Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Russo testifies, lives it up as day of reckoning recedes
A $3,000 dinner bill at XO Prime Steaks, a $4,000 meal for 15 or more at Mallorca -- food upstaged hookers today in Frank Russo's first day of testimony at the Jimmy Dimora trial.
"Everyone knew Jimmy liked to eat and have good food," said Dimora's former pal, demonstrating a mastery of understatement.
Ah, those were the days for Jimmy and Frank, back when they dined out four nights a week, sticking Ferris Kleem or J. Kevin Kelley or some other doormat stooge with the check. That was 2008, long ago for Dimora.
But Frank Russo, enjoying his new career as a government witness, is still out on the town.
This Friday night, Russo was living it up at Fahrenheit in Tremont, a friend who saw him there tells me. The crooked ex-auditor, in a party of four, seemed altogether unvexed by his upcoming testimony. The atmosphere at their table was more festive than funereal.
Since the FBI raided his office in 2008, I've heard about Russo enjoying his remaining freedom: checking out a street festival, heavily over-tipping in Bratenahl and watching sports at the Winking Lizard in Bedford Heights.
But Friday at Fahrenheit, Russo truly had a reason to celebrate. His first day in prison had just been put off indefinitely.
Last week, prosecutors asked that Russo's reporting date of Feb. 29 be postponed until he's finished testifying in multiple corruption trials. Judge Sara Lioi granted the request.
After Dimora's trial, the feds' star witness still has to testify against his former deputy auditor, Samir Mohammad, who's set for trial in June. Russo's services will probably also be required at the trials of lawyer Anthony O. Calabrese III, set for September, and contractor Michael Forlani, which isn't even scheduled yet.
So Russo may have been granted another year of freedom.
He has an obvious reason to stall for time: He's 62 and facing 22 years in prison. He'll get years cut off his sentence in exchange for testifying, but even so, he may not live to be a free man again.
The feds say the delay isn't intended to reward Russo. It'll save the government money. Having him stay in Cleveland is easier for the feds, who don't need to bring him back from prison in Pennsylvania every time they need him. Russo isn't only testifying, he's offered to help the investigation by reviewing and explaining documents and wiretaps. Shipping all that stuff to prison would cause "insurmountable logistical and security problems." Besides, it isn't special treatment. All the corruption defendants get to stay out of prison until their cooperation is finished.
That almost sounded logical to me, until I remembered a moment from the Nate Gray trial seven years ago. A prosecutor asked Emmanuel Onunwor, the convicted former East Cleveland mayor, where he was residing. "The Lake County jail," he testified. The feds can temporarily stash important witnesses in local jails, if they really want to.
Russo keeps buying his reprieve a few months at a time. Though he turned his county fiefdom into a jobs-for-cash machine, stole $1.2 million in cash kickbacks from the taxpayers and agreed to pay $7 million in restitution, he is still dining large.
That upsets my friend, who wonders how Clevelanders can still admit Russo into polite company. Restaurants should refuse Russo a table, he says. Sure, they might get buzz from serving a notorious guest. But they'd get more buzz from throwing Russo out. If they don't, my friend says, "Someone should throw a drink in his face."