Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dimora, defiant in court, gets 28 years in prison

Four years and three days after the FBI raided his office and home, Jimmy Dimora sat at a table in a courthouse in Akron, with one last chance to defend himself.  And he did.

“I certainly was not part of ripping off the taxpayers of Cuyahoga County,” Dimora told the judge, his voice quiet at first. “I never took bribes or kickbacks.” He denied he was ever involved in “steering contracts, bid rigging, or the selling of jobs.”

Even after this winter’s trial, and minutes before his sentencing on 32 corruption charges, Dimora was every bit as defiant, as stubborn, as sure of his own judgment as he was three years ago, when his angry press conferences denying any wrongdoing shocked Cleveland.

“I have no regret or any type of reservation [about] anything I did,” Dimora said, his voice rising like it used to at commissioners’ meetings. “I always did it with the best intentions of Cuyahoga County in mind.”

For four years, Clevelanders have asked, why doesn’t Jimmy Dimora cooperate with the government? Why won’t he plead guilty?

“The county has lost no taxpayer money from any vote I cast, not one cent,” he said today.

Believe it or not, Dimora’s answer to the five-year corruption scandal remains the same: He still doesn’t believe he did anything wrong.

It was like stepping through a time warp, to the strange old days of two or three years ago. Dimora defended himself as he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was still in office, before the government he led was wiped out and replaced with a new one.

“If someone already doing business with the county would buy me a meal or take me to a sporting event – which is not illegal in Ohio – I disclosed it. I filed my ethics forms.”

Earlier in the day, Judge Sara Lioi had turned angry when Dimora attorney Bill Whitaker had tried to bring up those ethics forms. “Why is he accepting all these gifts?” the judge asked. “Concrete work? Valuable items? Does he think everyone wants to give him gifts? Does he think he’s entitled to them? If they are his friends, why is he voting on things that could impact them? Why isn’t he recusing himself?”

Dimora’s answer to that was to assert his integrity. The $250,000 in cash and prizes the prosecutors say he got from his contractor friends? They had no impact on his decisions, he said. 

“It didn’t bother me if someone was a friend, if I knew them, if they gave me campaign donations, or gave me a thing of value, or donated to the Democratic Party,” Dimora said. “If they were not the low bidder… they did not get my vote.”

Dimora denied taking cash from anyone in exchange for county business (he was found guilty of taking $30,000 from Steve Pumper and $6,000 from Ferris Kleem). He said he never told the county staff to circumvent regular procedures.

“It was an honor for me to serve,” he said. “I did it honestly and always put the taxpayers first and foremost in any votes I cast.” The federal government, he said, “had made a mountain out of a molehill.”

Dimora stayed angry right to the end of his 17-minute statement, when he broke down talking about his love for his wife, who had sat through two months of testimony that included details of Dimora’s serial infidelities with prostitutes and an “old friend” or two.

The judge showed no reaction to Dimora’s statement. If his lack of contrition made any difference in her decision, she didn’t say so.

“The reach of [Dimora’s] corruption was far and wide,” she said. “It caused the citizens of Cuyahoga County to lose respect for their government.”

Lioi acknowledged that Dimora was a good mayor of Bedford Heights in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “But somewhere along the way, his focus changed from the people who elected him to serving himself and his friends. Somewhere along the way, he changed.”

Under Dimora and Frank Russo’s leadership, people who wanted a county job or contract “had to pay a fee, a price,” the judge said. “They exacted their fee in different ways.” Russo wanted cash, she said. “Mr. Dimora was content to receive meals, gambling trips, home improvements, the services of prostitutes, and relatively smaller amounts of cash.

“Mr. Russo was more obvious about what he was doing,” Lioi said. Dimora’s conduct was more “insidious and perhaps even dishonest for those who paid for his help. … Sometimes he could help, sometimes he could not. Sometimes [the help was] no more than a phone call that could’ve been made by the briber just as effectively.”

In other words, the smallness of the favors he granted didn’t matter.  The bribes, the exploitation of his office, did.

“The breadth and depth of corruption of county government… was staggering,” Lioi said, “and the destruction left in its wake is incalculable.”

With that, Lioi sentenced Dimora to 20 years in prison for the bribery, extortion and fraud counts; 3 for false tax returns; and 5 for obstructing justice – 28 years in all. Dimora, 57 and in poor health, is stuck in federal prison until 2040, when he would be 85.

Dimora turned away from the judge, looked toward his family in the gallery, and shook his head.

It was a stunning sentence, one of the largest known punishments in a federal public corruption case. And the defense has a point – it is a very long sentence for someone who may have stolen nothing from the public treasury.

This week’s painstaking loss calculations in court identified only two schemes that definitely cost the taxpayers: Dimora’s maneuverings to restore $300,000 in grants for a halfway house and hire two plumbers. The two sides also argued about a decrepit parking garage the county bought for $5 million in a 2-1 vote at Dimora’s urging, but the $30,000 bribe may have merely hastened a decision the county staff was eager to make.

Compare that to Russo, who steered a bloated contract that funded $8 million in bribes, including $1.2 million in kickbacks for himself. He got 21 years and will probably get that reduced.

But there is one more difference between Dimora and Russo.

At the end of the hearing, when the judge ordered Dimora remanded to the custody of the marshals, Dimora dismissed her words with a wave of his hand. He stood and grumbled to his lawyers. His voice was quiet, across the room, but I think I heard him right.

“Bullshit,” he said. “This justice system is fucked, totally.”

He waved to his family. “See you guys. Don’t know when.”

Then he stepped, his walker clicking on the floor, past the prosecutor’s table. He turned to the two FBI agents.

“You’re good storytellers,” he said bitterly. “I hope you guys are happy. Good job. Good job.”

That’s the difference between Dimora and Russo.  Jimmy Dimora still doesn’t think he did anything wrong.

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