16 September 2010

Shades of what's to come: Cuyahoga County Corruption Scandal

Editor: El Paso, Cuyahoga County Ohio....seems like the dominos are starting to fall, does it not?  From a distance, it is easy to sit back and watch these horror shows and wonder how such obvious corruption could go unchecked for so long.  How could the citizens of these cities and counties elect such amoral crooks?  Now look in the mirror and ask yourself the same question. 

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer

Jimmy Dimora at center of one of biggest local corruption cases in U.S. history

Published: Wednesday, September 15, 2010, 7:16 AM Updated: Thursday, September 16, 2010, 6:26 AM

Tony Brown and Peter Krouse / Plain Dealer Reporters

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- It is a shocking and emblematic photograph that could be of New York City's Boss Tweed, 140 years later: Jimmy Dimora, the most powerful man in Cuyahoga County politics, led away in manacles to FBI headquarters, to federal court, and into infamy.

But the picture painted by the 177 pages in indictments made public Wednesday against eight suspects -- including Cuyahoga County commissioner Dimora and two county judges -- is even more shocking, alleging what could be one of the biggest local political-machine corruption cases in recent U.S. history.

It also, for the first time, implicates a second commissioner, Peter Lawson Jones, in the broad pay-for-play scandal that has infected local government and garnered almost three dozen guilty pleas.

Jones is not charged, or named, but as "Public Official 9" he has now entered the alpha-numeric lexicon of those who are accused of trading jobs for bribes and campaign donations.

The focus of the grand jury indictments paints Dimora, the gruff, often crude commissioner, as a high-on-the-hog crook indulging himself in goodies at public expense as the boss of a complex corruption scheme in a county that is home to one of the poorest big cities in America.

According to the FBI investigation, Dimora, until last year the chairman of the local Democratic party, helped himself to:
  • Sex on demand with top-dollar call girls, and with a woman who sought his help to get a job.
  • Pricey lunches at fancy restaurants such as Delmonico's Steakhouse.
  • A high-flying gambling junket to Las Vegas and more nights of partying at a Stonebridge condominium overlooking Cleveland's Flats.
  • A four-figure discount on a Rolex watch.
  • Free or deeply-discounted improvements to his $438,000 home, which the indictments seek to seize in forfeiture actions against Dimora and other defendants.
The indictments, sprinkled with four-letter words and denigrating and obscene references to women, or "broads," also show a Dimora who was sometimes irritated when those from whom he received favors asked for quid pro quo favors in return.

"How many times am I going to do you a f-ing favor," Dimora asked Robert Rybak, an executive with a local plumbers and pipe-fitting union who was also charged in Wednesday's indictments.

Rybak wanted the county to hire a union worker. He reminded Dimora of the ice machine he had installed at the commissioner's home and then asked what else he needed.

And, Wednesday's indictments strongly implied, there might be more shocking revelations to come.

The tentacles of corruption could reach to Martin Sweeney, president of Cleveland City Council, and taint the campaign of Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald, the Democratic candidate for county executive of the Cuyahoga County government system that will be instituted after the November elections.

Neither Sweeney nor FitzGerald has been charged with a crime.

Jones was also swept up in the fray. Prosecutors claim Rybak bribed him and Dimora regarding personnel issues at the county.

"I can get every one of those three Commissioners to vote you a raise," Rybak told a county employee, identified only as Public Employee 21 but fitting the description of Rybak's wife, Linda. She works in human resources for the county.

The indictment describes a conversation in which Rybak told Dimora that Jones wanted to delay giving the county employee a raise until after the election because Rybak was hosting a fundraiser for Jones.

Jones said Wednesday that the actions attributed to him did not happen.

Even Lakewood's Winterhurst Ice Rink, a high-profile and historic figure-skate training facility that was near ruin when it underwent a major renovation, was dragged into the scandal.

The indictments say Dimora had shady dealings with one of the owners of rink-operator Ice Land USA, and called on FitzGerald to get city approval.

Staying in character, Dimora remained defiant in court, appearing to be disinterested in the proceedings.

While respectful of several routine questions from Magistrate Judge Nancy Vecchiarelli before pleading not guilty to all charges, at one point Dimora looked at the courtroom benches filled with spectators, chuckled, and said, "Who are these people?"

They were courthouse employees, reporters and the curious.

Dimora entered the courtroom in baggy dark-blue pants and a light-blue shirt over the top of a dark, long-sleeve shirt. He put on his gray suit jacket waiting for him at the defense table and sat next to his attorney Richard Lillie, who arrived on crutches.

Dimora made no effort to duck reporters who followed him out of the courtroom. Outside, he addressed the media.

"It's a beautiful day in Cleveland, Ohio," he said, and vowed to complete his term as a county commissioner. "I've had a great tenure, and I'm going to finish it out."

Dimora's voice rose as he spoke about the wire taps that the FBI apparently used to gather voluminous evidence against him.

"What all of us should be worried about is the fact that American citizens have to be worried about their phones being tapped, their children's phones being tapped and their spouses'."

Meanwhile, county administrator James McCafferty said county employees indicted today will go on unpaid leave, but not elected officials. Dimora and the judges will continue to get paid but all three were put on leave.

McCafferty said he was checking with the county prosecutor's office to see if anything can be done to replace Dimora if he doesn't voluntarily resign, and what it would mean if Dimora misses many meetings.

The reach of the scandal might turn out to be highly unusual, said Case Western Reserve University law and political science professor Jonathan Entin, because it involves an old-fashioned, political-party operation, far more common in 19th- and early 20th-century U.S. politics.

"It starting to look like the classic 'machine,' " Entin said after reading Wednesday's indictments. "As the Democratic county chair, Jimmy Dimora built a party organization" that has no peer in contemporary local politics.

Unlike the recent influence-peddling case against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the Cuyahoga County case bears more resemblance to that of the notorious William Magear "Boss" Tweed, convicted in 1873 in New York's Tammany Hall corruption case, Entin said.

The Cuyahoga case also resembles two judicial-corruption cases in 20th-century Chicago politics, Entin said.

Reactions to Wednesday's indictments ranged from joy to dismay.

Rachel Manias, a Broadview Heights Republican who occasionally attends county commissioner meetings and at least once got blasted by Jimmy Dimora, showed up at the county building wearing an FBI T-shirt and carrying a hand-made sign saying, "Thanks, FBI!"

"People are overjoyed," said Manias, who drove downtown on a whim. "I am thrilled! I feel like we can move forward with honest government. We have a real fresh slate."

Others, like County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, remained convinced that the end has not yet come.

"I wish this were the end of it, but I don't think it is," Rokakis said.

"I think there are a lot more indictments coming. Dimora has every right to defend himself in court. But he and Russo would have done us a great favor if they had stepped down along the way. I'm sure he will stay and collect every last dime of taxpayer money.

"If he shows up [at today's county commissioners meeting], the zoo continues."

Commissioner Hagan contended he and Jones were not involved, despite being referenced as Public Officials 10 and 9, respectively, in the indictments.

"We have 90-some days left, and our intention is to fulfill our obligations as public officials," Hagan said.

"People who work for the Board of County Commissioners, except for Dimora, no one who has worked for the Board of County Commissioners has been indicted or brought in. These are good and decent people."

Two county officials whose duties have come to an end, at least temporarily, are judges Bridget McCafferty and Steven Terry.

McCafferty, suspended by law because of the felony indictment, said she may ask the Ohio Supreme Court to allow her to stay on the bench.

Terry, arrested in front of his wife and 13-year-old son, looked glum as he entered the courtroom, shoulders slumped forward, hands cuffed behind his back. He was the last of the eight defendants to be brought into the courtroom Wednesday.

He pleaded not guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. He also agreed to bond terms that will have him taking a leave of absence from his duties until his case is resolved.

The indictments also indicate there was an arrogant belief among the elected officials and businessmen implicated in the scandal that corruption could go on unchecked, and that they could get away with it all.

Two Dimora pals, then-DAS Construction executive Steven Pumper (who eventually pleaded guilty in the scandal) and auditor's office employee Michael D. Gabor (arrested Wednesday), even talked about creating a job for Dimora after he retired from politics, the indictment said.

They contemplated making Dimora a consultant to Green-Source Building Products, a company Pumper had an interest in, after the commissioner helped bring business to the Cleveland-based environmentally friendly building products firm, according to the indictment.

And after Dimora was tipped to a possible FBI investigation in May 2008, the indictment claims, Dimora told businessman Ferris Kleem, who admitted paying for a prostitute for Dimora the previous month during a trip to Las Vegas, that he was "always waiting for the other shoe to fall or drop."

Kleem told Dimora: "Everything is going to be good," and "don't worry too much."

But that was before the FBI took Dimora away in chains.