Thursday, March 11, 2010

Patio party at Jimmy's! Another contractor pleads guilty

More swag for Jimmy Dimora!

That's if you believe construction contractor Nicholas Zavarella, who pleaded guilty yesterday to bribing the county commissioner with a retaining wall around his pool, masonry columns in his back yard, and brick walls in his outdoor kitchen. (Patio party at Jimmy's! Must've been good times, until the hammer came down.)

Total value: $25,000 to $28,000. Total the Big D paid: nothing, the feds say -- until Jimmy got a tip that the feds were on to him. Then, a $500 check and a belated request for an invoice.

So what? you, the scandal-fatigued public, might say. We already know Steve Pumper pleaded guilty to bribing Dimora with a patio roof, barbecue shelter and bathhouse, valued at $60,000 -- oh, and $33,000 in cash. And that John Valentin of granite retailer Salva Stone Design is accused of bribing him by installing granite in Dimora's indoor and outdoor kitchens and master bathroom ($3,250).

Well, here are a few so-whats. First, we're seeing the feds tighten the noose on Dimora, lining up witnesses. (Here is where I'll add the usual disclaimers: Dimora has not been charged with a crime, he proclaims his innocence, and the charges don't name him. Once again, the feds call him "Public Official 1.")

Second, a pattern is emerging. Every time another contractor admits he didn't bill Dimora for his services until months or years after the fact, the idea that Dimora just got good deals and paid late gets stretched thinner, and the feds color a bit more gray area with a little more black.

Third, Dimora's potential defense is emerging. It's not exactly, when does a gift become a bribe? It's: Putting in a good word for someone isn't an illegal favor.

Take a look at this quote from the Feb. 25 Plain Dealer:

Dimora's attorney Richard Lillie said Dimora helped Zavarella's daughter get a teaching job, but did nothing wrong.

"Writing a reference letter for somebody is not bribery," Lillie said.

What I said in my October profile of Dimora, "Life of the Party," still holds up: So far, the feds "never claim that he single-handedly rigged a bid or steered a contract, " I wrote then. "The filings depict Dimora doing little favors: He puts in a good word for people, nudges, recommends, asks for a meeting to be moved up, calls the county staff to see if anything can be done for a buddy — and takes gifts from his friends before or after."

That's the gray area Dimora's lawyer could exploit in a trial. (Not that I assume Dimora won't cut a deal with the feds -- it may well be in his best interest.)

Finally, the Zavarella charge gives us another quick glimpse at how Dimora allegedly acted when news came that the FBI tried to flip his pal, Pumper. (From the charging document, with Dimora and Zavarella's names substituted for "PO1" and "defendant." ZBC is Zavarella's company:)
Dimora asked Zavarella to send him a bill for the work ZBC had performed at Dimora's residence. Dimora told Zavarella that something was happening and Dimora did not want Zavarella to get involved because Zavarella did not do county work. Dimora referenced Pumper's divorce and said that there were going to be some issues.

Zavarella sent an invoice to Dimora falsely stating that $6,687 worth of work had been completed "as of 3/31/08," when as Zavarella then well knew, the work had been completed in 2007 and earlier and was valued at more than $6,687.

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