Russo testimony: 'I became a horrible person'

7:03 PM, Mar 22, 2011   |    comments
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AKRON -- Tuesday was the first time former Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo testified regarding the Cuyahoga County corruption probe.

For two hours and 40 minutes in a small federal courtroom in Akron, Russo talked about the bribes, kickbacks, back room deals and paybacks he was involved in for the last 10 years of his 38-year political career.

Russo, 61, along with former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, were the prime targets of the probe. Dimora has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in September and has maintained his innocence since his arrest.

Russo, however, pleaded guilty to 22 counts on Sept. 8, 2010, and has been sentenced to 22 years in prison. Since Nov. 12, he said he has been cooperating with federal authorities in testifying against other corruption probe defendants.

Russo testified that he is expected to report to prison in Pennsylvania on May 26 to begin his sentence. 

For the first time, Russo gave testimony against another probe defendant, former Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Bridget M. McCafferty.

McCafferty, 45, of Westlake, is on trial in federal court before U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi for allegedly lying to the FBI on Sept. 23, 2008, about her actions involving two cases in her courtroom.

Prosecutors say she allegedly intervened in those cases after conversations with Dimora and Russo.

Among the statements Russo made, perhaps his overriding theme was, "When I walked into office in 1973, I had a smile on my face and my head held high. Thirty-eight years later, I walked out with my head down and with a frown."

"It's hard to look into the mirror....I started out helping people and ended up a horrible person in public office. Now I realized that, by cooperating, I can now look in the mirror and not be 100 percent ashamed."

"I became a horrible person in public office."

Russo, who had been in politics for 38 years, started out as a Mayfield Heights city councilman in 1973, became county recorder in 1984, then served as county auditor from 1998 until Sept. 8, 2010.

He said he started taking kickbacks and bribes the last 10 years -- while he was auditor.

"I gave jobs to people, I had work done on my house, I went on a Las Vegas trip and people gave me gambling money," he said. "I got kickbacks for 10 years from the company that did apparaisals (for the county)."

Russo spoke in detail how he called McCafferty 2, 3 or 4 times a year to ask if she could help out on cases involving Russo's friends, employees, family members of employees and others.

He asked if she could "keep an eye on" these people or give them "the benefit of the doubt" in the cases.

"I didn't directly tell her to directly fix the cases. I would say 'would you help me out? or look out for this person, or keep your eye on this person, to give them the benefit of the doubt.'"

There was no reaction from McCafferty as Russo gave his testimony except once. That was after Russo was asked what his relationship with McCafferty was now.

"Bridget is still my friend," Russo said. That's when McCafferty, who had kept her eyes on papers in front of her during his testimony, looked up, pursed her lips in disdain, opened her eyes wide, and shook her head in denial.

Russo said the reason he can specifically remember the one case in McCafferty's courtroom that is one of the two she is being charged with intervening in is because "that case was on my desk when the raid occured."

Russo's office was raided when the corruption probe went public on July 28, 2008, when nearly 200 FBI and IRS agents raided the homes and offices of businesses and elected officials. So far, more than 50 people have been charged.

Russo said the case involved one of his employees, Anthony Debaltzo, of Mayfield Heights, who was trying to get $75,000 he said was owed to him from Joseph Consolo, of Gates Mills.

Russo said he has no written plea agreement with prosecutors for his testimony. He hopes that "telling the truth will help him" feel better about himself and what he has done, as well as get some time taken off his sentence. 

Russo avoided the media when he arrived at mid-morning Tuesday as he was brought into the building through the federal officials' parking garage, according to his attorney Roger Synenberg, "as a courtesy."

As Russo and Synenberg left the courtroom, they were aksed for comment. Russo said nothing and Synenberg said, "No comment." 

There was also testimony Tuesday morning from attorney Wade Mitchell and McCafferty's former bailiff Jim Newman. Mitchell represented D-A-S Construction and D-A-S CEO Steve Pumper in a matter before McCafferty.

After Russo completed his testimony, FBI Special Agents Gregory Curtis and Christine Oliver testified regarding their two-hour interview with McCafferty in her home on Sept. 23, 2008.

That is where Curtis said McCafferty denied intervening in the two cases.

The first order of business Tuesday was Lioi questioning a juror in chambers. The juror was thought to have given a "thumbs up" to one of the U.S. attorneys yesterday as he left the courtroom for the day.

It was also thought  the juror may have just given the gesture after tripping and nearly falling, to indicate to those in the courtroom that he was all right. Nothing was said by Lioi when the trial got underway Tuesday but the juror remained on the jury.

In testimony Monday, it is now known that the FBI has more than 44,000 wiretap conversations on audio tape. Of those, 7,500 came from Dimora's home phone and cell phone.

On Tuesday, prosecutors played some of the wiretapped calls between Russo and McCafferty and Russo and Jim Newman.

On Monday, Pumper, who pleaded guilty to nine charges, including lying to the FBI, mail fraud, wire fraud, and bribery, and has a plea agreement with federal authorities, testified that it was his understanding when he called Dimora about the case that Dimora would call McCafferty to help settle the case in his favor.

The corruption probe went public on July 28, 2008 when nearly 200 FBI and IRS agents raided the homes and offices of businesses and elected officials. So far, more than 50 people have been charged.


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