Cuyahoga County corruption investigation began at least 3 years ago, extortion charges show

Submitted by Quest-News-Serv... on Sat, 05/16/2009 - 02:18.

Cuyahoga County corruption investigation began at least 3 years ago, extortion charges show

Posted by pkrouse [at] plaind [dot] com May 15, 2009 20:37PM

Gus Chan/The Plain DealerFBI agents load boxes into a U-Haul truck confiscated from offices in the Cuyahoga County Administration Building in July 2008. The probe began three years ago when a Cleveland building inspector attmepted to bribe an undercover federal agent.

The corruption probe that has tarred some of Cuyahoga County's most powerful politicians began at least three years ago, according to criminal charges filed Friday.

That's when an FBI agent went undercover as an investor in a controversial West Side bar and was hit up for bribes by a Cleveland building inspector, prosecutors said.

That inspector, Bobby Cuevas, and two other building inspectors were charged with extortion in U.S. District Court. The charges are part of a broader investigation looking at possible corruption in Cuyahoga County that went public last year when the FBI and Internal Revenue Service raided the homes and offices of Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and Auditor Frank Russo.

So far, charges have been limited to Cleveland's Department of Building and Housing.


Cuevas was accused of soliciting $4,300 in bribes from an undercover agent between March and August 2006 for work done at La Copa Bar and Grille. Building inspectors Lawrence Skule and Richard Kocuba were also charged Friday with taking cash in exchange for favors.

Cuevas, 48, has been cooperating with the government since August 2006, said Vincent Gonzales, Cuevas' lawyer. Gonzales wouldn't provide specifics, but said, "Whatever he was asked by the FBI, he cooperated 100 percent."

Cuevas knew work at La Copa was being done by contractors that were not registered with the city, as required under Cleveland ordinance, but agreed to find registered companies that would claim they did the work instead, according to the charge.

The undercover agent gave Cuevas $2,600, which was supposed to cover the cost of permits plus money for the contractors whose names would appear on them, prosecutors said.

He also took $200 to let the undercover agent use cheaper studs in a wall, plus $1,500 for the favors he did for the undercover agent at La Copa, prosecutors said.

La Copa, a bar on Clark Avenue that was championed by Councilman Joe Santiago, opened in 2006, around the time the undercover agent was posing as an investor. It closed last year after numerous citations and complaints from residents.

Cuevas resigned from his $52,000-a-year job last week. He began working for the city in 1990.

Attorney John Ricotta, who represents former building inspector Richard Huberty, believes Cuevas helped federal agents obtain evidence against his client.

Huberty pleaded guilty last month to 10 counts of extortion and bribery. He is scheduled to be sentenced in July.

Huberty's crimes included extorting cash from an undercover agent and a representative of La Copa as well as from the owner of the former Mirage on the Water nightclub in the Flats. He also admitted taking bribes from K&D Group construction manager Henry Picozzi to approve permits for work performed on the Stonebridge development in the Flats.

Picozzi admitted bribing Huberty and a second unnamed building inspector with cash and entertainment and dinner at a strip club. Picozzi is scheduled to be sentenced in June.

Ricotta said he heard Cuevas' voice on secretly taped conversations that included Huberty's. Agents played the tapes for Ricotta in discussions that led to Huberty pleading guilty.

Skule, 63, of Rocky River, was chief plumbing inspector for Cleveland until he retired last month. Prosecutors said he extorted $750 from an undercover agent posing as a real estate investor from New York. In exchange for the bribe, Skule placed violation notices on a house, which lowered its price, and then removed the notices so the investor could then sell the house at a higher price.

Calls to Skule's attorney were not returned.

Kocuba, 64, an electrical inspector for the city, extorted a $500 bribe from representatives of Wing Hin Construction to speed up the permitting process so Sweethearts Ice Cream could open earlier, prosecutors said.

Kocuba's attorney, Bob Williams, said his client will plead guilty and is hoping to get probation. Kocuba cooperated with the government only in connection with his crime and was not able to help the government in its larger investigation of corruption, Williams said.

"He was a small fish getting ready to retire," Williams said.

Mayor Frank Jackson said he welcomed the continuing investigation and hopes it will send a message "that this kind of behavior, whether it was business as usual in the past, will not be in the future."



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