Thursday, January 12, 2012

No smoking gun as Dimora trial opens

“This trial will take you into a world [filled] with bribery, with fraud, with conspiracy, with obstruction,” said prosecutor Antoinette Bacon, kicking off her opening statement today in the Jimmy Dimora bribery trial.

Across the room, the former Cuyahoga County commissioner turned his head to listen. His cheeks were shorn, his familiar beard gone, leaving his face looking pointy, stern, downcast.

Bacon argued that Dimora and ex-auditor Frank Russo took cash, sold jobs, tried to fix court cases, and came up with “short cuts to give some an unfair advantage over others.” Bribes, she said, helped make Dimora’s back yard “a private luxury retreat.”

“Dimora and Russo realized that some people were willing to buy [their] power,” Bacon argued. “Sometimes, Dimora and Russo were willing to sell.”

Bacon’s opener, in federal court in Akron, included no smoking gun, no single incident in which Dimora was caught explicitly making a gifts-for-favors deal. (Underwhelmingly, she promised the jurors they’d hear phone calls in which Dimora “says something like, ‘If he gets the work, he’ll buy dinner.’”)

Instead, the prosecution is planning a long march through a complex story, overwhelming in its detail. Bacon alleged a conspiracy involving 18 people, and displayed photos of them, one by one, arranged in a pyramid with Dimora and Russo at the top. It took her an hour and 40 minutes to get through it all.

The most vivid story Bacon told, of course, was set in Las Vegas. Her PowerPoint flashed color photos of Dimora’s entourage frolicking in a private cabana at Bare, the Mirage Casino’s exclusive pool. A grainy surveillance photo showed Dimora at the Prime Steakhouse; the $2,200 dinner check was reproduced next to it.

Bacon told jurors they will see video of businessman Ferris Kleem giving casino chips to Dimora. She played a phone recording of Dimora thanking Kleem for sending the “chatty” masseuse (an alleged prostitute, named Suzanne) to his hotel room. In another call, at the trip’s end, Dimora thanks Kleem for his “generosity.” During the trip, Bacon said, Dimora was calling Cleveland, inquiring about Kleem’s bid for a $38 million contract at the juvenile justice center. (Kleem didn’t get the contract.)

Over and over, Bacon yoked Dimora to Russo, his corrupt former friend now facing 21 years in prison. She said they had “an unspoken and unwritten sort of set of rules, almost a conspiracy handbook.” Rule #1, she argued: Only deal with people you trust. #2: Sometimes use an intermediary, a bag man. Dimora’s co-defendant, Michael Gabor, played both roles in several schemes, she charged. #3: Cover your tracks.

That’s what she said Dimora and Co. did after word of the FBI probe leaked in May 2008. She showed jurors checks that Dimora’s wife wrote to contractors who worked on the Dimora home the same day agents confronted businessman Steve Pumper. The prosecutor described Dimora, Russo, and Gabor meeting for breakfast to hear the news or react to it, and Dimora, county employee J. Kevin Kelley, and union leader Robert Rybak meeting in a post office parking lot at night to talk about how they’d react if the FBI swooped in.

Bacon’s statement included two more new revelations. One is that Dimora got a U.S. senator to write a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Romania about a visa application. The applicant’s friend, John Valentin, allegedly did work on Dimora’s house to reward Dimora. The senator, who was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote the letter in 2007. That means it's probably George Voinovich. He was on the foreign relations committee; Sherrod Brown wasn't.

-Adrian Maldonado, who was the county’s head of procurement and diversity in early 2008, is becoming an important figure in the trial. Maldonado had a lot of say in the more minute aspects of evaluating contract bids, since he ruled on whether bidders’ subcontractors were qualified for the job. In one phone call Bacon played, Pumper, who was trying to get work for his company Green-Source, says, “Adrian tells me right now it’s purely political. If you can convince Jimmy to hold off [on rebidding a job], he’ll do it.”

(Maldonado spoke to me for my 2009 profile of Dimora, “Life of the Party.” “If Jimmy Dimora is invested in an issue, he wants to know all the details,” he told me. “Did we do everything we needed to do? Does the aggrieved party have another shot at something else? The second bidder, is he clean?” Dimora or his aides might ask if a contract can be rebid, he said, or they might ask what the law says about the bidding process. “He never said to me, ‘Adrian, your job is on the line,’ ” Maldonado says. “He never asked me to do anything I might be ashamed of.”)

Jurors also got to see a lot of pictures of Dimora’s back yard patio, decked out with gleaming silver appliances and new wood furnishings with granite countertops. They got a long look at a photo of Dimora’s Beanie Wells jersey.

Bacon described the trial to come as a “journey” through a “dark world,” and promised to introduce the jurors to “travel guides” who’ll walk them through it, including Frank Russo.

(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.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Describe the Plain Dealer's contingent. Your blog postings have been about 75% as informative as their "Team Coverage." Is the PD rolling strong up in there or are they just a bunch of posers?