One of the saddest things about the Frank Russo bribery scandal is that it didn’t have to happen. Twelve years ago, our political system came very close to taking Russo down -- but his offenses earned him a wrist-slap.
Everyone was forewarned about Russo’s true character. But in the past 12 years, he still got away with pages and pages of misdeeds, and an alleged $1.2 million in cash, because not enough people heeded the warnings. And some of our biggest political names – Jimmy Dimora and the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones -- covered for him.
Here’s the story. Russo was appointed county auditor in January 1997 by the county Democratic Party after 13 years as county recorder. Later that year, new recorder Pat O’Malley -- of all people -- blew the whistle on Russo, calling for a special audit of “bookkeeping irregularities” in the recorder’s office. State auditor Jim Petro’s staff spent a year investigating.
“Mr. O’Malley spoke of employees paying ‘kick backs’ to the former Recorder, Frank Russo, in order to receive pay raises,” Petro wrote in his report.
The audit, released in July 1998, reported that dozens of Russo employees were allowed and encouraged to do political campaigning on county time. Attendance sheets were marked “polls” and “election day.” Employees said they passed out “combs, nail files, literature, gum and signs” at the polls. They said payroll officers told them to sign in as having worked in the office that day, and they were later allowed to take unofficial days off in exchange.
One of those payroll officers was Cindy Calabrese -- now Cindy Bialowas, sister of Russo’s housemate, Michael Calabrese. Russo appointed her to co-supervise the troubled Board of Revisions last month. Back then, Bialowas, subpoenaed by Petro’s investigators, denied granting time off for campaigning.
Three workers also told investigators they felt pressured to donate to Russo’s political campaign. Two said they were pressed to sell or buy tickets to his fund-raisers. One said she was told that employees usually donated 2 percent of their salary to Russo’s campaign. Petro’s office forwarded the statements to the county prosecutor, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, for review.
The state audit came out while Russo was running for a full term as county auditor.
That September, Jim Trakas, then county Republican chairman, brought up Russo in his debate with Jimmy Dimora at the City Club.
“The Russo name used to stand for integrity and decency in government,” Trakas said. “Today, it stands for all that is wrong in county government.” Trakas called on Tubbs Jones to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Russo, noting that one of Tubbs Jones’ deputies had taken a leave of absence to manage Russo’s campaign.
Dimora, riffing on Bill Clinton’s legal troubles, joked it off.
“Please, no more special prosecutors,” the then-Democratic chairman sighed. He added, “If she feels there is enough evidence, whether it's civil or criminally, I'm sure [Tubbs Jones will] do the right thing.”
That year, Dimora loaned Russo’s campaign $15,000.
Mike Wise, Russo’s Republican opponent, used the audit against Russo in two hard-hitting campaign commercials. He called on Tubbs Jones (who died in 2008) to act on the allegations before the election. She didn’t. Voters re-elected Russo with 61 percent of the vote.
Russo could’ve faced a theft in office charge, a felony that would’ve barred him from holding office if convicted. Instead, three days before Christmas and 12 days before she left the prosecutor’s office for Congress, Tubbs Jones let Russo plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of dereliction of duty. He was sentenced to 120 days probation and agreed to pay a $750 fine and $26,000 in restitution.
At first, that earned Russo some scrutiny from his peers. The next year, county commissioner Tim McCormack, who’d preceded Russo as auditor, publicly questioned why Russo’s budget was growing. The commissioners held up approval of Russo’s leases for satellite offices until he got his budget under control. Russo tried to blame McCormack for leaving problems to clean up. But it was Russo who had increased the auditor’s staff from 237 employees to 280.
McCormack, a candidate for county executive, now says FBI agents interviewed him about jobs-for-cash allegations involving Russo a year after that, around 2000.
Russo got his revenge. He took the mike at a Democratic party meeting in late 2003 and tried to convince party members not to endorse McCormack’s re-election. Russo threw his support behind Tim Hagan, who also won strong support from business leaders and knocked off McCormack in the 2004 primary.
After that, did the commissioners ever seriously question Russo’s budget again? Not that I know of (and I’d be happy to be corrected on this). When the Plain Dealer ran its patronage exposé in 2008, Russo’s staff was still at 283.
Russo’s 14 bribery counts include a cash-for-jobs-and-raises conspiracy involving six employees -- and those are just the ones the FBI knows about. Anyone in power who says they had no idea Russo was corrupt has to contend with one tough question: After what the town learned about Russo in 1998, why weren’t you watching more closely?