-By James F. McCarty
January 27, 2012- AKRON, Ohio — One-time pizza shop owner Joseph Gallucci wanted a cushy job on the Cuyahoga County payroll in 2006, and to get it, he willingly corrupted one of the fundamental tenets of a democracy — the expectation of open and fair elections.
Gallucci's skullduggery involved running a sham election challenge to then-County Auditor Frank Russo in exchange for thousands of dollars in clandestine payments and then a $67,000-a-year job on Russo's staff.
All the sordid details came out Thursday, when Gallucci testified at the corruption trial of former County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and Michael Gabor, a former county employee accused of helping orchestrate the election scam.
Interwoven with a series of secretly recorded cellphone conversations, federal prosecutors presented evidence of Russo and his cronies scrambling to cover the tracks of their criminal scheme in a Nixonian style reminiscent of Watergate.
The testimony and recordings also exposed the extremes that the politically fixated Russo would take to manipulate an election outcome that was never in doubt.
Gallucci, a Republican in a county dominated by Democrats, said he initially scoffed at the absurdity of the idea proposed by then-county employee J. Kevin Kelley that he file as a candidate for auditor in the 2006 election.
"I thought it was crazy," Gallucci testified.
Russo had held the auditor's job for nearly seven years by then and consistently was among the top vote-getters in the county. Gallucci, who ran a chain of pizza shops and a car wash, was unknown in political circles.
But Gallucci said he agreed to the plan, which called for him to file for the Republican primary, then drop out of the race afterward, providing Russo with an unopposed path to re-election and allowing him to avoid spending $50,000 in campaign advertising.
Russo, he said, met with him at a Holiday Inn to seal the deal, and the auditor vowed to take care of him afterward with a government job.
Gallucci said he spent about $180 for pens reading "Gallucci for Auditor" but otherwise did nothing to get himself elected. He didn't even vote for himself.
Eventually, however, the scheme changed, Gallucci said. Rather than having him drop out of the race in May, Kelley told Gallucci he needed him to stay in the race until August, by which time it would be too late for the Republicans to find a new candidate.
Gallucci said he had hoped to start work in the auditor's office much sooner than that and expressed his displeasure. To assuage him, he said, Russo agreed to pay him $4,000 per month for five months until he could begin work.
Gabor, a Russo employee and a lifelong friend of Gallucci's, acted as bagman, delivering half the payoffs in cash each month, Gallucci testified. The other half of his monthly payoffs came via checks cut by 1-888-OhioComp, a managed-care company, for "consulting services," he said.
Gallucci acknowledged he performed no work for 1-888-OhioComp. Attempts to reach the company for comment Thursday were unsuccessful. In the past, company officials have denied wrongdoing.