AKRON, Ohio - John Kevin Kelley rose to the top to be a key player in Jimmy Dimora's "A-Team." But the next team he plays on might be the prison courtyard team.
On Friday, Kelley finished a grueling week of testimony and grilling cross-examination. He was taken by ambulance from the courthouse on Tuesday for a "health matter" that arose during the morning trial break but returned to the witness stand on Thursday morning.
Down to his very last day on the witness stand, Kelley worked to present himself as confident, matter-of-fact and in control of the conversation. But Friday may have been the final time, at least for the next six years, Kelley will be the center of attention, power and influence he grew accustomed to having for nearly two decades.
Kelley, age 42, maneuvered his way through Parma and Cuyahoga County political networks known for being some of the most incestuous, cut-throat roads to travel in local politics. At the time in his early 20s, Kelley was elected as a Parma city councilman in 1993 and went on to be elected to serve in 2000 as a school board member for the Parma City School District, where over the course of nine years he rose to the position of board president.
Along the way, Kelley said he also worked 18 years in county government, rising to an annual salary of more than $140,000 in his last position with the county engineer's office. In addition to his county job and nominal payments for attending school board meetings, Kelley said he simultaneously raked in tens of thousands of dollars running a private consulting business and pocketing bribes.
Kelley appeared to be on a political fast track up to the point of running for Parma's open mayoral position in 2002. But Kelley testified that county prosecutor Bill Mason and then-county recorder Pat O'Malley, who Kelley said then-Auditor Frank Russo referred to as "the Parma boys," backed mayoral candidate Dean DePiero and wanted Kelley out of the race.
Russo cut a deal with Kelley for a $90,000-a-year job and four-day work week if Kelley dropped out of the Parma mayoral race, Kelley testified. Kelley backed out of the race for mayor and in doing so was thrust into what Kelley described as the "A-Team," the inner circle of two of the most powerful persons in county government, Frank Russo and then-county commissioner Jimmy Dimora.
From 2002 until the FBI raids on county offices in July 2008, Kelley had his hands in almost every scheme federal prosecutors have presented so far in the corruption trial including:
- Lobbying Dimora and Russo to help restore to the county budget cut funding for the Alternatives Agency, a private county-funded contractor that gave Kelley thousands of dollars in "consulting" fees in exchange for Kelley's lobbying performed while he was also a county employee.
- Coordinating and attending casino gambling trips to Las Vegas, Niagara Falls, New Orleans and Windsor, Canada, paid for by "sponsors" he helped obtain who were contractors and/or county officials prosecutors say wanted to influence Dimora and Russo.
- Serving as a middleman for Michael Gabor's alleged attempt to bribe a domestic relations court judge to fix Gabor's divorce case.
- Using his position as a Parma City School District board member to dish out school jobs in exchange for political favors for Dimora, himself and others, and taking bribes in connection with school district contracts along the way.
- Playing intermediary for Dimora to get FirstEnergy company electrical connections expedited for a Berea apartment building built by Ferris Kleem, a contractor who prosecutors said gave numerous things of value to Dimora in order to buy Dimora's influence on county contracts.
- Serving as an initial intermediary for Russo with Joseph Gallucci, who admitted running a sham 2006 election for county auditor against Russo in exchange for $20,000 in cash and a job in Russo's office paying more than $67,000 plus benefits.
- Helping to set up poker parties and arrange prostitutes to perform 'sex work' sessions for Dimora and Michael Gabor at a Flats condo owned by a company with a county contract.
Kelley also drove Dimora around the county three or four times a week, and arranged for "sponsors" who were often private contractors that paid for dinners for Dimora, Russo and members of their "A-Team." Kelley testified he, too, was personally serviced by prostitutes.
Although Kelley is on the second tier of the 18-person conspiracy pyramid federal prosecutors presented to jurors in their opening statement, his position and testimony suggest he was the third most powerful in the alleged federal conspiracy, only topped by Dimora and Russo themselves.
While Kelley clearly wanted money and
power, it also appears he wanted friends, acceptance and inclusion. "Hey buddy" and "see ya buddy" were common expressions in wiretap conversations involving Kelley, and wiretap conversations suggest he thrived on the relationships, access and connections he had in his various roles.
It was Kelley who introduced jurors to the phrase "The A-Team," the name he claimed was used by the group of individuals who regularly dined and partied with Dimora. But it was not until cross-examination by Gabor's defense attorney Leif Christman that Kelley acknowledged Dimora and others in the group did not use the phrase and that it was Cleveland City Council President Martin Sweeney who first used in to distinguish those who regularly got together as the "A-Team" from others like Sweeney who attended less frequently and were part of the "B-Team."
At times Kelley seemed to embellish his role on the witness stand. He often directed his body angle, hand motions, eyes and verbal responses directly toward the jurors as if the prosecutors and others were not even in the room and he was leading the show.
Unlike other witnesses to date, Kelley did not enter or exit the federal courthouse on foot and use the front courthouse doors. Instead, he was escorted by federal agents who drove him in and out of the courthouse garage.
Kelley was observed during trial breaks being escorted in the halls and to the restroom by federal agents. He casually chatted with them in the hallways and in the back of the courtroom as if he was a high-level protected elected official rather than a guarded snitch testifying against the alleged top target in a federal corruption trial.
But Kelley's spiraling downfall moved as quickly as his meteoric thrust to the top inner circle of Cuyahoga County politics.
Kelley, who in a wiretap conversation said he always told people "loyalty makes up for brains any day," testified he began cooperating almost immediately upon being taken into custody by the FBI the day of their July 2008 raids on county offices. He almost instantly flipped from being a loyal "buddy" of Dimora and Russo to being so loyal to FBI Special Agents Michael Massie and Christine Oliver that he wore wires "20 times and maybe more" to secretly record conversations for them.
During cross-examination Kelley also testified he had more than 150 conversations caught on wiretap with Plain Dealer reporter Joe Wagner to provide information on individuals and relationships in the county government. Kelley said he and Wagner were friends "for years" prior to Wagner retiring from the newspaper, suggesting that before snitching to federal authorities Kelley also was dropping information for a newspaper investigation of his "buddies" in county government.
In 2009, Kelley resigned from his school board position with the Parma City School District. "I was becoming a real strong distraction to the district education and day-to-day business," Kelley testified, noting the district was also pursuing a tax levy election and he did not want to distract from its passage.
But his legacy in Parma was not easily erased with his resignation. A long-time Parma resident and trial follower last week said, "It will take a long time to undo the damage done to the Parma schools by Kelley."
It will also take a long time for Kelley to undo the damage he did to himself and to his family. Today, Kelley resides with family in Florida after being forced to give up his three Ohio homes including two Johnson Island cottages off the Lake Erie coast near Sandusky, where the land value of one property alone was $235,000, he testified.
As a part of his plea agreement with the federal government, Kelley faces a minimum sentence of five years and 10 months in prison. He has to pay restitution of $500,000 to Cuyahoga County and the Parma City School District, along with $200,000 to the IRS.
Kelley told jurors he takes 21 pills per day for mental and physical health conditions including bipolar disorder, depression, insomnia, alcoholism, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart problems, an enlarged liver and other ailments. Although he seemed stable on the witness stand and while chatting with federal agents, he appeared bloated, pale and shaky when observed Tuesday morning exiting a courthouse restroom.
The father of six children, one of which has special needs, Kelley told jurors the most difficult outcome of his illegal acts was facing his wife and children. "I had to tell my wife about my activities regarding prostitutes," and also had to tell his three oldest children, Kelley testified.
Kelley now faces a minimum of nearly six years in prison to reflect upon whether loyalty really does make up for brains as he leaves behind the "A-Team" and becomes a candidate for the prison courtyard team.