Monday, August 13, 2012

Port board member implicated in corruption probe; next move is FitzGerald’s

Now we know why the Port Authority got hit with a subpoena about its parking deal with the Cleveland Browns. Federal prosecutors think Robert Peto, a member of the Port Authority board, was bribed by corruption-scandal defendant Michael Forlani. They suggest that Forlani used his ties to Peto to try to extort a higher price for flat-screen TVs out of the Browns.

The feds’ new court filing is a fun read for all the F-bombs Forlani drops. (More on that in a minute.) But it’s also relevant because the port is asking for a big new levy on the Nov. 6 ballot. It’s hard for a public agency to ask for more money when someone in its leadership is under federal investigation. (Just ask the Parma schools.)

Peto’s lawyer says he didn’t extort the Browns, has been a good board member, and isn't resigning. But Peto doesn’t have to resign. His term ran out in January. He’s only serving on the port board until Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald names his replacement.

If FitzGerald wants the port levy to pass, he’d be wise to nominate someone to the port board to replace Peto and get council to approve him or her, fast.

Yet despite his eagerness to put a stamp on the county government, FitzGerald hasn’t moved fast to assert himself at the port. Maybe it hasn’t been a priority for him because the city of Cleveland controls six seats on the port board and Cuyahoga County only three. Last year, it took him until fall to pick Chris Ronayne to fill a seat open since January. Maybe it’s hard to find good people for the port board.

But Peto’s been identifiable as PE61 in prosecutors’ filings for months now. (On one tape, Forlani reportedly calls Peto "Hoffa.") He was forced out of his leadership job at the local carpenter’s union last year. After 20 months in office, you’d think FitzGerald would fast-track this talent search.

For more detail, let’s go to the prosecutor's filing.  (These aren't formal charges, but a "bill of particulars" giving Forlani's lawyers more detail about the prosecution's case.  Peto isn't named and isn't formally charged with a crime.)

Public Employee 61 (“PE61”) used his official positions as (1) a member of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority (“Port Authority”), (2) the Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Ohio and Vicinity Regional Council of Carpenters (“OVRCC”) ... to benefit FORLANI
This description matches Peto. 
15. FORLANI, Doan Pyramid Electric, and Neteam AVI gave and offered to give PE61 things of value, including free and discounted home improvements and materials, discounted vehicles, and personal services, in return and in exchange for PE61 using and promising to use his official position with the Port Authority, OVRCC, and ERISA funds to benefit FORLANI and his designees.
Home improvements again! Yes, Forlani is a Jimmy Dimora-style corruption defendant. They were even indicted together.
D. Cleveland Browns Extortion
18. In or around 2008, the Cleveland Browns had an agreement with the Port Authority to lease parking space in close proximity to Cleveland Browns stadium...

19. In or around 2008, the Cleveland Browns were considering a number of improvements to Cleveland Browns stadium. One project under consideration was upgrading to high-definition televisions in the suites. FORLANI was negotiating the contract price with the Cleveland Browns.

20. When the Cleveland Browns tried to negotiate a lower price, FORLANI told a Cleveland Browns employee that FORLANI would use his power and influence with the Port Authority to increase the contract price for the Cleveland Browns parking contract ...
FORLANI then stated, “They f–k with me, you see that parking you guys got next door at that f—ing Port Authority, you wait and see what f—ing happens.” The employee responded, “I know that.” FORLANI continued, “You watch that f–king Port land next door, you’ll guys will be f—ing crying. I’ll tell you that right now.”
The Cleveland Browns employee replied, “They already had a meeting with us. And they said we don’t pay enough money . . . Well you could’ve helped us with that.”
This Browns employee seems to be playing it pretty cool.
FORLANI answered, “Oh sure, I can make it two things [] either, you could, the amount you’re pay’n’s okay, or the amount that you’re payin’ is like half of what it’s gonna be.”

FORLANI also told the Cleveland Browns employee, “I can’t tell you how much f—ing trouble I can cause. That f—ing port. That Port Authority. I can make it so f—ing bad you can’t imagine.”
Next, the feds say, Forlani calls Peto.
FORLANI updated PE61 on the television project. FORLANI said, “Let me tell you, they start f—ing with you down at that parking lot, [PE61], I want you to stick it up their f—ing a– so they know why not to f–k with the good guys in town.”
PE61 replied, “Well, I agree. Like I said, I’m ready to pull the f—ing parking.”
22. Approximately ten minutes later, FORLANI called the same Cleveland
Browns employee and discussed the proposed television contract price.

FORLANI said, “I’m gonna tell you right now, they’re gonna get f—ed on that parking. I can’t even explain it to you.”

The employee replied, “Well don’t worry, he’s gonna find out about that tomorrow”... 
Update, 8/15: FitzGerald has sent a letter to Peto asking him to resign, says this Plain Dealer editorial -- which also points out that the county executive and council can replace Peto anytime they want.

Update, 8/16: Peto has resigned. 

Update, 9/18: FitzGerald has named Jan Roller, an attorney and Democratic activist, to Peto's former seat on the port board.

Update, 10/13: The feds indicted Peto on Sept. 27, just before the five-year statute of limitations ran out.

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