King Cuyahoga

Jimmy Dimora gets fat while his county starves.

Jimmy Dimora Cuyahoga County Commissioners
Almost a half-hour has gone by, and still no Jimmy.

The Cuyahoga County Commissioners meeting was supposed to start at 10 a.m., and the creaky, wooden room is getting restless as flacks and photographers and suits pour in.

Over the next few hours, a soup line of county agencies and department directors will form behind the lectern. One by one they will beg for a piece of the millions of dollars the three commissioners will hand out today. A street will be repaved, a bridge replaced, consultants hired, and money dumped into the black hole of social services. Without even looking up, each commissioner will murmur "yes," "yes," "yes." Yet none of this can happen until the chairman himself, Mr. Jimmy Dimora, walks through that door.

A representative from U.S. Bank comes up with a huge cardboard check to ceremonially present to the county foreclosure prevention program. Commissioners Peter Lawson Jones and Tim Hagan each grab a corner. A photographer lines up to capture the moment.

Just then the door swings open, and in walks Jimmy. His wide body is as imposing as an RTA bus. He parallel-parks it next to Hagan, smiling wide. "Show me the money," Jimmy purrs. Flashes. Laughter. Applause.

It's unlikely that Jimmy grasps the irony here. The check is only for $10,000, roughly one-third of the economic cost of a single foreclosure -- and the county gets 1,000 new ones each month. U.S. Bank, meanwhile, recently made headlines for trying to foreclose on a Cleveland man -- blind, missing both legs, and living in a nursing home -- even after the mortgage company that sold the bank the loan was raided and an employee of the company charged with fraud.

But this is how things work in Jimmy's county, where a check with enough zeroes can take care of anything. He's an old-time political boss in the truest sense of the word. Yet while the urban bosses of old made sure to care for the people before fattening up themselves, Jimmy forgot the part about the people.

It's prophetic that Jimmy's rise to the top began with him knee-deep in shit. Literally.

He got a job out of high school working at the Bedford Heights waste treatment plant. One night he was crossing a catwalk over a vat of sewage when it gave way. He plunged into a swirling cauldron of feces. According to legend, Jimmy was so angry that he decided to run for city council.

He had fallen into that vat a punk kid and came out a politician.

Four years later, the 26-year-old councilman became mayor. In that little blue-collar suburb hugging I-271, you couldn't touch him. Council was his rubber stamp. When he built a sparkling new community center, there was no question what it would be called: the Jimmy Dimora Community Center.

"You kind of had the feeling you were dealing with the mayor of New York," says former Commissioner Tim McCormack.

Even scandal couldn't tarnish him. In 1992, when Jimmy first ran for commissioner, The Plain Dealer revealed that he'd been running Bedford Heights like his own mom-and-pop. The city was buying police cars from a Ford dealership where his father-in-law worked. Police uniforms came from the chief's brother.

Jimmy created the job of economic development director for the local ward leader, handed the city's trash-hauling contract to campaign donor and convicted car thief James Palladino, and was having the city's laundry done at the Proud Pony, a bar owned by another loyal donor.

Jimmy's campaign finance records were so dirty -- he failed to mention that many of his donations were solicited from city employees, and he'd declared $40,000 invested at a bank as an expense -- that the prosecutor's office considered bringing an investigation. But all was washed away as a series of mildly embarrassing faux pas.

Jimmy may have lost the commissioner's race that year, but he was ready for his next battle: a coup on the county Democratic Party.

It was a perfect time. The party was broke and racially divided under the feeble leadership of the elderly John Coyne. Blacks were loyal to Congressman Lou Stokes, whites to Jimmy. When an opening on the elections board came up in 1992, Stokes wanted it for his man, Fred Middleton, a black attorney. Jimmy wanted it for himself. Luckily for him, there were more white guys than black guys on the party's executive committee.

Yet then-Secretary of State Bob Taft nixed Jimmy's victory, citing the shady campaign finance records. So Jimmy took it all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court and got a ruling against Taft. The next year he replaced Coyne as chairman. Five years later, he ran for commissioner again and won that too.

"Out of the chaos came a leader, and that was Jimmy," says former Cuyahoga County Republican Chairman Jim Trakas. "He was clearly the future."

These days, you won't find anyone in the party, white or black, willing to go against the boss -- at least publicly. At the end of the day, he not only decides who sinks and swims in the Democratic Party, but who gets a sweetheart contract, a plum appointment, an influx of cash into this program or that. The sum of his muttered "yes" votes will add up to $1.2 billion in handouts this year. He oversees 8,500 employees.

"The Chairman!" bellows Cleveland Councilman Zach Reed when asked about Dimora. "Jimmy's the man!"

It doesn't take a political scientist to tell you that Jimmy's doing a great job for the Democratic Party, which owns a near lock on every elected office of consequence. The question is, what's the Democratic Party doing for Cuyahoga County?

Hagan interrupts the meeting to congratulate a county worker on his fifth child. "Five more Democrats," he chuckles.

Adds Jimmy: "I'll send over the registration."

Resting his hands on the white tablecloth at the Metropolitan Café, County Auditor Frank Russo -- perhaps Jimmy's closest friend -- looks more refined than the goofy, toothy guy plastered on gas pumps. His microfiber sweater is the tan of a Lexus' interior; his modern spectacles and stainless-steel watch look like dashboard controls.

"The first thing a countywide candidate wants to do is give respect to Jimmy," says Russo. "[Jimmy] runs the party like he runs his family."

It's true that Jimmy knows about family values -- especially the value of employing them. Russo has Jimmy's cousin working for him as an office assistant. Alongside him are Sheriff Gerald McFaul's daughter and East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer's son ("Friends and Family Plan," May 31, 2006).

The recorder's office is also a repository for the connected. More than 90 employees, including state Representative Kenny Yuko's daughter and Bedford Clerk of Courts Tom Day's brother, are paid essentially to make copies. Go there, and they'll charge you two bucks a page for copies of deeds, then politely remind you that they can be accessed free online.

By comparison, Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, has less than a third the number of employees handle the same work.

But as Cuyahoga spirals toward poverty, its payroll remains a bloated affair fitting of Jimmy's personality and physique.

County jobs come with generous pay and some of the best benefits around, but with strings attached. You can sit on your ass and do nothing when it comes to your job -- as long as you work hard for the machine.

"Your pay increase for the next year is tied to your political activities," says Trakas. "That is very well understood."

Shortly after Russo moved from recorder to auditor in 1997, a state audit showed he'd sent employees to campaign for him while on the clock. He pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty and was ordered to repay more than $26,000.

But old habits die hard. When Trakas was running for reelection for state rep in 2002, county employees participated in a leaflet drive against him in Seven Hills. Russo admits it, but says he didn't pressure anyone.

"It's like your family wanting to go for a drive," he says. "Of course everyone wants to come, 'cause it's a lot of fun."

County offices provide more than free campaign labor. They also serve as a de facto retirement home. When Commissioner Tim McCormack was beaten by Hagan in 2004, Jimmy got him a nice gig on the Planning Commission -- 20 hours a week for $40,000 a year.

Of course, he still gets to collect his county retirement benefits.

A job can also make for a nice carrot. North Royalton Councilwoman Robin Zaccardelli was being a good Democrat when she ran for reelection in 2005. Rumor had it she was planning to retire, says Republican Mayor Cathy Luks, but that would have given Luks a chance to put one of her people on council. So Zaccardelli ran, won, and then resigned just months later. That way the Democratic majority on council could replace her.

For her good deed, Zaccardelli got a cushy job in Prosecutor Bill Mason's office.

"Who knows what half those people do down there," says Luks. "I get very frustrated because I look at the amount of our property taxes going to the county, and I know how frugal we have to be to accomplish providing services."

The county payrolls are so obviously padded that every once in a while Jimmy has to make it look as if he's doing something. An employee buyout, approved by Jimmy and Commissioners Jane Campbell and Tim McCormack back in 2001, sounded like a great idea at the time -- until it went into effect.

The deal was the most generous allowed by law, with more than 1,100 employees raking in $118 million. The biggest checks went to the most well-connected. Former County Commissioner Mary Boyle and former Common Pleas Judge Patricia Cleary were just temp workers, yet they left the jobs they'd be leaving anyway with pension benefits worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Of course, the person who benefited most was the man who designed it, County Administrator Tom Hayes. He took the buyout himself, at a cost of over $500,000. Somehow the commissioners hadn't spotted that little conflict of interest.

The commissioners' chief financial advisor apprises them of today's top business headlines. Some fish distributors got clipped in a $16 million scam to disguise catfish as more expensive grouper.

"How long did they go to jail?" asks Jimmy.

"Fifty months," says the advisor.

"But they made $16 million," says Jimmy.

Jimmy's challenger in the 2006 election was Wendell Robinson, former spokesman for Cleveland Safety Director James Draper. Flat broke and unemployed, he only ran to make a statement. "I think it's important in our democracy that people don't get a free pass," he says.

Yet Jimmy raised $130,000 that year to beat him anyway.

Jimmy held fund-raisers, including his annual brunch at Landerhaven, where well-to-do developers and businessmen write him checks that spare no zeros. Thousands more came from unions -- straight from the pockets of plumbers, steelworkers, and cement masons. The previous year he'd raised even more money, yet he wasn't even facing reelection.

But Jimmy makes sure his friends get their money's worth. One of his closest in this respect is Ferris Kleem, owner of Blaze Construction in Berea. The Scene article "Rags to Rip-Offs?" (March 17, 2004) detailed how Kleem used his cozy relationships with the mayor of Berea and ODOT to win tens of millions of dollars in road-work contracts, despite an impressive history of shoddy work and cost overruns.

But the allegations don't seem to bother Jimmy. Kleem has donated more than $25,000 to Jimmy since 2000. In 2002, he cut Jimmy a single check for $16,900. Since then, the county has showered Blaze with more than $17 million in road-work contracts.

The first one was to make repairs to Smith Road in Brook Park and Middleburg Heights. Kleem bid the lowest, but wound up going almost $250,000 over budget.

Just months later, he was awarded a $16 million contract to repair Pleasant Valley Road in Parma. The project is still some way from being finished, but Kleem is already almost $2 million over his initial bid.

"Unfortunately, on some of these projects, you're not sure where it's going to wind up at," says Mike Dever, the county's chief of construction. Much more predictable is who gets the work.

Anthony Melaragno, who runs Vandra Brothers Construction, has, along with his family, donated almost $10,000 to Dimora since 2000. In return, the company has been given more than $12 million in road work.

William Scala, who runs Kenmore Construction, and his family have given $12,000 in donations -- and received $2.3 million in contracts.

The county hired Malcolm Donley, president of the construction firm Donley Inc., to build a $7 million parking garage for the coroner's office; he's given Jimmy $12,750 over the past four years.

And when it came time to choose the company that manages the county's workers' comp claims, 1-888-OhioComp was an obvious choice. It's owned by the Lucarelli family, whose patriarch Sam Lucarelli spent 18 months in prison for racketeering. But the family's also donated $8,000 to Jimmy since 2002.

Maybe it's because Jimmy is one of three commissioners, all with the same vote, that he's able to deflect the questions that one man with such blatant conflicts would be forced to answer.

Take, for example, the new juvenile justice center, soon to be built at East 93rd Street and Quincy Avenue.

In 1997, Mayor Mike White condemned the land as "the worst environmental hazard in the city" after the former brewery site was found to be saturated with hazardous chemicals.

But two years later, White mysteriously recommended it as a place to build a home for hundreds of delinquent children.

The site was just one of the options White presented to commissioners. But Pat Britt, the councilwoman for East 93rd, was the only one to agree to take the project in her ward. And records showed the land's owners had poured $2 million into cleaning up the contamination. Commissioners Jimmy, Jane, and Tim all agreed it was the best proposal.

That's when Sam Miller, another frequent beneficiary of the party's largesse, suddenly entered the picture. Just a month after commissioners agreed on the site, a subsidiary of Miller's Forest City Enterprises bought the land at public auction for $383,571.

Less than a year later, Miller flipped it back to the county for $2.75 million. Jimmy claims Forest City spent a million on further cleanup, yet no record of it could be found. (Miller refused to talk to Scene for this story.)

It was a classic Jimmy deal -- a worthless piece of land, a party sugar daddy, and the inevitably exorbitant bill dumped on taxpayers. But it would only get worse. When commissioners dug into the ground to figure out the extent of the remaining contamination, they found there was still almost $9 million of work to be done.

"We were stunned," says former Commissioner McCormack. "It was our understanding that [a cleanup] had been successfully completed."

Yet Miller and the Ratner family made up for it by kicking Jimmy $12,500 in donations since the purchase.

Even more naked was the county's 2004 decision to build a new administration building. Never mind that the current structure on Lakeside and Ontario was built to add more floors on top. The county likes its buildings big, overpriced, and unnecessary.

Several developers submitted bids, but the competition was inevitably whittled down to two of the party's best patrons: Forest City and Dick Jacobs. Both owned money-losing buildings they wanted desperately to unload. Forest City wanted to pawn off its vacant Higbee Building at Tower City to prop up its failing mall. Jacobs wanted to dump the sprawling Ameritrust complex at Euclid and East Ninth.

He'd bought it from the banking giant for $50 million 25 years earlier. But then the market for office space tanked, and Jacobs was stuck with an abandoned tower of asbestos no one wanted -- with a $540,000 annual tax bill.

He tried to unload it on the feds for a new courthouse, but they weren't so easily suckered. "Jacobs and his attorney . . . tried to push us into the old junky building," the General Service Administration's Rich Latkowski told Scene in 2005. "They want to try to unload that thing."

From a practical standpoint, Forest City seemed to have a leg up. The Higbee Building's expansive floor plan allowed each county office to occupy its own floor, whereas the skinny Ameritrust tower would force visitors to play the elevator shuffle.

On the other hand, Jacobs had a favor due. During Jimmy's first run for commissioner in 1998, Jacobs threw a $35,000 donation at him.

In 2005, the commissioners picked Jacobs' proposal, paying an alarming $22 million for the right to assume his albatross. But they'd spent that money for a structure that was essentially useless, so they announced they would spend another hundred million or so to tear it down and build a new one.

"We're using the word 'transformation,'" says Jay Ross, the county's director of central services. But that "transformation" is conservatively estimated to cost $110 million by 2010 -- if everything goes smoothly. And this being Jimmy's county, smooth is rarely an option.

Meanwhile, Vincent Carbone, president of R.P. Carbone Construction, the construction manager for the project, was recently indicted for bribing former Lorain County Commissioner Michael Ross.

But that didn't affect Carbone's contract. "We'll keep an eye on it," says County Administrator Dennis Madden.

The whole thing sounds so much like a boondoggle that not even Jimmy's closest friends can explain it.

"I was a little shocked they were going to pay that kind of money and then tear the building down," says Cleveland City Councilman Mike Polensek. "But then again, I'm not on the inside."

Twenty minutes have gone by, and still no Jimmy. The hostess at Michael's Grille on Rockside Road comes out to say that Jimmy's running late.

He comes huffing through the automatic doors to the lobby. The waitresses all know him by name. One comes to the table and kisses him on the cheek. Another smiles coyly from across the restaurant, like a teenager at a school dance.

Jimmy declines lunch, sitting with his back to the steaming buffet trays. Maybe it's because he's sick of reporters writing about how much he eats. A 1998 Plain Dealer profile detailed his indulgent late-night run on a Chinese restaurant. "I'll just have an iced tea," he tells the waitress today.

In an age when politicians are either media whores or hermetically sealed behind layers of spokespeople, Jimmy's strictly old-school, possessing that classic Italian sense of ease that reminds you of old men in Olive Garden commercials. Asked about the waste treatment plant incident, he's ready with a line: "All I can think of's 'How are my parents going to explain that at the wake?'" he chuckles.

But like the commercials, there's labor behind his wide smile. His lines haven't changed a word since he was interviewed a decade ago. You know the punch line before he tells you: "He drowned in a vat of sewage."

As the questions become more pointed, the lines keep coming. You have to appreciate the smoothness of his game. He uses jocularity as a weapon and defends himself not with direct answers, but by attacking the question's logic.

Ask about rampant patronage, and he'll change the topic to fairness and opportunity. "Because they're related, does that mean they're not eligible if they apply for it and they're equally capable?" he says.

Ask about the juvenile justice center, and he'll pretend that Forest City's profit was too small to be considered a payoff. "In the scheme of things for Forest City, [the money]'s like a dime in your pocket. For anyone to say that Forest City got rich off this site has got to be crazy. It's just not real."

By the time a reporter gets around to asking about the Jacobs deal, Jimmy's on such a roll he just laughs at the suggestion that he was bought off. "You're always gonna have that," he chuckles. He says the Ameritrust site gives the county room to expand, has better parking, and will give business on Euclid Avenue a shot in the arm.

Never mind that the current building has all the same features. The king wants a nicer palace. "For a billion-dollar annual budget, look at the [current administration building]," he says. "It's a joke."

Jimmy knows well that a $35,000 check, followed by one for $22 million going the other way, looks bad. But there's nothing illegal about it, and nobody can prove anything.

He's been considering leaving office soon. "I don't want to be there when I'm in my sixties and seventies, trying to hold on for dear life," he says.

But the truth may be closer to something mentioned earlier in the interview. "The longer you're in power, the more enemies you make," he said, referring to the late John Coyne. "Nobody is invincible."

Last election saw Republicans routed in Columbus -- for essentially the same things Jimmy does. Closer to home, former princes of the city like Mike White, Nate Gray, and George Forbes are taking beatings from the FBI.

If he can get out soon, he may not be remembered as the guy who sold off the county while it climbed the national poverty rankings, the guy who did for himself while Cleveland died. Tales of corruption fade over time; personalities live forever.

Just then Jimmy looks at his watch and jumps. He's already a half-hour late for his 12:30 meeting. He calls his secretary. "Tell him I'll be there in a few minutes," he says.

Jimmy stays to talk for another 20 minutes. Eventually he waves to his favorite waitresses, gives a reporter a county lapel pin as a gift, then walks out the automatic doors into a bright, snow-melting sun.

At least for today, all is still beautiful in Jimmy's county.

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