Jimmy Dimora’s attorney Andrea Whitaker previewed an aggressive defense in her opening statement at trial today.
The defense strategy: Admit that Dimora took gifts from friends. Deny that he ever took cash. Admit that Dimora did favors for people as county commissioner. Deny that he ever did anything official in exchange for anything.
“Jimmy did help these people,” Whitaker said. “That was his job.”
The line became a refrain in Whitaker’s punchy, hour-long statement. “It was his job to let people know about the county red tape and procedures, the things they needed to do,” she said. “It was a perfectly legitimate part of commissioner Dimora’s job, the job of everyone in the county, to respond to these requests.” He helped friends, Whitaker claimed, according to the “same criteria” he applied to everyone else.
Much of Whitaker’s argument echoed the defense Dimora articulated himself in 2008 and 2009: He awarded contracts to the low bidder, based on advice from staff. People asked him for help all the time. He reported all the gifts and meals his friends bought him on his state ethics reports.
Whitaker disputed the prosecution’s depiction of the case as a secret world. Dimora’s friendships were out in the open, she said.
“The government has confused friendship with corruption,” she argued. “The government has confused Jimmy Dimora with Frank Russo.”
Whitaker said the defense is going to call several county employees as witnesses, to testify that several of the contracts, loan extensions, and so forth in the indictment were awarded legitimately, following proper rules. She insisted that businessman Steve Pumper’s assertion that he bribed Dimora with $30,000 is a lie.
“The evidence will show you Jimmy Dimora never received cash from anyone,” she said.
Whitaker signaled that the defense will attack the bribery charges by questioning whether Dimora received gifts in return for anything, and whether some of the “official acts” he’s alleged to have undertaken for the gifts were really official parts of his job.
This could be the core of the case. Earlier, prosecutor Antoinette Bacon asserted that an official act included not just votes, but scheduling or attending meetings, asking other public officials for help, and other informal nudges and recommendations. Whitaker objected, and Judge Sara Lioi reminded the jury that she, not Bacon, will tell them what the law is.
Starting with the less dramatic charges, Whitaker went through the stories Bacon had told about Dimora and the alleged conspirators and argued that several of the things of value Dimora received were gestures of friendship. With the Beanie Wells jersey, for instance, she argued that William Neiheiser paid for it because he and Dimora had been drinking at a Cornerstone for Hope charity auction, and Neiheiser felt bad that he’d egged Dimora on to bid $3,600 he couldn’t afford.
Other times, Whitaker argued that Dimora had used his influence legitimately. She said Dimora had recommended friend Gina Coppers for a job at the Bedford Municipal Court, not in exchange for her having sex with him, but because she had worked for him as senior citizens department director when he was mayor of Bedford Heights.
When taped phone calls are played in the trial, Whitaker asked the jury, “Listen for examples of Jimmy Dimora depriving the citizens of Cuyahoga County of his honest services in exchange for things of value. Listen to them over and over.” They won’t hear any examples, she said.
“Jimmy Dimora is not guilty of being a corrupt politician,” Whitaker concluded.
(Note to concerned readers: Don’t worry, I’m not violating the judge’s ban on blogging in the courthouse. I’m writing from a coffeehouse a block away.)