Corruption trial features escorts, political hires, limo rides, condo use and office move

AKRON, Ohio - A voice from the grave paid a visit to the Cuyahoga County corruption trial in federal court.

Much of the testimony Tuesday focused on the actions and statements of the late Kevin Payne, former chief of staff at the county engineer's office.

Payne died in 2010, before he could give government prosecutors a sworn statement for their case. But Payne played a role in the indictments against former commissioner Jimmy Dimora and former auditor Frank Russo.

Payne was a heavier-set man who used to pace while smoking outside the engineer's office. His voice had a quiet, monotone pitch. He appeared to be a considerate, thoughtful individual.

NewsChannel5 interviewed Payne in 2004 following the engineer's office move from the Standard Building downtown, to the Stonebridge complex on the Flats' west bank. [Watch that video from our archives] At that time, Payne defended the move, and said it would save taxpayers money.

It did initially – but only because the newly-leased office space was less square footage than the Standard Building. Also, the old lease had a smaller annual increase. At Stonebridge, taxpayers will pay $445,000 for the last year of the lease, which begins this August.

Backing up to June 2003, county commissioners approved the engineer's office request to lease new offices from Stonebridge Center, LLC for nearly $4 million over 10 years. Annual rent began in August of that year at more than $350,000.

The move itself cost taxpayers because Payne ordered new, higher-end office furniture. From cabinets to credenzas, desks to decks, moving into the new office cost county taxpayers more than $250,000. Some called the new digs lavish, and eyebrows were raised. At the time, Payne told NewsChannel5, "I wouldn't characterize it as lavish. I don't think that's fair."

Instead, Payne chose to use the phrase "professional appearance" when describing a posh county office, in contrast with the older, cramped spaces other departments worked in.

"I do not feel embarrassed about what we were able to accomplish in this building," Payne said in 2004.

As the engineer's office move was happening, Stonebridge continued to expand around the Superior Viaduct area. Condos and apartments eventually went up.

A few years later, the county's most powerful politicians were meeting in one of those condos for poker games and parties, which sometimes featured escorts, according to prosecutors. They say one of those politicians was Jimmy Dimora.

U.S. attorneys also contend there were other perks Payne provided to Dimora, such as limo rides to places like ferries to Kelly's Island and Marblehead, Windsor, Ontario and Independence High School, where Dimora's children went to school. Payne also was an attorney who provided legal services to A Touch of Class limousine company.

Its owner, Frank Pistone, was a lifelong friend of Payne's and gave him an open account. He testified Payne gave limo rides to many people.

"Some were for Mr. Dimora, Mr. Russo, Kevin Kelly, his family, his personal friends," Pistone said. "Prior to that it was Pat O'Malley, Bill Mason."

Then Pistone testified as Payne began work to move the engineer's office to Stonebridge, he stopped providing legal services to his company to focus on the move.

Prosecutors showed the dates of those limo rides were mostly in 2003 – the same year the county commissioners voted to approve the engineer's office move. Defense attorneys countered Dimora was not the only commissioner to approve that move. They pointed out it was a unanimous decision among the three commissioners.

By 2007, the Stonebridge complex was well under way, but with more than a thousand condo units still to be built. Stonebridge is owned by Mentor-based K&D Group.

Then in 2008, Payne provided Dimora with a key to an upscale condo with skyline and river views. Prosecutors said Dimora accepted the use of the condo as a thing of value for his personal pleasure. The jury heard wiretaps describing some of what apparently pleasured Dimora. In one recorded call, Dimora requested a specific woman be brought to the party.

"Get the one with the thing in her tongue," Dimora said, referring to a woman with a pierced tongue.

Condo Unit 808 was identified by FBI Special Agent Michael Massie as a two-bedroom and two-bath 1,186 square foot condo with a skyline and river view valued at $279,900. 

J. Kevin Kelly, who also worked in the engineer's office, was involved in many of the wiretapped calls played for the jury. Kelly pleaded guilty, and could testify against Dimora.

In another call, Dimora said he needed to keep a key to a Flats condo.

"I've gotta have it for an emergency. In case a terrorist attacks, it's my county emergency management location," Dimora joked.

newsnet5 crews

noticed Dimora's wife, Lori, did not accompany Dimora to court Monday, nor had she for several days prior to Tuesday's testimony.

Then there is the issue about so-called, "political hires." The prosecution touched on this with testimony from the former director of human resources for the engineer's office, Patricia Gouker. She is now retired.

"There were many political hires," Gouker said.

Prosecutors introduced a job application as evidence. It was from Anthony Melaragno, and Gouker recognized it. He had applied for a project inspector position.

Prosecutors showed several bids awarded to Vandra Brothers, a construction company. Melaragno's application showed Vandra was his last place of employment. In fact, his father worked for Vandra, and pleaded guilty to bribing Dimora with home improvements, in exchange for more than $10 million in road contracts going back a decade.

Dimora and co-defendant Michael Gabor face federal racketeering and corruption charges. Both say they are innocent.

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