total of about $5 million in debts. Jones’ legal troubles ballooned when Dennis Will, a former Elyria police narcotics captain, became Lorain County prosecutor in 2005 and began looking at Jones and Ross.

CM END

(John Caniglia and Molly Kavanaugh are reporters for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. They can be contacted at jcaniglia(at)plaind.com and mkavanaugh(at)plaind.com.)

2007-01-16-OHIO-SCANDAL

AP-NY-01-16-07 1420EST

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