I-Team: Dimora Files Formal Appeal, Blasts Trial Court’s Rulings

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CLEVELAND - Former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora formally appealed his corruption convictions Saturday, alleging the trial judge denied him a fair trial, and made it both easy and unfair for prosecutors to convict him.

In a brief that runs more than 60 pages, Dimora's attorneys portray an image of a trial where there was a double-standard regarding the admission of evidence, and where Dimora's lawyers were first told they could admit evidence critical to their defense - and then were later denied the right to do so.

Dimora was seen as the kingpin in a massive federal corruption probe. Unlike most of the others who faced charges, Dimora refused to cut a plea deal.

In November of 2007, the FOX 8 I-Team broke the story of an FBI corruption probe of Cuyahoga County government.

Nine months later, in July of 2008, the full scope of the investigation became apparent, as federal agents conducted a massive series of coordinated raids on one day.

While scores of people have been convicted since that day, it was clear almost from the start that the two prime targets of the probe were Dimora and former Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo.

Russo eventually cooperated with prosecutors, and is now in prison waiting to be re-sentenced.

His original sentence ran almost 22 years - before he started cooperating.

Dimora went to the mat - and lost big.

He was convicted on 32 counts, and is now serving a 28 year sentence imposed by Judge Sara Lioi.

In their brief to a federal appeals court, Dimora's lawyers assert that the key question was "whether he acted with criminal intent."

The attorneys say the judge at first was going to allow Dimora to introduce his ethics reports - and then later ruled against that admission.

Dimora's defense asserted that he received gifts, not bribes, and that he disclosed those gifts on his state ethics filings.

Legally, whether to admit the filings is a complicated question related to hearsay.

In oversimplified terms, Dimora can't be allowed to enter the reports to prove he received "gifts" and not "bribes" - because prosecutors can't cross-examine reports.
So, in essence, he wasn't allowed to claim they were "gifts" unless he was willing to testify to that assertion, and face questions on cross-examination. Dimora did not take the stand.

But, his defense argued that they weren't trying to prove what he received were truly "gifts" -- only that the government's assertion that he hid what he received was false -- because Dimora made disclosures on his ethics report.

In the end, the judge sided with prosecutors. Dimora's appeal says that ruling "was wrong as a matter of law."

They contend the effect of the ruling "was to deprive Dimora of a fair trial."

His attorneys say prosecutors fought admitting the reports, "then repeatedly relied on the absence of that evidence in asking the jury to convict."

The appeal also alleges that the judge made a critical mistake in not allowing a jury instruction on "the important difference between lobbying and bribery."

Dimora's appeal does not ask for a reduction in his sentence, which some observers expected.

Dimora received a longer prison term than the former governor of Illinois who tried to sell the Senate seat of then President-Elect Barack Obama.

Dimora's appeal lawyers chose to attack the convictions, not the sentence, in the hopes of getting the convictions tossed out.

Prosecutors will now have a chance to file a reply to the appeal. Saturday morning, the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on Dimora's brief.

David Mills, a noted federal appeals attorney, said he expects the government to attack Dimora's brief hard.

"Number one, they are likely to say the judge didn't make a mistake (in keeping the ethics reports out of the case)," Mills said. "And even more fundamentally, maybe it didn't matter much either."

Mills cautioned, though, that if Dimora's ethics report argument strikes a chord with the appeals judges, it could be what he terms "a possible game changer."

"What I mean by that," Mills added, "is that it's an argument that could affect most, if not all, the counts against Dimora, if it's successful."

The case will likely be set for oral arguments in about six months.

Neither side will know which panel of three judges will hear the case until shortly before those arguments.

As with the U.S. Supreme Court, the judicial philosophy of the panel members can sometimes be important in the outcome of a case.

Dimora is in prison in West Virginia.

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