Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rare sighting of kitschy Dimora mug

It's a thing of beauty, isn't it? I spotted this kitschy Jimmy Dimora mug in a downtown office today and immediately snapped a photo. It's at least vintage '90s, maybe '80s, from when Dimora was mayor of Bedford Heights. I think it's a communal office mug, since its owner is new in town: "Isn't he the guy who got in trouble?" he asked.

I want one of my own. But I guess I'll have to start hunting at Bedford Heights garage sales. I checked eBay, and the only Dimoriana I found was this T-shirt -- XL, of course -- from one of Jimmy's campaigns for commissioner, on sale for a patriotic $17.76.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lanigan & Malone mock PD's corruption blues

The guys on the Lanigan & Malone show were making fun of this Plain Dealer story today. Two shrinks tell a health reporter that the county corruption scandal has plagued Clevelanders with feelings of anxiety, betrayal, disillusion and doom.

The radio guys didn't buy it. Jimmy Malone mocked the idea that anyone would see a psychologist because their county government was crooked.

That gave Chip Kullik an opening for a Dimora-in-Vegas joke.

"I did see someone about this," Kullik quipped, "but she was too chatty."

To be honest, the PD piece does read kind of like the bogus trend stories Jack Shafer of Slate is always ripping into. It's based on only two sources. Neither psychologist actually says the latest Frank Russo or Jimmy Dimora news has sent any of their patients spiraling into depression.

A quick reference to "those more at risk, those who have ties to the scandal" almost hits upon a truer trend. The corruption defendants themselves are frequently depressed. When they plead guilty, they have to tell the judge all the medications they're on. Many mention anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, sleep aids. One or two have even said they're seeing a doctor to cope with the psychological consequences of their crimes.

But the average taxpayer won't have sympathy. Clevelanders' common reaction to the scandal isn't anxiety or despair. It's anger. Fury that so few people tried to blow the whistle on Russo. Rage because Dimora still has a job. But we know how to channel our anger at government constructively. Six candidates for county executive want to help us work through it. A voting booth will be more healing than a shrink's couch. Coincidentally, voting by mail starts today.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dimora's appetite, now on Facebook

Jimmy Dimora's appetite now has its own Facebook page.

"This is not actually Jimmy Dimora but rather the burning hunger that lives deep within his massive midsection," the Appetite informs us in a disclaimer.

The Appetite packs heat, plans to party in Florida with Kevin Kelley, and hits downtown, looking for a club with VIP bottle service.

It's been posting daily since Dimora's indictment, reacting quickly to the latest news, from the judge's decision that Dimora could stay on his job to reporters' entertaining standoff with armed county security guards and a door Dimora was hiding behind.

"Need good rest bc the money don't steal itself," it reports today.

Warning: As you might expect, given the sex-for-favors allegations stretching from Vegas to Independence to the Superior Viaduct, some of the Appetite's posts and reader comments are not safe for work.

The Appetite is the second Facebook presence inspired by Dimora's dance with the FBI. The Professor's "Resign Dimora, You No Good Fat Corrupt Pig" Facebook group lives on as the anonymous blogger's last surviving contribution to cyberspace.

As much as I'd love to hear from The Professor again (Hey, Professor!! Don't be a stranger!), the Appetite seems driven by a different sense of humor and politics -- less Daily Show and reformist liberal, more @LeBronJamesEgo and lonely conservative. Note the "waste a $1.4 billion budget" line in the Appetite's rewrite of Dimora's official county bio and the disdain for all of us who might've actually voted for the guy once.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dimora gets to stay on the job until year’s end

I’m trying to imagine the look on Tim Hagan’s face if Jimmy Dimora shows up for the commissioners’ meeting tomorrow. Head in hands? Disgusted grimace?

Yes, Dimora gets to stay on the job, as long as he abstains from voting on vast amounts of county business. Here’s the list of stuff Magistrate Judge Nancy Vecchiarelli barred him from deciding, courtesy of

any issue involving: personnel; private contractors referenced in his indictment; the county's juvenile justice center; the county engineer's office; companies providing halfway house services; funding for the county courts; unions or union members; and matters related [to] Parma, Lakewood, Bedford, Solon and Berea. …

Oh, is that all?

In the brilliant system of county government we’re stuck with for 100 more excruciating days, there’s no real way to keep Dimora from showing up and collecting a paycheck. We can’t recall him, and it’d take 68,000 signatures just to start a separate misconduct trial in county court. He’d lose his job if convicted of a felony, but no way will he go on trial before the new year. Gov. Strickland could remove him for “official misconduct,” but given how the governor deferred to investigators in the McFaul scandal, he probably won’t.

For those of you waiting for Dimora to resign in shame, dream on. His paycheck is more valuable to him than ever. White-collar defense lawyers don’t come cheap!

Update, 9/23: Looks like Dimora can only vote on about half of the county's business. He showed up at today's meeting, voted on 14 items, and abstained from 14.

"It is terribly awkward," Hagan told reporters afterward, according to "It's even hard to be civil. ... Who would like to sit next to someone who diminished the office where I've served for 22 years?"

Friday, September 17, 2010

County exec candidates talk corruption on Dimora’s day of reckoning

At the very moment Jimmy Dimora was pleading not guilty to 26 corruption charges on Wednesday, the six candidates for Cuyahoga County executive were sharing a stage at a forum in Lyndhurst. Moderator Steve Gleydura, Cleveland Magazine’s editor, asked them how they’d drive corruption out of the county government.

Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald stressed his credentials as a former FBI agent investigating crooked Chicago-area politicians. He described feeling “déjà vu” while watching Dimora’s arrest on TV.

“Greed – that is the fundamental motivation behind these crimes,” the Democrat said. “You have people in leadership positions that either went into public service for the wrong reasons, or they forgot why they went into it in the first place. What happens when you set that example at the top is, it gives tacit permission for all kinds of misconduct below those levels.”

The FBI can’t clean up a dirty government by itself, he warned. “They pick out specific instances of federal violations, and that’s it. They don’t look at whether an employee is maybe cutting time on clock, or misusing a county computer, or just isn’t motivated or is going through the motions. Those things have to be done by management.”

FitzGerald said he’d set up a “completely transparent” hiring process the day after the election and fill the new county administration with people chosen for their knowledge, not connection. “If we set high ethical standards and bring the right team in, we can turn this situation around.”

The forum, held at Executive Caterers at Landerhaven, took place at lunchtime Wednesday. Most of the audience knew Dimora had been arrested early that morning, though news outlets were still sifting through the details of the 138-page indictment. Tim McCormack, on the other hand, sounded like he’d already read the indictment and noticed FitzGerald's cameo appearance as Public Official 14, taking a brief 2008 call from Dimora about the lease of Lakewood's Winterhurst ice rink.

“Bad people knew where there’s a weak spot,” McCormack said. “They do not approach and they don’t do business with bad administrations. You set that standard every single day in the way you use your voice, your telephone calls, your practices. It happens every hour of the day. That’s how you root [corruption] out and avoid it in the future.”

McCormack, who once served with Dimora on the county commission, made the startling suggestion that “hundreds of additional people” may have “paid bribes to secure county positions.” It was hard to tell whether to take the comment literally, since McCormack based his comment on “information” from a source he didn’t name. (He recently said the FBI asked him around 2000 about rumors of a jobs-for-bribes scheme in former auditor Frank Russo’s office.)

Republican candidate Matt Dolan also swiped at FitzGerald. Better ethics, he said, starts with not electing a county executive candidate who “stood shoulder to shoulder with the current establishment and did not support Issue 6 county reform.” Dolan described his proposal to establish a bipartisan committee to screen appointees for all county boards and commissions. The committee would set qualifications, sift resumes, and examine whether to abolish any boards or commissions entirely.

“We’re going to do something brand new, unfortunately, in this county: we’re going to require job descriptions for everyone,” Dolan added. “If you are not qualified to do the important work, you will be removed.” He also hinted at Russo’s recent reassignments of workers caught in the Board of Revision scandal. “We are not going to shift people around,” he said. “If you breach the public trust, you’re not qualified, you’re fired! No longer are we going to be moving them to back rooms.” Dolan also said he’d institute an ethics policy by executive order on his first day in office.

Independent Ken Lanci cited his proposals for employee ethics training and an office to regulate and register vendors, lobbyists and consultants doing business with the county. Stressing his experience as a business turnaround expert and his many recent conversations with county department heads, he also said the new executive would have to inspire the county’s ethical employees.

“Everybody thinks they’re corrupt,” he says. “I can tell you, there are a lot of extremely qualified, very good employees, in this county. So don’t be confused by what you saw this morning. There’s 8,000 people there, you probably have 7,500 people that are pretty honest. It’ll be up to the CEO to turn their attitude around, make them proud of the job that they have.”

Don Scipione, also an independent candidate and businessman, said he endorsed the recommendations of the county transition work groups on ethics and campaign finance reform: limits on campaign contributions to county candidates (none exist now), ethics training for county workers, and “online transparency of the relationship between vendors and campaign contributions.” (Scipione served on the campaign finance transition group before resigning to run for county executive.)

Green Party candidate David Ellison, the last to respond, changed the subject to encouraging collaborations among “all the people who have the answers.” He warned that the county faces a $19 million deficit, which could worsen if the state’s $8 billion budget shortfall causes it to cut funds to counties. “We may have to get rid of people we don’t want to get rid of,” he said. “We might be good, thorough house cleaners of the ethical problems and still have to get rid of more people.”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Russo, with family in first row, pleads guilty, accepts 21 years on 21 counts

Frank Russo walked into the courtroom with a stunned look on his face. His mouth hung slightly open. His dark eyes, magnified by glasses, looked big, fixed on a middle distance.

He stepped forward to the first row of seats, where his family awaited. On the left, daughter Richelle Russo Reed, aka Public Employee 3, a former county engineer's employee who got raises in exchange for her dad's favors to others. On the right, his housemate, Michael Calabrese, aka PE55, named in search warrants seeking a true accounting of their household income. Between them sat three other young women, one with her arm around a young man, and an older woman.

Russo walked up and smooched his daughters. "See you soon," he said. For a second, he managed a tiny smile, an echo of that big grin we've all seen on his cash-register and gas-pump stickers.

"All rise," the clerk called. Russo's eyes stayed on his family for one split second after everyone else in the courtroom turned.

Judge Kathleen O'Malley asked him countless questions about his rights and his health. Russo answered, his voice high-pitched and a little scratchy. Sometimes you could hear a hint of liveliness, of the happy-go-lucky personality that once charmed so many political insiders. I remembered what one politico said to me last year -- before the tale of the $1.2 million in bribes, back when there was still a chance for reasonable doubt. "If you met him, you'd like him," the guy said.

The judge asked Russo to describe his former job.

"I was Cuyahoga County auditor," Russo said. "The main responsibility was setting property values. We sold dog licenses, [handled] estate tax. ... Basically educating the public on what's going on in the county."

O'Malley asked if he'd resigned because of the plea agreement.

"Yes, your honor," Russo said, his voice dropping.

Prosecutor Ann Rowland rose to describe the deal, which the judge repeatedly called unusual. The federal government had agreed not to bring any charges against Russo's daughters or housemate. Also protected were Adelbert "Chip" Marous (Richelle Reed Russo's fiancé) and Marous Brothers Construction Inc. Prosecutors also agreed not to bring any further charges against Russo's son, Vince. In exchange, both Frank and Vince Russo would plead guilty.

Then came the big reveal. On 21 counts of corruption, Russo had agreed to spend 21 years, 10 months in federal prison.

He won't have to report until May 16, 2011. The judge asked Rowland to explain why. It was at Russo's request, she said: "Quite frankly, in the defendant's own words, 'It amounts to a life sentence.'" Russo is 60. He wants to be free for a while longer, until some expected grandchildren are born, until a few other family events.

"No substantial assistance reduction is contemplated in the plea agreement, correct?" the judge asked.

"Correct," Rowland replied -- confirming that Russo refused to testify against Jimmy Dimora or anyone else, even though it would've earned him less prison time.

Finally, the judge asked Russo to rise. Five times, she asked for his plea: to two kinds of bribery and to bribery conspiracy, witness tampering and tax fraud.

"Guilty," he said each time, his voice alternately sad, flat, and defeated.

When court adjourned, he sat at the table, signing court papers. His family gathered to wait for him.

Any criminal defendant, if he's lucky, has family in court on his day of reckoning, someone to support him despite his crimes. But listening to the bargain he'd struck, and the bargain he'd refused to strike, all to protect those close to him, I thought about how Russo is headed to prison with his intense, perverse sense of loyalty intact.

His employees were like family -- he gave them security and they gave him loyalty, though it sometimes came in the form of cold cash. Dimora is like family, someone he won't betray. His circle of loyalty was wide.

But it didn't extend to the voters. That $1.2 million he got in envelopes, skimmed from a huge county contract? That bloated payroll we all financed? That wasn't loyalty -- not at all.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dimora nudged FitzGerald on ice rink lease; “I handled it appropriately,” candidate says

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 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."

'When are they going after Tiger Woods?' asks Dimora after sex-for-favors charges

After Jimmy Dimora pleaded not guilty to 26 corruption charges today, reporters followed him on a trip up and down the federal courthouse elevators, guided by his booming yet plaintive voice.

“American citizens -- under this Patriot Act, they have the right to wiretap you, you, you!” he shouted to reporters, complaining that agents listened to his, his family’s, and his friends’ phone calls.

Some of those phone tapes are apparently included in today’s explosive accusations that Dimora traded sex for official favors. One bribery charge claims he slept with an unidentified woman while pulling strings to get her a government job. Prosecutors say former engineer’s employee Kevin Payne “paid prostitutes to entertain and provide services to Dimora” in an effort to keep the county engineer’s office at Stonebridge on the Superior Viaduct. That’s on top of new purported details about Dimora’s alleged encounter with a Vegas prostitute (he says he just got a massage).

On his way to post bond, Dimora compared himself to two famous sex-scandal figures.

“When are they going after [Eliot] Spitzer? When are they going after Tiger Woods?” Once prosecutors “go after” them, Dimora told reporters, they could come see him. (Actually, it was the feds who outed Spitzer as a call-girl client.)

Beyond that, Dimora defended himself as he has for more than a year. He says the county hasn’t been harmed, that he lacks the power to steer a contract, that others signed off on all the decisions he’s accused of improperly influencing.

“As a commissioner, I have one vote,” he said, exiting the elevator onto the first floor. “I can’t buy a paper clip” without another commissioner. “All our audits have been clean. All low bids have been awarded.” He claimed he’s always supported county’s staff recommendations when he votes. “My colleagues have said over and over, I never approached them on contract awards.”

Dimora's taking a one-week leave of absence from the county commission -- but he plans to return.

"I have done nothing wrong,” Dimora told reporters. “I’m not planning on resigning. I’ve got three months to go. I want to finish my term.”

As Dimora went into an office to arrange his bond, a reporter asked if he’d give a press conference on camera outside the courthouse.

He shrugged and said he would. “I don’t have nothing to hide,” he said.

Update, 4 p.m.: Eliot Spitzer references also come up in the Dimora indictment, it turns out.

On March 13, 2008, the day after Spitzer resigned as governor of New York due to a prostitution scandal, Dimora allegedly talked on the phone with Robert Rybak, business manager of the plumber's union Local 55. Rybak and Dimora allegedly discussed whether Rybak would provide someone for Dimora to have sex with:

Rybak replied that he did not want Dimora to "go down like Governor Spitzer."

Dimora told Rybak, "I ain't gonna pay for no p--sy. That's why he went down."

Rybak replied, "Yeah, you'll let Gabor, Kelley and me pay it for you," and then laughed.

Five days later, they allegedly talked again:

Rybak told Dimora, "Remember, Spitzer, if I go down, you're going with me."

Dimora replied, "We are all going down together, baby."

Rybak responded, "Thank you, Spitzer."

Sure enough, Rybak was indicted with Dimora today.

To read my Oct. 2009 profile of Jimmy Dimora, "Life of the Party," click here.

Dimora, nonchalant in court, pleads not guilty, won’t resign

Jimmy Dimora walked into the courtroom wearing a big cobalt-blue T-shirt, black pants and loafers, and almost the hint of a smile. Glancing just a moment at the crowd in the room, he looked unfazed, as if he’d been ready for this moment for 26 months.

Then he turned to his lawyer, Richard Lillie, awaiting him at the defense table with crutches beside him.

“Oh! I thought you were in the hospital!” Dimora said. “How are you feeling?” Even in his perp walk moment, Dimora was paying attention to relationships, thinking about someone else.

His hair was neatly combed back. He picked up a sport coat set out for him on the table and put it on. Suddenly he looked official again, still county commissioner, despite the crimes he’s now accused of: 24 bribery accusations, two counts of obstruction of justice.

Dimora and Lillie spent a long time whispering to each other. Listening to his lawyer, he nodded and brushed a hand across the table. Four federal marshals took seats at a discreet distance behind him and to his left. Dimora pocketed something Lillie gave him. A marshal approached and made him reveal it.

“It’s a handkerchief,” Dimora said, producing a cloth inside a plastic baggie.

The clerk called out the case.

“Are you James C. Dimora?” judge Nancy A. Vecchiarelli asked.

“Yes, your honor,” he replied.

The judge read the maximum sentences for the various charges: 20 years for one, 5 years for another. She asked for his plea.

“Not guilty, your honor,” Dimora said, almost nonchalant, but solid and certain. Naturally, his tone seemed to say.

Prosecutor Antoinette Bacon came over and whispered to Lillie. Then she announced that they needed a week to revise one condition of his bond, because of a delicate matter.

Dimora intends to stay on as county commissioner. That makes one condition of the bond, “Avoid all contact with anyone who may become a victim or witness,” awkward. Bacon said she and Lillie would work out rules to allow Dimora to continue in office, even though he’ll be “supervising people who may become victims or witnesses.” They’ll report back to the court about that on Sept. 22.

Granted bond, Dimora was free to go. He smiled at a marshal as he walked out. Reporter Peter Krouse of the Plain Dealer asked Dimora for a comment.

“I’m not guilty!” Dimora said with a smile.

Dimora arrested, indicted on 26 charges; judges McCafferty, Terry also charged

FBI agents led county commissioner Jimmy Dimora out of his Independence home in handcuffs and chains this morning. He's been indicted on 26 federal corruption charges: 24 counts of bribery and two of obstruction of justice. He'll be arraigned in federal court this afternoon.

Also arrested: Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judges Bridget McCafferty and Steven Terry. Terry faces a judicial corruption charge; McCafferty is accused of lying to a federal investigator.

I spent the 9 o'clock hour on WCPN's the Sound of Ideas with Mike McIntyre, talking about the charges. Here's the podcast of the show.

A few thoughts:

-The number of charges surprises me. It's more than the 21 that Frank Russo faces. For months now, I and lots of other commentators have thought the case against Russo was more clear-cut than the case against his friend. Dimora, who's loudly maintained his innocence, appears to believe that he never crossed the line and delivered anything of real value to his friends.

The feds disagree. They're hitting him with charges on what they see as 8 or 9 separate bribery schemes -- trying to establish a pattern of gifts for favors. This could make for a spectacular trial, probing the questions of when a gift becomes a bribe and when a favor for a friend becomes a corrupt favor?

-Dimora's facing charges on several alleged schemes we've learned about in the past 15 months -- the Vegas trip, the alleged free use of a condo at Stonebridge, home improvements on his house and pool patio. Also, two more alleged schemes are detailed in the charges today.

-The first, we first learned about last week: Dimora and Russo supposedly convinced Gerald McFaul to hire their friend Jerry Skruhovec (also indicted today). Skruhovec works for both the auditor's and sheriff's office -- sounds like nice work if you can get it!

-Also, Dimora and William Neiheiser, former Reliance Mechanical CEO, are charged in a new alleged bribery scheme "related to county business and city of Lakewood business." More on this as I dig into the indictment.

-Last week, when I read about judges McCafferty and Terry (PO4 and PO16) in the Russo charges, the case against Terry sounded stronger. He's alleged to have let Russo practically run his judge's chambers and call the shots in some court cases. McCafferty seems to have listened to Russo and Dimora's requests but not promised much. Sure enough, Terry is charged with judicial corruption today (specifically, one count of mail fraud). McCafferty is charged with making a false statement to law enforcement -- possibly a case where the cover-up is what gets you in trouble.

-I've already gotten a call from an attorney I know disagreeing with my comment on the radio that the filing of Russo and Dimora charges, two and eight days after the county council and executive primary, seems timed to minimize the effects on the fall elections. The prosecutors would never allow politics to enter their judgment, the attorney said. For now, I'll just make it clear I was speculating and have no inside info. Update, 2:20 p.m.: U.S. Attorney spokesman Mike Tobin says there's no rule keeping federal prosecutors from filing public corruption charges near an election. Prosecutors are "just working around the clock on it," he says.

No word on whether Dimora is going to plead not guilty and fight the charges. But I'd put money on it. Here, he flips the bird at a NewsNet 5 camera. Update, 2:20 p.m.: He pleads not guilty and fights.

Check out for a photo and video of the agents leading Dimora out of his house.

To read my Oct. 2009 profile of Jimmy Dimora, "Life of the Party," click here.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

New port CEO charts pragmatic future for lakefront

“This isn’t the first port to have a vision and have to back away from that vision,” says William Friedman, new CEO of the Port of Cleveland. “We’re in recovery mode,” he says, “and I think our future can still be bright.”

Friedman, who took over the port authority in June, is cleaning up a mess. Now that the half-billion-dollar plan to relocate the port to East 55th Street is dead, the new boss is helping the agency recover with a dose of pragmatic optimism. Friedman wants to revive the plan for a ferry to Canada, make the port a staging area for erecting offshore wind turbines, and seek small opportunities in container shipping. He spells out his vision in my story "Port Order," in the Sept.-Oct. issue of Inside Business.

The ebb and flow of city and county politics often toss the port to and fro -- the Cleveland's mayor appoints six members of the port authority board, and the county government appoints three. The port's previous regime helped undo former mayor Jane Campbell's lakefront plan. Frank Jackson adopted the wildly optimistic relocation plan, with its dream of luring ocean freighters into the Great Lakes, as part of his economic strategy.

Now, the recovering port is trying to figure out its place in the city's plans. Friedman is moving ahead cautiously with plans to develop a new lakefront neighborhood north of Cleveland Browns Stadium. He talks seriously about the port's secondary role as an economic development authority, financing development deals far from the lakefront.

“We need to bring more cargo into this port, which we’re working hard to do," Friedman says. "We need to continue to finance good projects, such as the Flats East Bank. I think if we can start Phase One of the waterfront development, I think the voters will say, ‘Yes, that’s the right thing for the port to do.’ ”

To read my story, click here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Who was right about Russo? Who enabled him?

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?

Stark County 'political berserker' is breakout YouTube hit

Let's take a quick break from the Frank Russo scandal, shall we? While Cuyahoga County recoils in disgust from our pious ex-auditor's greed, the rest of the nation gazes at Canton in jaw-dropped horror.

Just two days ago, Phil Davison, Minerva village councilman and doomed candidate for Stark County treasurer, delivered a spittle-flecked rant at a Republican forum. Then the mostly-unemployed guy went home and figured that would be that. Now he's a star on most every TV news network. His bat-crazy six minutes of infamy are flashing frantically across YouTube. The Huffington Post has labeled him a "political berserker."

My favorite part is where he screams he has a master's degree in communications. Really?

For local context, I refer you to the Canton Repository, which reports that Davison frightened an old lady and caused Republicans to avert their eyes in revulsion.

This blogger helpfully explains that Stark County is getting a new treasurer because someone stole $2.5 million from the treasury.

So, Clevelanders, however angry you are about Russo's misdeeds, stay cool. You don't want to end up like this guy.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What about Dimora?

OK, Cleveland. Get ready for the Jimmy Dimora trial.

No, Dimora hasn’t been charged with a crime -- Frank Russo was. But I think the feds are ready. They’ve got about all the witnesses against the Big D they’re going to get.

Prosecutors surely wanted Russo to testify against Dimora. That's probably why they waited until now to charge Russo -- they were trying to get him to crack. But Russo wouldn't do it. Today’s story says Russo's plea deal doesn’t require him to testify against any public officials.

Loyalty was at the heart of Russo’s corruption. “My motto is everybody helps everybody out,” today’s charges quote him as saying. Now he can take his pride in loyalty with him to prison. He gets the feds to go easy on his son and let his sister and housemate off the hook. He agrees to do more time -- possibly 20 years -- rather than testify against Dimora or judges Bridget McCafferty and Steven Terry (PO1, PO4 and PO16 in today’s filing).

The feds must have decided they can get Jimmy without Frank. After all, they have six men lined up to testify that they bribed Dimora. Three have pleaded guilty to giving him cash: Steve Pumper ($33,000), Ferris Kleem ($6,000), and J. Kevin Kelley ($1,200 or so). Three others -- Kevin Payne, John Valentin and Nicholas Zavarella – pleaded guilty to giving Dimora gifts or favors.

Those six guys don’t seem to have gotten huge rewards in return. Nudges and phone calls and recommendations from the big guy, sure. But even Dimora’s alleged attempt to nudge a $38 million contract to Kleem while they partied in Vegas failed. That’s probably the reason for Dimora’s defiance, his insistence that he’s innocent, his daring the feds to charge him. His defense is he never crossed the line, never steered anything to his friends.

Still, I think the prosecutors have run out of patience. Consider the timing of today's charges: two days after the county primary. The feds didn’t want to file big charges right before an election, lest they be accused of bias, so they waited until right after. Now, they’ve gotten one of their two targets out of office before their terms expire at year's end. Since they know Russo won’t testify, their way is clear to bring what they’ve got against Dimora.

So will they do it really fast, or wait until just after the November election?

At Euclid's Lourdes shrine, Russo asks contractor to cover for him, feds say

How's this for a movie scene?

Last August, Frank Russo met up at the Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine and Grotto in Euclid with a retired contractor, a relative of one of his employees.

Russo knew him well. But he may or may not have known that IRS agents had already interviewed the contractor about $25,000 he'd loaned Russo and shingles he'd had hung on Russo's bathhouse. The IRS thought they were bribes in exchange for three raises for the contractor's relative.

Russo was troubled that Monday in August. He had more than prayer on his mind. Five days earlier, he'd learned that his aide Sandy Klimkowski was telling the feds he'd taken cash kickbacks from a $21 million contract.

I'll let the prosecutors' filing take it from here:

Russo told BE30 that Russo was making a list of the donations that Russo received following the death of his son approximately 15 years previously. In an attempt to induce BE30 to falsely state to investigating agents that Russo had legitimate access to large amounts of cash, Russo told BE30 that he put on the list that BE30 gave Russo a $10,000 donation. BE30 had not given Russo a $10,000 donation.

That's from Count 13 filed against Russo today, charging him with witness tampering.

If it's all true, what a moment! At a place where people pray for healing, Russo's using his dead son as a fake excuse for stashing huge amounts of kickback cash.

Update, 9/11: Rachel Dissell of the Plain Dealer identifies BE30 as Ronald Romanini, a longtime friend of Russo's. She also quotes Sister Phyllis Ann Lavelle, one of the nuns who oversees the shrine. Lavelle says the sisters knew Russo was a frequent visitor. They thought he was coming there to pray.

"That is awful," Lavelle says. "I don't know how they could do that here in a place of peace and prayer."

(photo of shrine from

Russo: "I apologize to anyone I have harmed"

Here's the full text of Frank Russo's resignation letter, now up online at

I humbly submit my resignation as Auditor of Cuyahoga County with deep, heartfelt gratitude for the opportunity to have served the citizens of Cuyahoga County for the past 26 years.

I apologize to anyone I have harmed for any decision I made that embarrassed or caused any harm to my office.

Frank Russo

Merry Christmas, Frank! -- Cash in card from employees?

In the already sordid tale of Joe Gallucci, the chump who admits he ran a sham campaign as the Republican candidate against Frank Russo in 2006, then got a $67,000 job from him, comes this detail:

In or about December 2006, Gallucci was asked and agreed to contribute cash to be included in a card for Russo. Gallucci contributed approximately $250 cash, in part to thank Russo for the job.

How many other employees gave Frank Russo cash Christmas "gifts"? How much money each?

Note to county executive candidates: This may seem obvious, but could you ban cash gifts to county bosses if you win?

Dimora, McFaul involved in Russo job-search favors, say feds

Jimmy Dimora asked Gerald McFaul to hire a buddy of Frank Russo's for a public job with a retirement pension, according to the prosecutor's charges against Russo.

The charge claims McFaul hired Russo's buddy, "Public Employee 40," as an appraiser in April 2008, and that Russo helped PE40 get the job in exchange for favors -- including sponsoring a $8,000 fundraiser for Russo's brother, county probate judge Anthony Russo.

Two weeks earlier, it says, Dimora, McFaul, Russo had dinner at Delsangro's Restaurant in Brook Park, where Dimora told McFaul he wanted the job for PE40 to be "PERS," meaning covered by the state's government-employee pension program.

The next day, Russo allegedly told PE40 that McFaul would give him the job, but his benefits weren't nailed down yet.

There's no reference in the charge to Dimora or McFaul personally benefiting from the alleged agreement.

Update, 4 p.m.: The Plain Dealer is identifying PE40 as Jerry Skuhrovec, who worked for both McFaul and Russo's offices. Jim Trakas, former county Republican chairman, has written an interesting comment about Dimora and Skuhrovec in response to this post. Click on the comments link below if you can't see it.

The Vegas trip: new details and tapes in Russo charges

Lots of new details in the Frank Russo charges about Russo, Jimmy Dimora and Ferris Kleem's April 2008 trip to Las Vegas.

The charges describe Russo taking $6,000 in cash from Kleem at Teamz restaurant in Middleburg Heights to spend on the trip. The next line indicates that Dimora was at the meeting too*:

After the Teamz meeting, Russo and PO1 discussed their meeting with Ferris Kleem. PO1 stated, "He [Kleem] made me sick with ten more f---ing issues."

Russo replied, "You should have left when I left."

The next day, Russo talks to Public Employee 4, an employee of his described as a "friend and close confidante" of his and Dimora's.

Russo said, "Don't say anything, but we just met with the one guy [Kleem] who's going to be there [in Las Vegas], he's gonna have whores and he's got a tiki hut by the pool, he's got everything."

PE4 replied, "I heard. That's a beautiful thing, that's awesome."

Foreshadowing the (alleged) Chatty Prostitute!

Confusingly, Russo goes on to say he paid Kevin Kelley for the trip.

"I did not want anybody to say they paid for our tickets. So [PO1] and I gave him a check today for our tickets because I didn't want no rumors to start that Kevin [Kelley] took us to Vegas or that other guy [Kleem] took us to Vegas. This way we got proof we paid our own tickets and I have no problem then."

Combine that with the $6,000 cash, and it looks like the feds think the Kelley payments were a cover story for Kleem's cash bribe.

After the trip, Dimora and Russo are allegedly taped talking about how a Plain Dealer reporter (probably Mike McIntyre) called them about their time in Vegas:

Russo said, "I am so glad I paid for my ticket."

PO1 replied, "You have to. They are going to check all that." ...

PO1 said, "I'm not going to tell him [the Plain Dealer reporter] that I saw Ferris Kleem over there [in Las Vegas]."

Russo replied, "No, no. I would say I didn't see him."

*Update, 4 p.m.: Dimora and Russo's lunch with Kleem at Teamz also came up in the April charges against Kleem. There, the prosecutors said Dimora and Russo each got $6,000:

Kleem gave PO1 and PO2 each an envelope containing $6,000 in cash, $1,000 each for their airfare to Las Vegas, and $5,000 each for gambling, the latter to insure that PO1 and PO2 each gambled enough to earn the 'comped' suites at the Mirage that Kleem had reserved.

Dimora denied this in a press conference last July. "I wrote a check, I paid for my trip," he told Bill Sheil of Fox 8.

"And nobody reimbursed you cash for that?" Sheil asked.

"I never got a reimbursement," Dimora said.

Feds charge Frank Russo with 21 counts; Russo resigns, may plead; won't testify against Dimora

The feds just hit Frank Russo with everything they've got -- 21 corruption charges: 14 for bribery, 2 for obstruction of justice, 4 for tax fraud.

Looks like most of the nasty stuff we've heard about is in there: the $1.2 million cash kickback allegation, jobs for sale, setting up a chump Republican to run against him.

Russo resigned this morning, and it looks like he'll plead guilty. The filing is an "information," not an indictment, a sign of cooperation. reports that Russo's deal with the feds will resolve the charges against his son, Vince. But Russo won't testify against any other public officials. That means he's willing to go to prison for a much longer time than if he'd agreed to testify against Jimmy Dimora. The charges also reportedly implicate ex-sheriff Gerald McFaul. More on that once I dig into them.

From the U.S. Attorney's press release:

The Information charges Russo participated in numerous bribery schemes beginning in March 1998 and continuing through May 2009, all while serving as Auditor. Specifically, it charges that Russo solicited and accepted things of value, such as cash, home improvements and travel to Las Vegas, Nevada, in exchange for County contracts, jobs, raises, reductions in tax valuations and other official favors. The information also charges that Russo gave Joseph Gallucci a job and cash in exchange for running a sham campaign against him. In addition, the Information charges that Russo filed false tax returns for the years 2004 through 2008 and that he obstructed justice.

More soon.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

FitzGerald, Dolan win; Brady beats Ronayne to join political vets on council

Ed FitzGerald and Matt Dolan are headed to the general election. They won the county executive primaries yesterday, FitzGerald with 49% over Terri Hamilton Brown's 32%, Dolan with 68% over 19% for Victor Voinovich. To read my post from last night about why FitzGerald won, click here.

Dan Brady edged out Chris Ronayne, 46% to 43%, in the highest-profile county council race, on Cleveland's West Side. That makes Brady, a former state senator, one of five political veterans who won in safe Democratic districts and will likely take leadership roles in the new county council. Familiar ballot names beat young upstarts county-wide yesterday, expect in the near-east District 10, where Julian Rogers, an education-reform activist, won and former Cleveland Heights Mayor Alan Rapoport came in third. For my analysis of the new council from last night, click here.

Here are the complete results. To look ahead to November, check out my coverage of the county executive race, "A Fresh Start," in the September issue of Cleveland Magazine or online here.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

County council majority starts to take shape

The county executive race is heading into November, but tonight we can already start to see the county council majority take shape.

Four longtime public officials, all Democrats, are off to big leads. State Sen. Dale Miller and Parma council president Chuck Germana seem to have their districts out west locked up, based on the vote-by-mail results. So do former Cleveland judge C. Ellen Connally and South Euclid councilwoman Sunny Simon out east. (Here's a map of the districts.)

They'll all be huge favorites in the general election and likely among the most politically experienced members of the new council. My bet is one of the four will be the council president.

A fifth political veteran may join them. Former state Sen. Dan Brady leads Chris Ronayne, 49% to 40%, in early results. If Brady holds that lead and beats the University Circle president, it'll be a huge victory for old-time populism and name recognition (Brady's been on the ballot on Cleveland's West Side many times) over youth, New-Democrat charm and campaign cash.

On Cleveland's East Side, Yvonne Conwell, wife of Cleveland councilman Kevin Conwell, and Pernel Jones, Jr., who's run twice for the city council, hold leads. The race in District 10 (Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland, Bratenahl, Collinwood) is neck-and-neck between newcomers Sharon Cole and Julian Rogers.

In all four of those districts, the Democratic winner tonight will probably win the November election too. (Way more Democrats than Republicans voted in the primaries there.)

That leaves three districts in the outer-ring suburbs where the two parties look pretty evenly matched in November -- three chances for Republicans to put an end to one-party government.

FitzGerald streaks toward victory over Brown

Ed FitzGerald jumped into the county executive race last December, when the rest of town was still arguing about the last election. While bigger names dithered and stepped back from the leap, he ran all out. He got a four-month head start on his Democratic opponent and never looked back.

Now FitzGerald looks like he’s heading to victory in the Democratic primary. He leads Terri Hamilton Brown, 50% to 30%, in the vote-by-mail results – which will probably be two-thirds of all the ballots cast in today’s election. It’s likely an insurmountable lead. Likewise for Republican Matt Dolan, who leads Victor Voinovich 70% to 18% so far.

FitzGerald’s quick move into the race, just eight weeks after Issue 6 passed, didn’t impress too many people. The Issue 6 crowd tried to call a foul, saying no one who campaigned against their reform should lead the new government. But by Christmas, FitzGerald had already perfected his answer: He thought the county executive too powerful, so if elected, he’d check his own power.

I remember one or two people scoffing. Being first didn’t matter, they said. But in this election, when bigger names shivered and stepped back from the diving board, FitzGerald’s early leap made a big difference. He had six months to line up endorsements. He churned out one position paper after another. Hearing him talk, I got a sense of restless motion. It’s a good vibe to give off in a reform election.

Tenacity stands out in a field of unknowns and little-knowns. So does poise. FitzGerald’s a better communicator than Brown and might be the best in the general election field.

Political instincts stand out too. FitzGerald sensed he was in the lead at the City Club debate. He ignored Brown’s jabs and called out the Republican candidates for jabbing each other. He took the high road because he knew he could afford to.

Now, Matt Dolan awaits, warmed up by some shadow-boxing with George Voinovich's brother. Also ready to fight FitzGerald is Ken Lanci, his name recognition swelled by ubiquitous bus ads. Both are wealthy men who'll outspend the Lakewood mayor. Tim McCormack, the old-school liberal, may hit FitzGerald hardest of all -- did you see his "deceit" quote last week?

It'll be a dramatic general election. But FitzGerald's got a running start. And he's probably already planned his next few moves.

Check out my coverage of the county executive race, "A Fresh Start," in the September issue of
Cleveland Magazine or online here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Me on WCPN tomorrow: county races, latest Russo scandal, and more

I'll be a guest tomorrow morning on WCPN's Reporter's Roundtable.

We'll be talking about Tuesday's county primary, especially the county council elections; Frank Russo appointing his housemate's sister to oversee property assessment appeals; the bilingual ballots deal and a bunch of other stuff.

I'll be on with host M.L. Schultze, Plain Dealer metro editor Chris Quinn, and Jay Miller of Crain’s Cleveland Business. The show lasts from 9:06 a.m. to 10 a.m. on 90.3 FM and Call in!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Leading county exec candidates in our Sept. issue (and one we left out)

“A Fresh Start,” my coverage of the Cuyahoga County executive race, is out now in the September issue of Cleveland Magazine. Fourteen smart Clevelanders, from Joe Cimperman to Jimmy Malone, talk about what they expect from Cuyahoga County’s future leader and what challenges they hope the new government will take on.

The five leading candidates for the executive job describe their new ideas for the county government, and I analyze the biggest question each has to face to get elected. Take a look at my coverage of candidates Ed FitzGerald and Terri Hamilton Brown if you’re trying to decide who to vote for in the Sept. 7 Democratic primary.

What about the Republicans, you may ask? I also spoke to former state rep Matt Dolan for the package. We decided to focus our coverage on the five candidates we thought had the best experience for the job and the best chance to win.

By those standards, we left out Republican Victor Voinovich, a real estate agent who declared bankruptcy in 2003 and is playing the ballot name game, trading on the reputation of his senator brother by adopting the slogan “The name you can trust.”

His campaign was, naturally, unhappy to see our Voinovich-less September issue. “Shame on you!” his treasurer, Holly Thacker, e-mailed us. “How could you not report on this true lifelong Cuyahogan, a businessman, entrepreneur family man with character who has a pull yourself up by the bootstrap American story?”

Voinovich called my editor, Steve Gleydura, with a similar message. “I think you’re going to be embarrassed,” he said, hinting he’s confident of a victory in Tuesday’s Republican primary.

Interestingly, his call came a day after Henry Gomez – who penned a less than flattering profile of Voinovich in July – reported the political newcomer has Dolan running scared (emphasis mine):

But before he can take on FitzGerald, Dolan must win his primary. It's not shaping up to be as easy as anyone thought. According to his most recent campaign finance report, Dolan spent more than $140,000 this month on postage and printing. The money helped fund a direct mail assault on his chief opponent, Victor Voinovich…

Dolan's internal polling data spooked him into the spending spree.

"Clearly, numbers showed that people thought I was running against George Voinovich," said Dolan, who has been endorsed by the county GOP.

If Voinovich proves us wrong and wins the primary, we’ll definitely cover him this fall. In the meantime, if you’re a Republican primary voter looking for information about him, check out his website,, which includes links to his economic plan and a 9-page bio, and his tense debate with Dolan at the City Club – hear the entire debate as a podcast here or WCPN’s coverage here.