AKRON, Ohio - Government star witness Frank Russo on Wednesday morning admitted during defense cross-examination that he generated more than $1.5 million in kickbacks for himself and others by steering contracts, selling public jobs and giving away property tax reductions.
"We only worked with a select crowd, intermediaries and people we trusted," Russo told jurors in describing who he would work with to steer contracts and take bribes.
Russo told jurors he steered contracts to the V.A.S. company for county real estate appraisal work from 2002 to 2008 that generated more than $1.3 million in kickbacks for himself and others. Dimora defense attorney, Bill Whitaker, also walked Russo through more than a half-dozen other individuals who gave him more than $200,000 in bribes for selling public jobs in his office, lowering property taxes and steering other contracts.
Russo told jurors that he and Dimora were the most powerful politicians in Cuyahoga County.
"We were two of the people in town to get things done with. We were inseparable, powerful. It started in 1998," Russo said.
"This is a very, very hard thing for me to do at this point with Mike Gabor and Jimmy," Russo interjected at one point in the morning testimony.
Whitaker grilled Russo on a number of kickbacks and bribes that Russo admitted, including:
- Russo said he took "10 or 15 thousand" from Samir Mohammad for what eventually lead to a job as chief deputy auditor.
- Russo testified Mohammad gave him $20,000 on two separate occasions for "hiring a certain contractor for the GIS system that Kevin Kelley was manager for."
- Mohammad also gave Russo money at other times for jobs for individuals or their friends including his girlfriend, sister-in-law, son and "a few other employees" at more than $1,000 per job.
- Russo said he took $80,000 in kickbacks from Joe O'Malley from a steered contract that O'Malley gave in the form of a cashier's check that Russo put toward a $105,000 condo on the waterfront in Cleveland.
- Attorney Anthony Calabreeze III gave Russo $20,000 for a tax reduction on Indian Hills property Russo authorized for Calabreeze, Russo said. Russo also testified that Calabreeze gave him $50,000 for acting as a broker on the same deal.
"I didn't work that hard for the $50,000 I got. It was a bonus to me," Russo said.
Russo admitted that he continued to take bribes in 2008 even after the FBI raids, with the last bribe taken in the amount of $5,000 in December, 2008, Russo said.
Russo testified people would stuff his pockets with money while he was out in the community at fundraisers.
"There were long lines. People would stick money in your pocket. A 20, a 50, an envelope. When I got home I checked my pocket and there was $2,000 in an envelope from someone who wanted a job," Russo said, noting the envelope came from the father of a person who wanted a county job for his son.
Whitaker asked Russo, based on his statements to the FBI, if Russo had ever been afraid that money would fall out of his pockets since they were stuffed so full.
"I was never afraid it would fall out of my pockets," Russo said.
Russo also described to the jury the day the FBI raided his house.
"I was still in bed. My partner Michael was up. He gets up early and makes the coffee and roams around. The doorbell rang. Michael was up so he got the door. They said is 'Frank Russo there?' This is the FBI. Michael came running up the stairs," Russo said.
"Oh the FBI is here, the FBI is here," Russo said his domestic partner, Michael Calabrese, told him.
"I looked for my attorney's card. I opened the door. I said good morning. I said you'll have to call my attorney. Here is his card," Russo told jurors. But he said the FBI told him they had a search warrant for the house.
"Many, many agents came in and searched my home from maybe nine o'clock until 3:30 p.m. or so. We all sat in the dining room with the FBI and then we sat on the back porch," Russo said.
Russo told jurors he then said to himself, "I'm not going to tell anybody about this raid. This is between the FBI and I." But then he heard helicopters he thought were from a nearby hospital that turned out to be from news stations.
"It was one helicopter after another helicopter after another helicopter," Russo said. "For the rest of the day I just sat there in shock."
Whitaker quizzed Russo on the benefits of his plea agreement with federal prosecutors, which knocked Russo's potential prison sentence down to close to 22 years.
One of the biggest benefits to the agreement, Russo said, was protection for his family members from federal prosecution.
"The benefit was.. my son was charged with a crime. We have a very, very close knit family. I have three other daughters. They were going to put other charges against Vince. We were running out of money. I knew I did the wrong thing. I thought, ‘How could I put everybody through this?' Two wrongs don't make a right. I thought, let me cooperate," Russo
Russo said his goal was "to hold my children harmless. I wanted my whole family to be protected," Russo said as Whitaker went through the names of every one of his children and the man he described as "my life partner, my domestic partner," Michael Calabreze.
"I just put him in there as part of my family. He could have been investigated because he was my partner… but there was nothing I was really afraid of that he has done," Russo said.
Over his two days of testimony, Russo was very assertive and take-charge in his presentation style. Several times defense attorney Bill Whitaker stopped Russo after Russo continued with expansive testimony after answering Whitaker's questions.
In a lighter moment on Wednesday morning, U.S. District Court Judge Sara Lioi in error stated Russo's name instead of Whitaker's name in directing the parties to resume questioning after discussion on a procedural matter.
"Mr. Russo you can continue with cross-examination of the witness," Lioi said, after which time everyone, including Lioi, broke out into laughter.
"I'm ready," Whitaker replied.
Dimora and defendant Michael Gabor have maintained their innocence of all federal charges.
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