October 22, 2014

Elyria
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VIDEO: Jury convicts Michael Ross on all counts

ELYRIA — A jury Wednesday convicted former Lorain County Commissioner Michael Ross of all 19 charges he had faced in his public corruption trial.

Visiting Judge Judith Cross said she was “99.9 percent sure” she would sentence Ross to prison after she ordered him taken into custody and held at the county jail until his sentencing hearing next month.

Ross, 45, barely reacted as Cross read the guilty verdict on two counts each of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity and conspiracy, four counts of money laundering, three counts of bribery, seven counts of unlawful interest in a public contract and a single charge that accused him of failing to file a tax return in 2000.

Ross was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs after his attorney, Michael Nelson, failed to convince Cross that his client should be left free while he appeals the jury’s decision.

“He’s not a flight risk,” Nelson said. “In fact, his resources are such that he couldn’t flee if he wanted to.”

County Prosecutor Dennis Will said he isn’t sure yet what the total amount of time Ross could face is, but he plans to ask that Ross go to prison.

“Obviously we believe incarceration is warranted and significant incarceration is also warranted,” he said.

Nelson said later that Ross was disappointed in the verdict reached by the eight women and four men on the jury after about four hours of deliberation over a two-day period. Nelson said he doubts that the jury had enough time to examine numerous documents they were given to review during their deliberations.

Ross was accused of pocketing $582,782 in bribes for steering county contracts to his former friend and business associate Larry Jones’ company, Erie Shores Computers Inc., or to companies that Jones had solicited bribes from.

Jones testified during the trial that he asked for bribes from Vince Carbone, the president of a Cleveland construction company that managed the building of the Lorain County Justice Center, and Randall Gordon, the president of the architectural firm that designed the project.

Jones, Carbone and Gordon all took plea deals in the case, trading their testimony in exchange for lenient sentences. Carbone and Gordon both spent six months behind bars, while Jones was allowed to serve his sentence at the same time he was doing a three-year prison stint on unrelated federal bank fraud and money laundering charges.

In the cases of Carbone and Gordon, both men’s companies gave Erie Shores lucrative contracts, but the company did little or no work for the money, some of which was funneled to Ross, according to prosecutors.

Jones wrote numerous checks to Ross’ company, Market Shape Communications, during Ross’ tenure as commissioner and after he left office after being defeated in 2000 by Republican David Moore.

Among the deals Ross got for Jones, prosecutors argued during the trial, was the sale of the former J.C. Penney building on East Avenue in Elyria to the county for $400,000 in late 2000. Erie Shores had agreed to buy the building for $250,000 just a few months earlier.

But Nelson argued that Ross was a victim in the case, whom he said prosecutors pursued because of Ross’ race. Ross, a Democrat, was both the first black safety-service director in the city of Lorain and became the first black county commissioner when he was elected in 1996.

“I think that Michael Ross being a pioneer has ruffled some feathers,” Nelson said.

Will said there was nothing racial about prosecuting Ross. Investigators simply followed the evidence, and it led to Ross, he said.

Nelson also complained about the makeup of the jury, which contained only one black member.

“It’s difficult to have a jury of his peers when there just aren’t that many of his peers around,” he said.

Jurors declined to comment about the case as they left the Justice Center.

Nelson said Ross also fell victim to the negative impact of the ongoing federal corruption probe that became public last year when the FBI raided the homes and offices of companies and public officials in Cuyahoga County.

That investigation has since spilled into Lorain County, with a former Elyria lawyer pleading guilty to charges. Former Lorain Community Development Director Sandy Prudoff is considered a target of the investigation and the dealings of Lorain businessman Don E. Buchs are also being examined by the FBI.

“People are not inclined to give elected officials the benefit of the doubt,” Nelson said.

But Will said even if the Cuyahoga County investigation weren’t going on, the public has little tolerance for public officials on the take.

“I don’t think the public ever appreciates public officials engaging in corruption,” he said.

Although prosecutors dropped an additional unlawful interest in a public contract and another two counts of failing to file a tax return during the trial, Ross is still facing additional charges stemming from his time as an attorney.

The Ohio Supreme Court disbarred Ross in 2005 after completing a review of allegations that he had bilked legal clients out of money they were due, including failing to pay one client $200,000 the client was to receive in an automobile accident settlement.

Ross also was accused of failing to pay $18,000 to the heirs of an estate he helped settle in 2003.

Will said he doesn’t know yet what will happen with the criminal charges Ross is still facing.

Wednesday’s guilty verdict wasn’t the first time Ross has faced a felony conviction. He was found guilty, but avoided prison, in 2007 for failing to pay child support.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.