Ed FitzGerald, the Democrats’ candidate for county executive, is Public Official 14 in today’s Jimmy Dimora indictment, thanks to a brief March 2008 conversation between the two men.
Dimora called the Lakewood mayor from Delmonico’s steak house one night 2½ years ago, to get FitzGerald to return a call from William Neiheiser, a businessman interested in leasing the city’s Winterhurst ice arena. FitzGerald told Dimora to have Neiheiser call him at City Hall the next morning.
“I think I handled it appropriately,” FitzGerald told me today.
One of Neiheiser’s companies, Ice Land USA, took over Winterhurst from the city that June. (The city’s official Winterhurst page, in what now reads like a defensive anticipation of future controversy, notes that Lakewood City Council approved the lease unanimously.) Neiheiser, whose name first came up last year in connection with the scandal, was arrested and charged with bribery today.
“We had already put word out we’d have to shut down the ice rink unless someone came to the rescue,” FitzGerald says. “Mr. Neiheiser made a proposal to the city. We also got a competing proposal. I don’t think there’s even an allegation that the granting of the contract was inappropriate.”
Neiheiser donated $250 to FitzGerald’s campaign fund in April 2008, while the city’s ice-rink decision was pending. It’s one of the contributions from corruption-scandal figures that FitzGerald recently donated to a charity for veterans – a move I revealed in a post on this blog two weeks ago.
I ask FitzGerald how he decides whether to accept a donation from someone with pending business before the city – a question he’d surely have to ponder, with higher stakes, if elected county executive. He sighs.
“Well, I think you have to have the character to make sure those things don’t influence you,” he says, “and it didn’t influence me.” It also depends on a contribution’s size and how an official goes about asking for funds, FitzGerald adds. “If I’m directly soliciting somebody for a large contribution while something is pending, I think that’s different. I don’t think I violated that standard in that case.” Neiheiser, he says, “showed up at a fundraiser and made a pretty modest contribution.”
Hearing that yet more elected officials have turned up with code names in federal charges causes Clevelanders to cringe. That's because we had to wait so long to see the feds finally name PO1 and PO2 as Dimora and Russo and charge them with crimes. But it’s important to realize that “PO” isn’t a code for corrupt. Federal prosecutors’ practice of not naming uncharged people in indictments is meant to protect the reputations of the uncharged. Someone could also become a “PO” or “PE” or “BE” simply because they come up in the narrative prosecutors tell to explain the crimes of others.
In this case, that’s Dimora and Neiheiser, allegedly trading gifts for influence.
The Dimora-FitzGerald call ends with Dimora saying, “Let us know any help we can provide.”
FitzGerald's press release earlier today declared, "Jimmy Dimora even tried to influence me at one point, but that was to no avail." He confirmed the release was referring to the March 2008 phone call.
“Nothing was ever offered to me of value by this vendor or any other vendor,” FitzGerald says. “I think that’s because I conduct myself a certain way. These guys know my background. They know I was a prosecutor and was an FBI agent. I don’t brook those kind of conversations.”
For what it's worth, Dimora also played down his conversation with FitzGerald. I asked him about it today in an elevator at the federal courthouse.
"I was Democratic chairman. I talked to elected officials every day," said Dimora. I asked what he'd meant when he'd offered FitzGerald help. "I have no idea," he replied. "That was over two years ago."
Update, 11:45 p.m.: Henry Gomez's article on this is up at cleveland.com. He notes that FitzGerald didn't submit the competing proposal to Lakewood's city council. Neiheiser proposed to make $1 million in improvements to Winterhurst; the competitor did not.
Neiheiser has released a statement saying he did not bribe anyone, Fox 8 reported tonight.
Update, 9/17: FitzGerald has posted several documents about the Winterhurst deal on his campaign website, here. "I am demonstrating in my response the way I will do business as county executive," he writes. "I am acting with complete transparency."