After nearly four years of stark headlines, sobering revelations and sad realizations, the community was exhausted by Jimmy Dimora’s disgraceful fall. But with the pain came the hope for a better Cuyahoga County.
Dimora’s trial, which ended in March with his conviction on 33 federal charges, exposed us to the underbelly of public office like never before.
The most damning moment came the day Frank Russo, avoiding the glare of his one-time best friend, became his Judas. Only Shakespeare could truly portray the bitterness of Russo’s betrayal. On the witness stand in U.S. District Court in Akron, Russo, the dishonored former auditor of Cuyahoga County, recited Dimora’s criminal involvement — and his own — almost gleefully.
Russo was like an odometer, babbling on, admitting to everything, each revelation ticking time off his 22-year prison sentence. He detailed a network of corruption without goodness or public purpose, stitched together instead by arrogance, selfishness, thievery and civic indifference. He described how he partied, pocketed cash, sold jobs and raises and created meaningless time-wasting positions for supporters.
Dimora, devoid of his beard, his face drooping like a spent candle, sat impassively in the courtroom for weeks, as testimony concerning his penchant for women, gambling and booze shamed him. On the days of really salacious testimony, his family would not attend. The wiretaps where he spoke of women in the most offensive manner had to resonate with the five women on the prosecution team, the five women on the jury and the female judge.
Indeed, it was hard to witness. And watching heightened the sense that we were all on trial — that we, the voters, allowed the community to rot from within by handing it over to leaders who had lost all sense of decency and dignity. For years we blindly elected public officials on name rather than reason. The verdict in Dimora’s trial also indicted us.
Greater Cleveland’s political system eroded because the community’s checks and balances — an involved electorate, an engaged media and an opposing political party — diminished and even ceased to exist. In this vacuum, corruption flourished and the work ethic in the government bureaucracy often failed.
The prosecutors crowned Dimora “the king of county corruption.” But that was theater, employed to make their case. It would be wrong to view him in that exalted light.
Dimora was a nominal sanitary worker from Bedford Heights with a limited education who had neither the moral compass nor the self-confidence to hold public office. He wanted to be loved and to be somebody. He was large, crude, awkward and full of bonhomie, and he wore his blue-collar image like a badge. He wanted to have fun and be admired. His chief interests in life, the trial revealed, were steak, women, Crown Royal whiskey and his backyard, built on favors and graft.
His rise from sewage handler to Democratic Party chairman was quickly reversed when FBI agents raided his home and county offices in July 2008. He plummeted so far, he brought a 200-year-old form of government down with him.
Dimora was not so much the master criminal as a product of the public indifference that helped turn Cuyahoga County’s political culture into a racket. Silence may be as much of a crime as a felony. When Russo literally rigged three of his elections as auditor, rewarding his hand-picked opponents with jobs in his office, the media and the political community failed to notice, let alone show any outrage.
Dimora’s claim that he didn’t do anything that anyone else didn’t do was closer to the truth than we want to admit. It was how he viewed a political system that even today harbors lazy public officials and absent firemen.
In some ways the trial was anticlimactic, the sensationalism long ago usurped by the blare of headlines and newscasts. Dimora’s defense was confused and spiritless, perhaps because he had none. For all of his bellicose pretrial manner, Dimora did not testify in his own defense. He was, in the end, a broken man, perhaps a victim of our indifference.
Russo was the true symbol of this corrupt culture. He was smarter, more calculating, greedier and more aware of his peril. As a criminal indictment neared, he rolled over for the government, leaving his friend virtually defenseless. He testified to meeting with the FBI for more than 100 hours, starting in November 2010.
He identified himself to the jury as a crook of the first order, a man who took advantage of his office from the beginning. At moments in the trial, Russo seemed to enjoy the spotlight, volunteering a dialogue rather than answering direct questions.
The picture he painted of public business was a merry-go-round of free dinners and lunches. He spoke of a company that paid him $10,000 a month for the right to appraise property. He said the corruption was so lucrative that he could never have stopped.
The proceedings left an uneasy residue for a town to consider. It clearly exposed a dark side to public life here. It raised a troublesome question: If all of this contempt for the law took place for so long, why did responsible people who cared for the community not unmask it years ago?
This question naturally falls upon Dimora’s former colleagues, county commissioners Tim Hagan and Peter Lawson Jones. They are smart men. Jones likes to bring up his Harvard education early in conversation, while Hagan wears the Kennedy family on his lapel as an expression of his political reach. Yet they say they were clueless about the corruption taking place around them. County prosecutor Bill Mason, missing in action on this issue from the day he took office, denies having had any knowledge of the rampant corruption.
None of these officials wanted to peer too closely into the activities of their colleagues. To do so would have been a threat to the system from which they, too, enjoyed patronage and privilege. Any reasonable thinker could see that the county government was outmoded, expensive and inefficient. Hagan, in particular, had several opportunities to support a reform movement. But at most, he supported only minor changes. Reform would have put the system at risk.
Businessmen who needed work were more interested in playing within the corrupt rules than exposing them. Citizens felt hopelessly disenfranchised.
Even when it was clear the crisis of corruption was of a magnitude never seen here before, the Democratic Party tried its best to derail the 2009 county reform with a countering ballot issue. But it was too late. The public finally saw the party for what it was — a racket.
Jimmy Dimora liked to say he was there to serve the public. He performed his greatest public service with his fall from grace, inspiring voters to approve a county reform needed for more than a century. The new county charter destroyed a fiefdom of public offices that were a breeding ground for corruption and established better checks and balances.
County Executive Ed FitzGerald is aggressively weeding out employees who got their jobs through crooked hiring. His administration has created a new transparency for the public and established hiring practices designed to limit patronage. FitzGerald’s investigations of the $45 million Ameritrust Tower debacle, which Dimora once defended so loudly, could lead to further revelations.
Meanwhile, this winter’s election campaign for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office sparked a debate over the office’s role in fighting white-collar crime and official wrongdoing. Angry voters pressed the candidates to address the issue of future government corruption.
Dimora enjoyed saying that his political career began when he slipped into a vat of sewage. The irony is he ended it that way, too.
It will be interesting to see whether we remain vigilant as voters, or whether we, too, will slip back into that vat.