Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Will we ever get answers on the Ameritrust Tower debacle?

Ten years ago today, Jimmy Dimora allegedly held one of his now-infamous power meetings in Independence, at the Holiday Inn on Rockside Road. The topic of the day was the Ameritrust Tower.

Dimora and his fellow Cuyahoga County commissioners were searching for a new county headquarters site. Two months earlier, in November 2004, the Staubach Co., the county’s real estate consultant, had delivered a report that scored the Ameritrust complex fourth among competing developers’ proposals.

But on Jan. 21, 2005 -- according to the lawsuit Ed FitzGerald’s administration filed in June -- Dimora met with someone from Staubach and the company’s attorney, Dimora crony Anthony Calabrese III.

Four days later, Staubach delivered its recommendation that the county should relocate to the Ameritrust complex, owned by the late developer Dick Jacobs -- even though it still ranked lower than other sites in Staubach's scoring.

Later in 2005, Dimora and his fellow county commissioners dumped the plan to lease the Ameritrust complex and bought it for $21.7 million. The county eventually lost about $28 million on its investment in the Ameritrust site. The costs included a $2.6 million payment to Staubach to get out of its contract.

Today, Cuyahoga County’s new government has a lawsuit pending against the firm and several other defendants. The suit is Cleveland’s last chance to get the elusive answers to long-asked questions:

Did Dimora corrupt the decision to buy the Ameritrust Tower? Did he nudge the 2005 county headquarters search toward his benefactor, Dick Jacobs, who had seeded his 1998 campaign with a $36,000 donation?

Did the pattern revealed in the 2008 federal corruption investigation -- people paying Dimora’s cronies to influence him – also lead to the Ameritrust Tower debacle?

A decade after the alleged deed, the question is in danger of receding into history. But it’s still alive, because there’s money at stake.

FitzGerald and his law director, Majeed Makhlouf, spent years building a case against Staubach and the politically connected consultants and attorney it hired, including Vince Russo (Frank Russo’s son) and Calabrese -- both of whom were sentenced to federal prison on other corruption charges.

The former Staubach, now Jones Lang LaSalle, says Russo, Calabrese, and company performed legitimate services for them. Its lawyers -- and other defendants’ -- have filed disdainful court briefs asking judge Jose Villanueva to dismiss the case.

The firm calls the county’s complaint “patently false,” says it “fails to meet even the barest pleading requirements,” and has “no facts to support its claims.” It argues that FitzGerald filed his case too late because of the statute of limitations.

The suit faces other hurdles besides the passage of time. Staubach wasn’t quite responsible for the decision to buy the Ameritrust complex – it recommended that the county lease the site and move in. It warned that totally new construction would not be "fiscally responsible." The decision to buy it instead (to tear it down) was heavily influenced by Tim Hagan, who joined the county commission in January 2005 and felt it was important for the government to own its headquarters, not be “subservient to a landlord.”

Now that FitzGerald is gone, how hard will the county keep fighting?

FitzGerald was practically obsessed with the 2005 Ameritrust Tower transaction during his four years as county executive. He knew that the purchase of the long-vacant skyscraper was one of the reasons voters threw out the old government, which made his election possible. The former FBI agent and ambitious reformer was energized by the prospect of baring ugly truths about the tower deal. He badly wanted to prove he could govern better than the Dimora-era regime.

Now the battle falls to Armond Budish, FitzGerald’s successor. Budish has already shown hints of distancing himself from his predecessor’s legal battles. He’s announced that he’ll hire a new law director to replace Makhlouf. Within days of taking office, he released FitzGerald’s keycard records, which FitzGerald had tried to withhold from the public.

In some ways, the Ameritrust suit is a remnant of Cuyahoga County’s dirty past. FitzGerald mopped up the Ameritrust debacle by selling the complex to a developer who agreed to build and lease a new headquarters for the county on the site. (In keeping with FitzGerald’s goal to reduce the size of county government, the new building is smaller than the behemoth Dimora and Hagan envisioned and abandoned.)

Now, the modern, glassy new county HQ is open. Next door, the once-scorned Ameritrust Tower has been resurrected as The 9: a luxury hotel, club stage for burlesque dancers, and high-rise home of Johnny Manziel. The gorgeous Cleveland Trust rotunda is about to reopen as, of all things, a downtown grocery store.

Both sides are awaiting Villanueva’s ruling on the motions to dismiss the case.  If the judge issues a mixed ruling -- allowing some counts to proceed but hinting at weaknesses in the case – then I could see Budish deciding to cut the legal bills and declare it’s time to move on.

Or, Budish could adopt FitzGerald’s zeal. He, too, could benefit politically if he recovers money possibly lost to the old regime’s corruption.

There’s also a simpler reason for Budish to keep fighting.

The suit seeks to resolve important unanswered questions. Did we truly plumb the depths of Cleveland’s corruption in 2008? Or did the corruption go even higher and deeper than we know?

Ten years later, Clevelanders still deserve an answer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this -- Budish's first very public test: Are you fighting for the old corrupt machine or are you fighting for a new, clean(er) form of government?

Besides Jacobs, who made money on Ameritrust? Precision Environmental made loads of cash taking out asbestos.

Interestingly, the family who owns Precision also made tons of cash in the delay after delay of the county's juvenile justice center. In that case, they were decontaminating dirt that Sam Miller sold the county in windfall.

Let the lawsuits continue. Voters should scream if Budish backs off now. This is a great way to use tax dollars -- hold people accountable so we don't get ripped off again.