Tuesday, June 3, 2014

FitzGerald files suit over 2005 Ameritrust deal -- but can he answer the biggest question?

Ed FitzGerald says he’s kicked off the “hopefully the last chapter” in the Cuyahoga County corruption saga. He’s filed a lawsuit to try to prove longstanding suspicions that Jimmy Dimora and his cronies corrupted the county’s ill-fated 2005 purchase of the Ameritrust Tower.

The lawsuit could answer questions about the old county government’s controversial $3 million deal with a real estate consultant. It also hints at an even deeper possible scandal -- that Dimora may have manipulated the search for a new county headquarters site so that the Ameritrust site would come out on top.

For years, FitzGerald has vowed to get to the bottom of lingering questions about the former Staubach Co.’s real estate consulting contract. He thinks its $3 million payment was inflated, and he questions why Staubach liked the Ameritrust site.

“This whole thing started because when you look at the transaction on its face, it doesn’t make sense,” FitzGerald said yesterday. After the FBI probe of the Ameritrust deal didn’t result in convictions, FitzGerald asked county prosecutor Tim McGinty to look into it. “As the years went by, we got some additional information from the prosecution,” FitzGerald said.

Now, FitzGerald’s administration claims Staubach paid $500,000 to people close to Dimora, who helped Staubach get Dimora’s ear and then get the contract. The alleged cast of characters includes Vince Russo, corrupt ex-auditor Frank Russo’s son, and Vincent Carbone, a contractor implicated in the county corruption probe. The suit says Staubach hired them as “government relations” consultants.

“The amounts involved here are pretty astronomical,” FitzGerald said. “Over a half million dollars -- a huge portion of the total contract -- is all in government relations. Whether or not they’re true experts in government relations is a real question.”

The suit also claims Anthony Calabrese III played a major role in corrupting the Ameritrust project. Calabrese, a central figure in the federal corruption case, worked as an attorney for Staubach.

The suit (pdf) alleges that Staubach hired Calabrese so that he’d help them get meetings with Dimora and win the county’s business. It claims Calabrese got $99,000 of Staubach’s alleged “government relations” payments.

Last year, county prosecutor McGinty got Calabrese to plead guilty in state court to paying a $70,000 bribe for inside information about the Ameritrust sale. McGinty also called Dimora, Frank Russo, and others to testify before a county grand jury. Info from McGinty’s criminal investigation helped the law department file suit.

The complaint even tackles the most explosive question about the deal: Why did the county choose to buy the Ameritrust complex? The suit clearly implies that Dimora steered Staubach’s site search for a new county headquarters toward the Ameritrust complex, then owned by the late developer and Indians owner Dick Jacobs.

Dimora met with Staubach officials at the Holiday Inn Rockside in Independence on January 21, 2005, the suit claims -- four days before Staubach delivered its recommendation.

“Ameritrust all of a sudden became the first recommended choice,” county law director Majeed Makhlouf said yesterday. Earlier, Staubach had ranked the site fourth. Makhlouf says Staubach hasn’t provided any records about why it moved the Ameritrust site to first place.

The lawsuit claims the county wouldn’t have chosen the Ameritrust site if not for Staubach’s alleged wrongdoing. Makhlouf suggested the county may seek damages for its $1 million annual upkeep of the complex and the $10 million it spent to remove asbestos from it. (The county sold it last year at a loss of about $18 million.)

But Staubach didn’t tell the county to buy the building – it recommended leasing it. The company, now part of Jones Lang Lasalle, pointed that out in a statement yesterday. It accused FitzGerald of filing a “baseless” lawsuit for political purposes (to burnish his reformer credentials while he’s running for governor, presumably). The company denied any wrongdoing and noted that it cooperated fully with McGinty’s investigation. Update: The company also says Russo and Carbone's company provided "legitimate services" that included "much more than government relations," and that the county has ignored documents that prove as much.

“Isn’t it rather interesting,” Makhlouf said, “[that] all these expenses are allegedly charged to see how suitable the building is, so you can tear it down?” Sure. And that’s a question for Dimora. Staubach never wanted to tear it down.

The decision to buy the Ameritrust Tower lies with Dimora, Tim Hagan, and Peter Lawson Jones, the county commissioners in 2005. Hagan and Jones explained their reasoning in my 2008 story “Tower Play.” Dimora’s reasons are less clear.

Given what we now know about Dimora’s corruption -- how he repeatedly nudged the county toward decisions that benefited his friends and benefactors -- the question of whether he nudged this search toward a benefactor’s site is worth asking. Dick Jacobs, who died in 2009, seeded Dimora’s first campaign for county commissioner with a $36,000 donation.

An FBI wiretap caught a Dimora crony claiming vaguely that the county chose the Ameritrust site because the owner of a competing property wouldn’t pay a kickback. But the FBI couldn’t build a case on that. Learning the truth or untruth of that story may be beyond the reach of FitzGerald’s lawyers -- the real last chapter in the county corruption saga, one that no one may be able to write.

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