July 23, 2014

Elyria
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Michael Ross gets 9 1/2 years

ELYRIA — Former Lorain County Commissioner Michael Ross was sentenced to 9½ years in prison Friday for accepting more than $500,000 in bribes related to construction of the Justice Center and other county business.

Ross, 45, also was ordered to pay $377,000 in restitution and $48,500 in fines and court-appointed attorney fees.

A jury convicted Ross last month of 19 counts including racketeering, money laundering, bribery, and filing incomplete or fraudulent tax returns.

Ross was convicted 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 from which Jones had solicited bribes.

Visiting Judge Judith Cross lectured Ross, telling him that as an elected official he “ripped off” the people he was elected to serve.

Assistant County Prosecutor Tony Cillo asked Cross to impose a long sentence, saying Ross used the county as his  personal ATM, and his signature and vote as his own debit card.

Ross will have to serve at least five years before he can file for early release, Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will said.

Will and Cillo said they respected Cross’ decision to sentence Ross to 9½ years.

“Does it make up for (his crimes)?” Will asked. “I guess it holds him accountable.”

A subdued Ross apologized for the embarrassment he had caused to the county, but the apology is not an acknowledgement of guilt, said his attorney, Michael Nelson.

Ross will appeal based on a number of issues that came up at trial, Nelson said, including rulings made by Cross on what evidence was admissible.

Nelson said Ross’ sentence was “disproportionate” to sentences for other defendants in the case.

Jones, convicted of soliciting the bribes and funneling a portion to Ross, received 36 months in prison, some 6½ years less than Ross, Nelson said.

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 more lenient sentences. Carbone and Gordon both spent six months behind bars, and

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.

Nelson said that Ross did a significant amount of legal work for Jones, and that’s what the payments were for.

Ross lost his law license and is indigent, so Nelson said he doubts the money ever will be repaid.

Cross earmarked $150,000 of restitution to the county for the purchase of the former J.C. Penney building at 25 East Ave., which is used for storage, according to sentencing documents.

Among the deals Ross got for Jones, prosecutors argued during the trial, was the sale of the building to the county for $400,000 in late 2000. Jones’ company, Erie Shores Computers Inc., had agreed to buy the building for $250,000 just a few months earlier, prosecutors said.

Cross’ sentencing entry stated that the remainder of Ross’ restitution is a quarter of the amount of the overpayments on the architectural and construction contracts and, when it is paid, it should be credited equally to Carbone and Gordon, who already made restitution to the county.

After Ross was led away in handcuffs, people who knew him for years still were wondering what had gone wrong.

Ross had every advantage, having attended law school after serving in the U.S. Air Force and he was married to a dentist. He 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 Michael wanted too much, too fast and it probably was his downfall,” county Commissioner Betty Blair said. “I think sometimes you have to work for what you want.”

Blair said Ross should apologize for what he did to the county.

Nevertheless, Blair said she is proud of the Justice Center.

“What we accomplished for the citizens was good,” she said.

Ross’ tenure as commissioner ended when he was defeated in 2000 by Republican David Moore.

Tom Smith, the county’s Democratic chairman, said he didn’t know Ross well, but what happened to him is a mystery.

“He was absolutely bright — a lawyer and an attorney — and he carried himself well and was good-looking and had a great future, and it makes no sense how he got into all this trouble,” Smith said.

County Commissioner Ted Kalo said he never served alongside Ross, but got to know Ross in the early 1990s after Ross returned to Lorain County when Ross’ mother became ill.

“He was a shining star, and I don’t know what happened after that,” Kalo said.

Kalo said he knows what he would do if someone offered him a bribe: “Turn around and walk away and tell the prosecutor.”

Will, the county prosecutor, said it is up to his office to prosecute crimes, not analyze what went wrong.

“That’s a question you’d have to pose to him,” Will said of Ross. “I can’t explain human nature or why someone strays from their path.”

Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245  or cleise@chroniclet.com.