LISBON, Ohio — Jimmy Dimora nods and starts shuffling slowly past a swath of felons, pushing his wheelchair toward his visitor.
His beard is now more gray than black. And he’s heavier than ever. All that high-carb prison food only compounds his heart and circulation problems.
Gone are the steaks at Delmonico’s and the clanking of wine glasses that closed so many deals.
Now, it’s bags of jalapeno Cheetos and vending machine sandwiches, washed down with a bottle of Propel.
But the voice…That booming sound with a New York twist. That’s Jimmy, the one-time kingpin of Cuyahoga County politics, left crushed under the largest corruption scheme in Ohio history.
He’s been in prison for more than six years, but he’s far from done. He’s got 20-some years more to go, but he’s confident he won’t serve those final two decades. Either a judge or his health will end his stay.
In an exclusive interview with Channel 3 News, Dimora pledges to never stop fighting.
“I’m 63 years old, I don’t have any idea how much time I have left to live, so I want to spend, naturally, as much time that I do have left with my wife, Lori, and our children, and hopefully, God willing, grandchildren, some day.”
WATCH | Part 1 of Tom Meyer's interview with Jimmy Dimora in the player below
Cameras are not permitted in federal prisons. But after months of emails and letters, and a visit with Channel 3 News producer Phil Trexler, Dimora agreed to a phone interview from the Federal Correctional Institution Elkton in Lisbon, Ohio.
The interview marks the first broadcast interview Dimora has given since he was convicted.
As he has since the FBI first began investigating him and a handful of other politicians, bureaucrats and contractors more than 10 years ago, Dimora swears he’s innocent.
He points his finger at former county auditor Frank Russo as the true “Godfather.”
It was Russo, his long-time political ally, who turned on Dimora, admittedly pocketing millions in bribes, jobs for friends and family and gifts. Russo hoped to spare himself, and his family members, time in prison. It worked.
Russo got 22 years, but he’s set to be rescheduled for lesser time, perhaps even an immediate release. It’s his reward for playing ball with the feds and helping nail Dimora.
“Russo, he made a deal with the devil and I’m not talking about the government. I actually mean Russo made a deal with the devil,” Dimora said.
WATCH | See part 2 of Tom Meyer's interview with Jimmy Dimora in the player below
“Really, Russo doesn’t deserve to be re-sentenced. He should have to do the entire 22 year sentence," Dimora said. "He admittedly stole taxpayer dollars. He pressured employees for promotions to pay him bribes, he pressured people to be hired to pay him bribes.
“If he gets re-sentenced for all the criminal activity he was involved in, the old saying that crime does not pay, is absolutely not true. Because Russo would be a poster child for showing that criminal activity is the way to go.”
As a county commissioner, Dimora was just one of three votes cast on contracts being considered. Neither of his fellow commissioners were indicted. But, as head of the county Democrats, Dimora was a powerful player. His boisterous persona drew cameras, ears and attention.
Yet, Dimora dares anyone to look beyond the hyperbole, the headlines and sound bites, and see what is actually alleged against him and who’s saying it. The snitches? The former political allies, who ran scared, cut deals and, in his mind, told the feds whatever they wanted to hear: stories of bribes, elaborate backyard patios, Rolex watches.
Prosecutors ran with it, he said.
“[Prosecutors] created that kind of character of a person that they’re trying to target to prosecute and they try to show whatever they can in a negative way to disparage their reputation,” he said. “And they try to show a jury why they should try and convict that target.
“The way they portrayed me was absolutely, unequivocally false and I hope, again, to someday regain my reputation and my integrity when I do get out from being in prison.”
J. Kevin Kelley, another politico who turned state’s evidence to save himself, provided damaging testimony that helped convict Dimora. Kelley, in turn, received a six-year prison term. This for being an admitted go-between for bribes and a witness to the gifts allegedly bestowed upon Dimora and Russo in exchange for county contracts or jobs.
“We caught Kelley lying and the judge did allow him to come back and recant his testimony, clean it up,” Dimora said. “Kelley can find the cure for cancer before he could tell the truth. He lied about so many things I lost track.”
At one point before his trial, prosecutors alleged Dimora ripped off taxpayers for millions. By the end of the trial, it was reduced to $450,000. But his conviction on nearly three dozen counts led to a 28-year prison term. He lost his home and his pension. He does remain married.
Twenty-eight years, though. That’s more than even the government requested. It’s more than almost every other corrupt politician in U.S. history has ever received. Even many who think Dimora is guilty believe his sentence is excessive.
If Dimora was as corrupt as alleged, where’s the wealth, he asks? Did he risk his life for fancy dinners, hookers and that elaborate patio?
He used his life savings to pay for his defense team. He couldn’t afford higher caliber attorneys, friends said.
U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi delivered the sentence. She also made critical rulings that Dimora says hampered his defense. Most recently, she denied his appeal and then ruled that Dimora could not appeal her decision.
Court observers say it appears Lioi’s rulings and sentence were personal, almost punitive, retaliation for Dimora’s misogynist ways.
“Listen, I don’t want to take issue with the court. But I did receive a 28-year sentence, which is, if not the longest sentence for a public official to receive, it is one of the longest,” Dimora said.
Dimora remains troubled by his trial. His lawyers, father and daughter tandem William and Andrea Whitaker, were pitted against the U.S. Attorney’s Office and its nearly unlimited resources. Throughout the three-week trial, Dimora said his defense team was outgunned and at times appeared overwhelmed.
Dimora said he wishes he had ignored his attorneys’ advice and testified.
He believes he could have connected with jurors, just as he had with Bedford voters when he rose from maintenance worker to mayor, and when he parlayed that success into leading county Democrats and becoming a county commissioner.
“Listen, I’m guilty of a lot of things. I’m guilty of many bad choices in my friends that I chose. I’m guilty of making a bad choice of my trial counsel. I’m guilty of not following my gut to testify at my trial.”
Dimora intends to take his appeal to the sixth U.S. Circuit Court. Some observers say he’s a long shot to find any relief, despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that has helped other politicians convicted of crimes.
“Well, if I lose this appeal, you still keep fighting, you gotta try to regain your liberty and your freedom," he said. "I can never stop fighting. I have to keep fighting every day to try to, to try to get out.”
Phil Trexler and Tom Meyer previewed the story Wednesday afternoon: