Thursday, September 16, 2010

Russo, with family in first row, pleads guilty, accepts 21 years on 21 counts

Frank Russo walked into the courtroom with a stunned look on his face. His mouth hung slightly open. His dark eyes, magnified by glasses, looked big, fixed on a middle distance.

He stepped forward to the first row of seats, where his family awaited. On the left, daughter Richelle Russo Reed, aka Public Employee 3, a former county engineer's employee who got raises in exchange for her dad's favors to others. On the right, his housemate, Michael Calabrese, aka PE55, named in search warrants seeking a true accounting of their household income. Between them sat three other young women, one with her arm around a young man, and an older woman.

Russo walked up and smooched his daughters. "See you soon," he said. For a second, he managed a tiny smile, an echo of that big grin we've all seen on his cash-register and gas-pump stickers.

"All rise," the clerk called. Russo's eyes stayed on his family for one split second after everyone else in the courtroom turned.

Judge Kathleen O'Malley asked him countless questions about his rights and his health. Russo answered, his voice high-pitched and a little scratchy. Sometimes you could hear a hint of liveliness, of the happy-go-lucky personality that once charmed so many political insiders. I remembered what one politico said to me last year -- before the tale of the $1.2 million in bribes, back when there was still a chance for reasonable doubt. "If you met him, you'd like him," the guy said.

The judge asked Russo to describe his former job.

"I was Cuyahoga County auditor," Russo said. "The main responsibility was setting property values. We sold dog licenses, [handled] estate tax. ... Basically educating the public on what's going on in the county."

O'Malley asked if he'd resigned because of the plea agreement.

"Yes, your honor," Russo said, his voice dropping.

Prosecutor Ann Rowland rose to describe the deal, which the judge repeatedly called unusual. The federal government had agreed not to bring any charges against Russo's daughters or housemate. Also protected were Adelbert "Chip" Marous (Richelle Reed Russo's fiancé) and Marous Brothers Construction Inc. Prosecutors also agreed not to bring any further charges against Russo's son, Vince. In exchange, both Frank and Vince Russo would plead guilty.

Then came the big reveal. On 21 counts of corruption, Russo had agreed to spend 21 years, 10 months in federal prison.

He won't have to report until May 16, 2011. The judge asked Rowland to explain why. It was at Russo's request, she said: "Quite frankly, in the defendant's own words, 'It amounts to a life sentence.'" Russo is 60. He wants to be free for a while longer, until some expected grandchildren are born, until a few other family events.

"No substantial assistance reduction is contemplated in the plea agreement, correct?" the judge asked.

"Correct," Rowland replied -- confirming that Russo refused to testify against Jimmy Dimora or anyone else, even though it would've earned him less prison time.

Finally, the judge asked Russo to rise. Five times, she asked for his plea: to two kinds of bribery and to bribery conspiracy, witness tampering and tax fraud.

"Guilty," he said each time, his voice alternately sad, flat, and defeated.

When court adjourned, he sat at the table, signing court papers. His family gathered to wait for him.

Any criminal defendant, if he's lucky, has family in court on his day of reckoning, someone to support him despite his crimes. But listening to the bargain he'd struck, and the bargain he'd refused to strike, all to protect those close to him, I thought about how Russo is headed to prison with his intense, perverse sense of loyalty intact.

His employees were like family -- he gave them security and they gave him loyalty, though it sometimes came in the form of cold cash. Dimora is like family, someone he won't betray. His circle of loyalty was wide.

But it didn't extend to the voters. That $1.2 million he got in envelopes, skimmed from a huge county contract? That bloated payroll we all financed? That wasn't loyalty -- not at all.

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