I-Team: Lawsuit filed over Ameritrust deal

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CLEVELAND - Relying in part on information provided to a grand jury by former County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, Cuyahoga County today filed a civil suit against ten defendants - seeking to recover damages from the county's ill-fated purchase of the old Ameritrust Tower.

Seven years ago, the I-Team broke the story of an FBI probe of the old Cuyahoga County government with an investigation that questioned why the county paid almost a million dollars more to give an asbestos removal contract at the Ameritrust Tower to a local company - instead of to the low bidder.

Nine months after that I-Team investigation, FBI agents raided Dimora's office and home, as well as the office and home of then County Auditor Frank Russo.

Since then, dozens of people have pleaded guilty to corruption related charges including Russo.

Dimora went to trial, was convicted, and is now serving a 28-year sentence at a federal prison near Death Valley, California.

The civil lawsuit that was just filed alleges that the county paid huge sums, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, for "government relations" to people who weren't qualified to do that type of work.

County Executive Ed FitzGerald said what they had were "connections" that would help secure public business and that the sums paid for the work did not make sense.

Among those who've been sued is Vincent Russo, son of former auditor Frank Russo, both of whom pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges.

Also named as a defendant is Jones Lang LaSalle, a company that was paid about $3 million for consulting work on the Ameritrust deal.

That company, formerly known as the Staubach company, recommended that the county lease the Ameritrust Tower, and not buy it, as the county ultimately chose to do.

Staubach, now Jones Lang Lasalle ("JLL"), has always denied any wrongdoing, and continues to do so.

In a statement, JLL called the county's lawsuit "baseless," saying that it cooperated with, and was thanked by, prosecutors for its help in the corruption probe.

JLL said no one has ever accused any of its employees of "having knowledge of any illegal activity, or of having participated in it."

"Although perhaps it seems politically expedient for Mr. FitzGerald to make such accusations," the statement continues, "we have not been advised of any information suggesting that circumstances have changed."

FitzGerald said the numbers in the Staubach contract just don't make sense.

"You're talking about over a half-million dollars spent. I mean, a huge portion of the total contract, is all in government relations, and it's being paid to individuals that, whether or not they are true experts in government relations is a true question," FitzGerald said.

One of the attorneys used locally by Staubach at the time, Anthony Calabrese III, pleaded guilty in the corruption investigation on other charges.

In addition, the county alleges that roughly $300,000 of the Staubach contract money was paid to Vince Russo, and another $70,000 to J. Kevin Kelley, the former Parma school board member who was also convicted in the corruption probe.

In a court filing several years ago, federal prosecutors once wrote that Kelley was famously recorded on an FBI wiretap saying "loyalty makes up for brains."

The county alleges that JLL does not have records that show what work those individuals performed to warrant those payments.

Majeed Makhlouf, the county's law director, said Ameritrust was fourth on the county's list of properties it was interested in acquiring shortly before a meeting that involved Dimora.

After that meeting, the Ameritrust project moved to the top of the county's list.

When questioned, Makhlouf acknowledged that the county had some access to what Dimora said when testifying before a grand jury.

County Prosecutor Tim McGinty had subpoenaed Dimora back from federal prison to testify before that grand jury about corruption while he was a county commissioner.

The county has since sold the Ameritrust Tower at about an $18 million loss.

Referring to the suit that will try to get some of that money back, FitzGerald said, "hopefully, this is the last chapter of the county corruption investigation."

Read more on Ameritrust.

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