Friday, March 9, 2012
Dimora guilty on 33 of 34 counts
The friendship defense failed. A federal jury found Jimmy Dimora guilty today of 33 out of 34 charges against him -- including bribery, obstruction of justice, and running his office as a criminal racket.
With their verdict, the jury struck a final blow against the old Cuyahoga County politics, the era Dimora dominated and defined.
Dimora's defense, inept as it was, must have given him some small satisfaction. His lawyer, Andrea Whitaker, really did speak for him on the trial's opening day when she argued, "The government has confused friendship with corruption."
Whitaker's arguments took me back to that now-legendary day, four years ago, when I watched Dimora vote to sell the Ameritrust Tower and then throw two reporters out of the commissioner's meeting for asking him about a possible patronage hire.
“I help people in this town!" he shouted. "That’s why I got to where I’m at. ... I help people. That’s why they elect me to this position, and I’ll continue to help people in this town!”
Andrea Whitaker echoed that at trial. “Jimmy did help these people," she said. "That was his job.”
To Dimora, friendship was politics. Putting in a call to the office for a buddy who's on a trip with you to Vegas? Not a crime! Not even if you're calling about his $38 million contract bid and the guy just bought you a hooker. Not as long as someone else signed off on the final decision. Not as long as he listed the buddy's name on a disclosure form.
But today, Cleveland politicians are on notice that cozy relationships and conflicts of interest aren't tolerated anymore. Living large because you're a public official isn't OK -- even if (like Dimora always insisted) you never single-handedly steered a contract.
There was some gray area in a lot of the 34 charges against Dimora, more than some people realized. Often, Dimora wasn't caught actually doing much of anything for his buddies. He put in a good word for them. He tried to nudge their competitor out of the way and failed. He wrote a letter, made a call. He wasn't caught making explicit deals, either. He and his friends operated by winks and hints.
But that didn't matter in court. The federal bribery and extortion statute is pitiless. A quid pro quo, a something-for-something deal, needn't be explicit, judge Sara Lioi told the jury. The public official doesn't have to carry out the official act successfully. He doesn't even have to try. The briber can retain him on an "as-needed" basis, just in case a need for a favor comes up.
After listening to six weeks of tales of sleaze, hookers, gambling sprees, hotel trysts and the slow construction of Dimora's backyard Polynesian paradise, the jury cast aside Dimora's defense. Everyone involved knew the deal, they decided. Dimora got convicted of taking bribes from even minor players -- the guys who gave him stuff for his house in exchange for a reference letter and a letter supporting a visa application. (The only not-guilty charge involved an accusation that he used his campaign funds to pay Executive Caterers for his wife's birthday party.)
It's a strict, tough verdict, but Cleveland is better for it. A split decision, with not-guilty verdicts on the subtler charges, would've sent a signal to local politicians that they could go back to that gray area where insiders trade favors and conflicts of interest are no big deal.
Instead, a jury from outside Cuyahoga County pushed Cleveland politics farther into a new era, where corner-cutting, favor-dealing politicians are on notice that the public and the law won't cut them slack.
Now it's the public's job to sustain that new era and hold our elected officials to higher standards. We know that small lapses, like Dimora's small-town conflicts of interest and campaign-finance violations 20 years ago in Bedford Heights, may grow into larger ones if left unchecked. Journalists are on notice that they shouldn't accept conventional wisdom about what constitutes political business as usual. Politicians are on notice that if they make deals with a patronage machine, they may actually be abetting something bigger and worse than they could see.
In the end, the prosecutors didn't confuse friendship with corruption. Dimora did.
Update, 2:15 pm: Judge Lioi ordered Dimora taken into custody immediately. He was taken from the courtroom in handcuffs. Co-defendant Michael Gabor was found guilty on seven of eight charges against him and also held by U.S. marshals. Next week the jury will decide whether Dimora will forfeit part of the value of his house.
To read my 2009 profile of Dimora, "Life of the Party," click here.