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Cuyahoga County corruption probe rattles political terrain in presidential swing state


FBI agents enter the City-County Building in downtown Cleveland, Monday, July 28, 2008. Cuyahoga County's top elected official, Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, has pledged cooperation with a federal investigation into alleged public corruption in Ohio's most populous county.

Gus Chan / AP Enlarge

CLEVELAND The Democratic-controlled government in Cuyahoga County, a political behemoth with a population bigger than nine states, has been rattled by a federal corruption probe in the run-up to the presidential election in a crucial swing state.

At the center of the investigation are longtime buddies and political allies, Jimmy Dimora, one of three county commissioners who is also the county's Democratic chairman, and county Auditor Frank Russo, who has a knack for self-promotion and hiring political friends.

No one has been charged and Dimora and Russo have said they did nothing wrong. Neither responded to interview requests from The Associated Press after raids July 28 on their homes and offices by agents of the FBI and Internal Revenue Service.

The exact focus of the investigation wasn't disclosed, but The Plain Dealer reported that agents were looking into allegations that Dimora and Russo traded county jobs and contracts for thousands of dollars in free improvements to their spacious suburban homes.

The county has 9,400 employees and a $1.5 billion annual budget.

Dimora was nowhere to be seen when Democratic presidential nominee-in-waiting Barack Obama made his first campaign appearance in the county after the raids.

The Obama campaign said it had its own campaign organization and wouldn't be affected by any upheaval in the local Democratic organization or Dimora's status.

By tradition, Ohio Democrats must win Cuyahoga County by huge six-figure margins to offset GOP strength elsewhere. President Bush won re-election in 2004 by winning Ohio despite losing to John Kerry by more than 225,000 votes in Cuyahoga.

Acting U.S. Attorney Bill Edwards, whose office supervises federal prosecutions across northern Ohio, said he could not comment. The FBI also declined detailed comment.

The investigation in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, comes with the backdrop of rampant foreclosures, bungled vote-counting, dwindling jobs and a county population decline that was the nation's third biggest in 2007, leaving it with an estimated 1.29 million people.

The nation got an idea of how county government runs in the 2006 primary, as polling places opened late, poll workers were poorly trained and computer problems led to a six-day count.

The Plain Dealer, which highlighted patronage hiring practices in the county before the raids, dubbed Dimora and Russo "the life of the party for Cuyahoga Democrats" and inseparable friends.

The bearded Dimora, 53, a one-time janitor and former suburban Bedford Heights mayor, routinely pokes fun at his 400-pound frame and penchant for showing up late, including his much-anticipated first commission meeting after the raids.

Russo, 58, a former Mayfield Heights councilman, may have benefited from reliable ethnic bloc voting in a county where there are 13 elected judges with the names Corrigan, Gallagher, McMonagle or Russo.

Ninety-three of 283 employees in Russo's office are politically connected, the newspaper reported in June. One was a former strip club manager with political connections who had Russo's endorsement as "a people person."

Despite a low-profile position, Russo's face would be familiar to many in the county, given his practice of putting his smiling photo on stickers on every gasoline pump to certify accuracy.

The photo label practice is unique among Ohio's 88 counties, the County Auditors' Association of Ohio said. The downside for Russo: vandals who draw the clean-shaven Russo a mustache, or perhaps a goatee or horns.

Another Democratic insider, county Recorder Patrick O'Malley, resigned May 15 and pleaded guilty in federal court to obscenity for viewing lewd items on his computer. His plea just weeks before the raids left some wondering if O'Malley was a leniency-seeking tipster in the corruption probe, but his attorney said O'Malley's case was unrelated. He sentencing is Sept. 26.

GOP county chairman Rob Frost compares the county government to old political machines in Chicago, Detroit and Newark, N.J., with public employees hired with the understanding they would help out politically.

No Republican has been elected Cuyahoga County commissioner since 1992.

First in line for a political dividend may be suburban Bay Village Mayor Debbie Sutherland, a Republican who is challenging Dimora's commission colleague, Peter Lawson Jones, in the Nov. 4 election. Dimora and Russo, both in their third terms, are not up for re-election until 2010.

Sutherland said her eight years as mayor and work on regional collaboration have prepared her for higher office and mentioned another plus in her favor.

"The last time I looked the FBI has not showed up at my office," Sutherland said.

Jones said Dimora and Russo had not tried to get him to steer contracts.

Dimora referred a second AP interview request to the county administrator, James McCafferty, who said he was committed to cooperating with the FBI.

A message seeking comment was left for an attorney representing Russo.

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