Thursday, December 29, 2011

FBI investigated failed Ameritrust Tower sale, asbestos contract

Now's the season when we learn new details about the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal, including the stuff the FBI investigated that hasn't led to charges. Before Jimmy Dimora goes on trial next week, we're seeing a flurry of court filings that reveal a lot about the feds' early moves in the probe.

Here's the biggest news so far. The judge's latest opinion reveals that two of the seven alleged schemes the FBI was investigating as of late 2007 involved the Ameritrust Tower. The FBI showed an interest in the county's $22 million purchase of it and failed attempt to sell it, as well as a $7 million contract to remove asbestos from it.

We've known for a while that the FBI was curious about the county's vacant skyscraper. The search warrant executed on Dimora's office in 2008 asked for documents showing his decision-making on the Ameritrust project. This is the first time in 3 1/2 years we've learned anything more.

Judge Sara Lioi never writes the word "Ameritrust," but it's clear which building she's talking about in her opinion. Lioi explains several steps the FBI took to assemble probable cause to believe a crime had been committed before it asked permission to tap Dimora buddy Steve Pumper's phone in December 2007. She describes a conversation between Pumper and a confidential source who's wearing a wire -- probably Cleveland housing inspector Bobby Cuevas -- about a building that is clearly the Ameritrust Tower:

On November 15, 2007, the Cuyahoga County Commissioners voted to place the property in question up for sale.... a number of calls were placed on the evening of November 15th between, variously, Dimora, Company A, Pumper, and Michael Forlani... Pumper, after rubbing his fingers together in a "money" gesture, stated that the County Commissioners often "want a little action"; and Pumper indirectly indicated to the confidential source that the reason the County had opted to purchase the now-for-sale building in the first place instead of another property under consideration was because the owner of the other property refused to pay bribes or kickbacks.

The main competition for The Jacobs Group, which sold the Ameritrust Tower to the county in 2005, was Forest City, which offered to lease the Higbee Building to the county, and David Goldberg of the former Ohio Savings Bank, who offered a lease on the 668 Euclid building.

Next, Lioi describes an alleged "scheme" that clearly involves the contract to remove asbestos from the Ameritrust Tower. In August 2007, Dimora and Tim Hagan voted to award the asbestos contract to the second-lowest bidder, local company Precision Environmental, instead of the low bidder, St. Louis company Midwest Asbestos Abatement. (Peter Lawson Jones voted against giving the contract to Precision.)

In the judge's words:
[One scheme involved] the bidding process for a contract for "soft demolition" in a building owned by the County. ... a confidential source reported that Dimora had close ties to the individuals who owned a contracting company that had submitted the second-lowest bid... another confidential source reported (second-hand) that several Cuyahoga County officials held a private meeting at which they decided to award the contract to the second-place company despite its higher bid; this second confidential source also reported that a public employee close to Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo told the source that Russo and Dimora had been waiting for a company like the second-place company to need their help...

Sounds ominous, but the judge's summary may help explain why the FBI's interest in the contract did not lead to charges. Some of the FBI's suspicions were based on second-hand stories.

It's also worth noting that Dimora and Hagan awarded the contract to Precision based on the advice of their staff. I interviewed some of those staffers in 2008, and they seemed to strongly believe Precision was the best company for the job. You can read about the asbestos controversy and the purchase of the tower in my June 2008 story "Tower Play."

Also, Dimora's friend Bobby DiGeronimo, whose family owns Precision, spoke to me for "Life of the Party," my October 2009 Dimora profile. He told me that he and Dimora didn't speak about the asbestos contract until after the vote.

{Update, 1/6/12: Interesting -- DiGeronimo's relationship with Dimora may come up in the trial. DiGeronimo spoke to me in 2009 for my Dimora profile. “To this day, Jimmy has never asked me for anything except sports tickets,” he told me. Now the feds want to talk about those gifts at trial. They're not drawing a connection with the asbestos contract, but with a land sale DiGeronimo bidded on. He tells the Plain Dealer he did nothing wrong. And yes, this is the same Bobby DiGeronimo from the Ohio State football scandal. Dimora got his famous Beanie Wells jersey at a fundraiser for DiGeronimo's charity.}

Two final notes, giving credit where it's due. Fox 8 reported in fall 2007 that the FBI was investigating the Ameritrust asbestos contract. Now we know that Fox 8 was right, and was the first local media outlet to report on the corruption investigation. Also, the Plain Dealer has long claimed that Bobby Cuevas was a key figure in the probe, to the point where they referred to the county corruption investigation and the feds' stings of crooked Cleveland inspectors as part of the same investigation. I had my doubts and said so. But the judge's opinion seems to suggest that Cuevas was one of the feds' two best sources on Dimora and Pumper in 2007.

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