Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Feds: Russo got $1.2m in cash kickbacks

"During the course of the conspiracy, PO2 received approximately $1,220,000 in kickbacks."

--From federal prosecutors' extortion conspiracy charge against former Frank Russo employee Sandy Klimkowski

Now we know how big the FBI's local corruption investigation is: Really big. The feds believe county auditor Frank Russo is a million-dollar crook.

New federal charges suggest Russo got $1.22 million in cash kickbacks over 11 years, delivered monthly in manila envelopes, in exchange for outsourcing the $21 million job of appraising every commercial property in Cuyahoga County. The alleged bag woman was Sandy Klimkowski, a top assistant of Russo's until last week. She purportedly got $154,000 in cash herself. Her lawyer says she'll plead guilty to the charges against her.

The Cuyahoga County corruption scandal has now brought our system of commercial property appraisal -- the core of our tax base -- into question. Treasurer Jim Rokakis and former auditor Tim McCormack are sounding huge alarms. This pair of stories in today's Plain Dealer suggests that the alleged conspirators may have not only corrupted the appraisal contract, they may have tampered with or influenced some of the appraisals themselves. {Update, 11/1: Richard Blake, the attorney who reviewed the county business that the investigation touches on, reported that he did not find evidence of tampered appraisals. His report is online here.}

Rokakis wants state auditor Mary Taylor and attorney general Richard Cordray to investigate. Taylor's spokesperson says she may well start a special audit of Russo's office. It's high time. Her special audit of the county recorder's office, requested by the county commissioners after Pat O'Malley left the job, found that O'Malley had wasted $1 million a year. What would Taylor find in Russo's books?

The feds haven't charged Russo or named him in the Klimkowski charges, but their code phrase, Public Official 2, is no mystery to Cleveland at this point. The description of PO2 in the Kevin Kelley charges fit only Russo, and it fits only him in the Klimkowski charges now. County commissioners Tim Hagan and Peter Lawson Jones have called for Russo to resign. So has Lakewood Mayor Ed Fitzgerald, who wants Russo's job.

{Update, 9/24: Jones and Hagan -- and Jimmy Dimora! -- have also called for Taylor and Cordray to do a special performance audit. Here's the cleveland.com story on Jones and Hagan's statements at the county commission meeting. The photo shows Dimora's seat empty -- he left the room during the discussion about Russo, but signed the audit request.}

Klimkowski also faces charges that she corrupted the Maple Heights school district while she was a school board member. She allegedly got free home improvements -- a free pool deck, a free bay window, free aluminum siding -- from Steve Pumper in exchange for help getting 20 contracts with the Maple Heights schools for Pumper's former company, DAS Construction. She and a deceased attorney for the district, Lou Damiani, allegedly arranged to use school district money to buy "electronic equipment, household items, a swimming pool heater and consumables" for their personal use.

"One effect of the conspiracy was that [the district] had fewer resources with which to serve its students," prosecutors wrote.

The new allegations were filed Friday. (Sorry I didn't write about them earlier -- I was on vacation.) Here are links to the charges and the U.S. Attorney's press release, both in pdf form.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh boy. Is it possible that Russo is a bigger crook than even DiMorra?