CLEVELAND -- Mired in a scandal that saw its top officials charged with bribery, Ohio's most populous county needed an image makeover. It turned to a new government -- and a 262-word pledge.
After nearly five years of investigation and prosecutions in Cuyahoga County, 907 companies have signed the promise to uphold ethical standards and combat a culture of corruption. County voters also did their part, restructuring a government that critics said was inefficient and allowed back-room dealing.
The changes in northeast Ohio's Cuyahoga County, which grew with the steel industry and John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil and saw decline with the Rust Belt, have Ed FitzGerald, 44, the first elected county executive, considering a run for governor next year. Civic leaders say that while it is too soon to render a final verdict, they are more confident about the region's direction and an improving business climate.
"Our credibility as a community was tarnished," said former city planner Chris Ronayne, 44, president of University Circle Inc., a Cleveland nonprofit development corporation. "The business community and the populace generally knew that we had to change our image."
The scandal began in July 2008, when dozens of federal agents raided homes and offices of public officials and businesses. Sixty-two people have been charged, with 47 sent to prison or awaiting sentencing, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Cleveland.
The biggest targets were Jimmy Dimora, a heavy-set, Boss Tweed-like figure who was first elected a commissioner in 1998 and ran the county's powerful Democratic Party, and Frank Russo, the longtime county auditor.
Mr. Dimora, 57, was sentenced to 28 years in July 2012 after he was convicted on 32 counts. Prosecutors said he took more than $166,000 in bribes in the form of cash, home improvements -- including a fake palm tree and money for a backyard tiki hut -- meals at high-end restaurants and services from prostitutes. In return, he steered contracts and jobs to friends and interceded with judges on pending cases, according to federal authorities.
Mr. Russo, 63, received nearly 22 years in prison and was ordered to pay almost $7 million in restitution in 2010 after pleading guilty. He took $1.2 million in bribes to award more than $21.4 million in commercial real-estate contracts, authorities said.
In 2008, a contractor bidding for work on the county's new Juvenile Justice Center helped arrange a trip to Las Vegas for Mr. Dimora, Mr. Russo and others, giving the officials $6,000 for airfare and gambling and getting them suites at the Mirage, according to federal prosecutors. The contractor, later sentenced to three years after pleading guilty to bribery, gave Mr. Dimora about $3,500 in gambling chips and escorted a prostitute to his suite in Las Vegas, authorities said.
Through prison spokesmen, both Mr. Dimora and Mr. Russo declined requests to be interviewed.
"There's a sense of relief in the community that the corruption has been eliminated and those responsible for it were held accountable," said George V. Voinovich, a former Cuyahoga official, Cleveland mayor, governor and U.S. senator. "The crooks are gone."