Jury Selection To Begin In Ohio Corruption Case

fromWKSU

A trial gets underway Wednesday in one of the biggest public corruption cases Ohio has ever seen. Former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora will try to convince a jury he did not run a criminal enterprise from the county's administration building.

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In Ohio today, a trial gets under way in the biggest public corruption case the state's ever seen. Jimmy Dimora rose from sanitation worker to commissioner of Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and its suburbs. He's accused of being at the center of a number of bribery schemes that federal investigators uncovered in recent years. Kevin Niedermier, of member station WKSU, tells us how it started.

KEVIN NIEDERMIER, BYLINE: It's May 2008, and the FBI in Cleveland is investigating a routine bribery case. The contractor they're interviewing casually mentions the name Jimmy Dimora. At the time, Dimora was one of the three exceedingly powerful commissioners who enjoyed expansive authority over the budget of Ohio's largest county.

The contractor's comment sparked a wide-ranging federal investigation that only became public on July 28th, 2008 when hundreds of federal agents raided the offices of county officials and private contractors. Dimora's home and office were among the first targets, but there were many more. In the last three years, more than 50 government officials, employees, private contractors, and even two judges have either been convicted or pleaded guilty in the case.

Jimmy Dimora is charged with being a kingpin, running a Boss Tweed-style criminal enterprise out of the county's administration building. Prosecutors say he accepted home improvements, trips, appliances, meals and even prostitutes in exchange for millions of dollars in county contracts. Before he was indicted last year, Dimora was mentioned in numerous court documents, but strongly denied any guilt.

JIMMY DIMORA: I'm innocent and I will refute that 51-page information of packs of lies, innuendos, mistruths by three people that are in trouble, trying to get themselves less time.

NIEDERMIER: One of those three people is former county auditor Frank Russo, Dimora's long-time friend and political ally. Russo pleaded guilty to bribery in September 2010, and has been testifying against other defendants, hoping to get his 21-year prison sentence reduced.

Former federal prosecutor Geoffrey Mearns says the long sentences being given out to other defendants may have convinced Dimora to go before a jury.

GEOFFREY MEARNS: It's not totally a surprise to me that Jimmy Dimora will not plead guilty, because apparently the number that the government is insisting on is just one that is unacceptable. It would, in effect, be a lifetime sentence.

NIEDERMIER: The government will try to prove that Dimora was involved in a staggering number of conspiracies, more than 60 in all. And, that getting almost anything done in Cuyahoga County required a little something for Dimora.

His lawyers are expected to paint the gifts as normal activity among friends, or, as the way business is normally done. Case Western Reserve University law professor Lewis Katz says, as far as the money that changed hands, this corruption case isn't a big deal, especially compared to those in Chicago, New Jersey or New York. But he says the level of influence Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo exerted over the courts, contractors, and county government departments was breathtaking.

LEWIS KATZ: The depth of the corruption in this case, not necessarily the money, is startling, shocking, and outrageous.

NIEDERMIER: Dimora's trial is expected to last three months, and whatever its outcome, the corruption scandal that he's accused of leading has already made a lasting impact on Cuyahoga County. Last year, disgusted voters here scrapped their three-commissioner system, replacing it with a county executive and 11-member county council.

For NPR News, I'm Kevin Niedermier.

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