James F. McCarty
Plain Dealer reporter

While sentenced a year and a half ago to a lengthy prison term for corruption, Frank Russo has so far avoided doing any time by agreeing to testify against his onetime colleagues and friends.

And that freedom seems likely to continue, though the former Cuyahoga County auditor isn’t scheduled to testify again as a prosecution witness until mid-September, a situation that enrages the lawyer for one of the men he helped convict with his testimony.

“I think this dude’s going to die of natural causes before he spends a day in prison,” said Leif Christman, the defense attorney for former county employee Michael Gabor, who was convicted of racketeering and six other charges in March.

“He stole $2 million, but he gets to stay free? Lock up Frank Russo,” Christman said.

Russo, 62, does not have a scheduled date for reporting to a federal prison in Loretto, Pa., where he is to serve up to 22 years for accepting bribes and other crimes. And federal prosecutors have not asked for a date to be set.

Similar deals have been cut between prosecutors and cooperating defendants J. Kevin Kelley and Sandy Klimkowski, both former county officials who pleaded guilty to bribery charges nearly three years ago and remain free while awaiting sentencing.

Prosecutors declined to comment for this story, but they have stated in recent court filings that they need Russo to remain free and in Northeast Ohio while he assists them with upcoming cases and trials.

To require FBI agents to meet with Russo at the prison in Loretto — about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh — would “place a significant strain on government resources,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Rowland said in one court filing.

The prospect of shipping documents and recordings to the prison “would present insurmountable logistical and security problems,” Rowland added.

So far, Russo has testified in three trials generated by the federal government’s investigation of corruption in the region. The trials resulted in the convictions of two judges as well as former County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and co-defendant Gabor.

Russo is scheduled to testify at the racketeering trial of attorney Anthony O. Calabrese III and co-defendant Sandy Prudoff, Lorain’s former community development director. That trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 10.

The disgraced auditor also is expected to testify at the trials of his former deputy auditor, Samir Mohammad, and the former head of Doan Pyramid Electric, Michael Forlani — both scheduled for October.

Russo might also be called on to testify in a second trial for Dimora, though prosecutors have asked U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi to dismiss the additional charges.

Roger Synenberg, Russo’s attorney, said it’s a misconception to believe the prosecutors don’t need his client until the Calabrese trial in September.

“They work with him all the time,” Synenberg said. “They met about a week ago, and they’re meeting with him again soon.”

In the meantime, prosecutors have imposed few restrictions on Russo. According to Synenberg, his client serves meals to the homeless at a soup kitchen in Tremont, occasionally meets his children and grandchildren for lunch and stays at his lakefront condo in Bratenahl.

Cleveland attorney Philip Kushner, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said Russo is a prime example of the benefits defendants receive for cooperating with federal prosecutors rather than taking their cases to trial.

“Compare where he is to the treatment of Jimmy Dimora, who fought the government and lost,” Kushner said.

On March 9, the day a jury convicted Dimora of racketeering and 32 other charges of bribery, fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion, U.S. marshals cuffed and shackled him and took him to a federal prison in Youngstown. Lioi said she considered him a flight risk.

And that is where Dimora has remained while awaiting sentencing July 25. Prosecutors say he faces from 20 to 25 years.

Cleveland attorney Richard Blake, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said Russo’s continued freedom is a reward for his assistance.

“It is in the government’s self-interest to maintain leverage over witnesses they plan to use in future trials,” he said. “Witnesses understand that the better they testify for the government at trial, the less prison time that prosecutors will ask for at sentencing.”

But Blake, who successfully defended former Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority Director George Phillips-Olivier against bribery charges, said Russo’s continued freedom also sends a mixed message to the public.

“We need to balance the government’s desire to control the timing and manner in which they choose to prosecute citizens with the public’s frustration at what is perceived as unfair, preferential treatment by prosecutors toward certain government witnesses,” he said.