CLEVELAND - Frank Russo was investigated 15 years ago for selling jobs in his elected office, but then-County Prosecutor Stephanie Tubbs Jones scrapped the probe against the Democratic heavyweight before it could be completed, an attorney on the case told Channel 3 News.
Assistant Prosecutor Paul Soucie said that Tubbs Jones ordered him to drop the 1998 investigation into allegations that Russo, while working as the county Recorder, took cash bribes in return for hiring employees and giving them pay raises.
"I was going to pursue the evidence wherever it took me and I was going to make my recommendation to my boss," Soucie told the Investigator Tom Meyer. "When my boss suggested it be resolved that way (not pursing the jobs-for-cash allegation), I followed my instructions and I did what I was told."
The news comes on the same week Russo spent two days on the witness stand testifying that "lots of people" got county jobs through their relationship with former County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora.
Former Recorder Pat O'Malley, who blew the whistle on Russo back in 1997, said that if Tubbs Jones had pursued the case against Russo at the time it might have chilled the corrupt activities that have permeated the county in the last 15 years.
"It gave everybody a green light," said O'Malley. "'Hey, you can do this, but just watch out who knows about it and this can go on forever.' This is the gravy train."
An attorney for Russo declined to comment.
O'Malley became county Recorder in 1997 after Russo shifted to the Auditor's Office. After taking office, O'Malley said, he learned from employees that between 15 and 20 people in the 80-person office had either paid for their job or paid for their promotion.
O'Malley requested a special audit to get to the bottom of it, as well as other allegations involving Russo. The state audit uncovered a number of issues, including evidence that Russo was running a cash-for-jobs scheme.
"We interviewed employees to determine whether Frank Russo solicited cash payments from county employees," according to the 1998 audit. "We forwarded documentation relative to these allegations to the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office for their review."
But instead of pursing the scheme, Tubbs Jones reached a deal with Russo to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge for allowing employees to work on side businesses while on county time, among other things.
The deal allowed Russo to continue holding public office.
"I do not think that the prosecutor's office did the job they should have done in 1998," O'Malley said. "The buck would have stopped in 1998 and it should have. And it didn't."