"Russo" has been a brand name in politics here for as long as I can remember. Never mind that most voters had no idea which Russo they were voting for or why. The name itself was synonymous with victory.
These days, the name is synonymous with theft in office, bribery, and generally corrupting all of our lives in one way or another. And Frank Russo is adding yet another adornment: that of snitch, an especially odious term in Murray Hill, where they drink to stand-up guys.
Once the county auditor and Democratic Party power broker, Russo bides his time these days in the witness chair in federal court, testifying against those he lured into his web of deceit. He's devolved into a fattened rat the likes of which the county has never seen.
Old timers on the Hill must be wondering what ever happened to the stand-up guys — guys like Nate Gray, who did for Mayor Mike White's administration what the James gang did for the old west. Facing more than 15 years in prison, Gray opened his mouth only to floss.
After seeing the movie Kill the Irishman — the story of the deadly feud between Cleveland gangsters Danny Greene and Shondor Birns — one long-time criminal attorney bemoaned the mellowing of our town's criminal elite.
"In the days of Danny and Shondor, Frank Russo would be dead," he said. "And they would never find the body."
Instead, Russo is buying time by fingering felons, and he's enjoying himself. Billy the Barber saw him at the Blue Point on St. Clair Avenue recently, and not too long ago he was dining at the American Tavern on Miles Road, where a patron recognized him from years of gazing at his mug on gas pumps everywhere. Russo reportedly is buying generous rounds of drinks in Bratenahl too.
One recent night, an official from the port authority sat down at the bar at the Winking Lizard on Miles. He began to complain of my reporting of something he considered an act of democracy, which I characterized as attempted theft.
The discussion grew more intense, when he suddenly stopped.
"Don't look now, but Elvis is in the house, and he is sitting right next to you."
Sure enough, Frank Russo was on my left, resplendent in a striped sport coat, his companion standing by his side. Both were absorbed in the games on television.
I was tempted to ask how much public money Russo managed to siphon off, but I knew it would embarrass the port authority official.
"I love that sport coat," I said instead. "Where did you get that?"
"Dallas," Russo responded. His eyes looked puffy behind thick glasses, revealing the toll of the sleepless nights that likely hound him.
"Looks good on you," I said.
In between nights on the town, Russo testifies at trials like that of Common Pleas Court Judge Steven Terry, who was convicted of fixing a case. Russo told the jury that at one time he could control the action of ten sitting judges. A sick feeling settles in when you wonder how many cases he tampered with and who suffered injustice as a result.
Courthouse watchers predict 20 years for Russo, but it appears he's trying to buy time on the front end, knowing that chances are remote that he'll outlive his sentence. At the rate he is revealing his crimes on the way to taking down others, Russo deserves more time rather than less.
Each time he testifies, suspicion and mistrust collect on the community like a creeping fungus. He is every elected official's nightmare, the guy who confirms what the public always suspected.
Every voter should listen to the wire taps involving Russo and former County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, which can be conveniently accessed online.
"How disgusting, embarrassing, and disappointing that they were county leaders," says a Bay Village woman who recently tuned in. "Dimora sounds like a mobster wannabe and Russo his lackey."
The wannabe and the lackey will make a grand appearance in January, when Russo testifies in court against his best friend. The tapes for this one will not be suitable for family listening.