Monday, July 30, 2012

Dimora’s Last Tango in Akron: The Math of Corruption

The door opened, and Jimmy Dimora entered the courtroom, slowly, still hurt from a fall in prison, leaning on a walker that clicked with each step. Without his once-familiar beard, his face looked beaky.

He didn’t look much like the man who’d spent a dozen years as Greater Cleveland’s most powerful politician, controlling the local Democratic Party and voting on Cuyahoga County’s billion-dollar budget. Until he sat down at the defense table and took his glasses from his shirt pocket. Then, for a moment, Dimora looked like he had just 1½ years ago, sitting at the county commissioners’ table, ready for the proceedings.

The judge read the 32 corruption crimes he committed, including 22 counts of bribery and extortion. Then came a legal matter that disappointed everyone hoping for swift justice or swift mercy.

Dimora’s attorneys kicked off a marathon attempt to buy the ailing 57-year-old defendant more of a chance to get out of prison alive someday. The math of corruption took over most of the day: how much Dimora was really bribed, whether the bribe or the thing acquired by bribing him should be held against him in the judge’s “loss calculation.”

Along the way, we got our final reminders of several of Dimora’s most ridiculous sprees of greed, gluttony, and lust.

At one point, defense attorney Andrea Whitaker found herself arguing that Dimora didn’t deserve blame for all the cash paid to prostitutes during a casino trip to Windsor. “The woman -- I don’t remember her real name, her stage name was Egypt -- performed dances for various people on the trip,” she pointed out.

At another point, assistant prosecutor Antoinette Bacon insisted she had counted the hooker money right. “This is only the amount the prostitutes received to service commissioner Dimora,” she asserted.

Later, the talk turned to food. “The value of the bribe should be the full value of the Delmonico’s dinner,” Bacon argued.

The Beanie Wells jersey Dimora bid $3,600 on at a Cornerstone of Hope auction also made an encore appearance. Whitaker argued it was only worth $200, since it’s only attracted $50 on eBay. (Update, 7/31: Maybe I misunderstood. There are many, many Beanie Wells jerseys on eBay, and none are fetching $3,600.)

The prosecutors had run up the score, putting their “loss calculation” at a massive $3 million. Dimora’s attorneys fought back using the few arguments left in his tattered defense: that he’d only put a good word in for his friends, not steered any contracts; that he hadn’t done anything that cost the county money.

With some schemes, Judge Sara Lioi agreed. In the sex-for-favors conviction involving Bedford courts employee Gina Coppers, prosecutors wanted to include Coppers’ salary as a “loss.” The defense countered that Coppers has actually been a good employee. Lioi sided with Dimora on that, holding him liable only for the $121 cost of the room at the Holiday Inn in Independence where he rendezvoused with Coppers.

All the while, Dimora’s family took up two rows in the courtroom gallery, wife and kids in front. Behind them sat the extended family: a row of seven Italian-looking guys and one woman, a sort of peanut gallery that scoffed when Bacon made an especially strident argument or Lioi added another dollar figure to Dimora’s tab. At one point, the judge held Dimora liable for $6,000 that businessman Ferris Kleem gave Frank Russo as part of the three men’s conspiracy. “What’s Jimmy got to do with that?” a relative exclaimed.

Dimora’s argument that his corruption hadn’t tapped the county treasury held up well, with two exceptions. Lioi ruled that county judges had decided to deny the Alternatives Agency halfway house any more funding, until Dimora called the chief judge and talked him into giving it another $300,000. And Jay Ross, former central services director, hadn’t wanted or needed to hire two union plumbers during a budget crisis, but Dimora had ordered him to, the judge recalled.

“Mr. Dimora gave new life to, resurrected, recreated Alternatives Agency [funding] and the plumbing positions on his own,” the judge said.

By the end, the defense had knocked the prosecutors’ $3 million “loss calculation” down to $451,000. That may inch him down a bit in the sentencing guidelines – or it may not, says Mike Tobin, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor.

A gloomy buzz passed across the gallery when Lioi said the sentencing hearing would go into tomorrow. But first, the defense called five character witnesses, to revive an even more tattered part of Dimora’s defense – Jimmy the nice guy.

The witnesses all described the Dimora that Cleveland’s political culture was still willing to recall three years ago when I reported my profile of Dimora, “Life of the Party.”

Old family friend Andrew Getner testified that Dimora “never missed a funeral” and remembered his relatives’ names after not seeing them for 20 years. Dimora’s daughter and next-door neighbor portrayed him as a loving family man.

William J. Day, a lawyer from Brecksville, testified that Dimora had gotten his developmentally disabled son jobs with the county recorder and auditor’s offices (Frank Russo’s office, I presume). Was his son still working there? Day was asked. “No, the new regime has slaughtered thousands of employees,” Day replied.

Bedford Heights city council president Phillip Saunders started strong, describing how Dimora smoothed over tense race relations when African-Americans moved to town in the ‘80s. But soon he was reduced to raving about Dimora’s friendliness with seniors at the Jimmy Dimora Community Center and his schmoozing ways on the rubber-chicken circuit. “Jimmy Dimora could eat!” Saunders exclaimed. “He was eating pancakes, two or three dinners a day, because he had to go to these programs.”

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