Posted on July 27, 2004

Mayor Accused Of Alerting Targets Of Probe

John Caniglia, Plain Dealer (OH), July 17, 2004

East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor tipped off suspected targets in a public-corruption probe after agreeing to help federal authorities, prosecutors said.

The mayor wore a listening device after the FBI caught him on tape accepting a bribe last year, according to court documents. Though he admitted receiving bribes, prosecutors said, Onunwor lied and later tried to thwart their investigation.

“At the same time that he wore a wire, [Onunwor] was also tipping off other targets as to ongoing government surveillance and taking actions that he knew would end potentially fertile investigative leads available to the government,” wrote U.S. Attorneys Steven Dettelbach and Benita Pearson.

The documents were filed this week in U.S. District Court involving a 23-count indictment against the mayor that includes charges of bribery, extortion, witness tampering and lying in his bankruptcy case.

Prosecutors also said the mayor’s actions cost his cash-starved city more than $2.5 million in losses. The mayor received more than $70,000 in bribes, according to court documents, and contractors who were involved expected more than $7 million in work.

It is unclear how authorities determined the estimates.

Onunwor, whose trial is set for next month, has denied the allegations. His attorney, John Pyle, said Friday he did not want to discuss the mayor’s agreement with the government because it is under seal. Pyle disputes the government’s claim that Onunwor violated the agreement.

Dettelbach and Pearson said in documents that they want to present the agreement to the jury as a way of showing how the mayor tried to obstruct justice.

The prosecutors said the FBI stopped Onunwor on March 11, 2003, after he accepted money from an unidentified consultant. The transaction is on videotape. Onunwor admitted then that the consultant had given him monthly payments of up to $1,000 ever since he was elected to East Cleveland City Council in 1996, according to prosecutors’ filings.

He met with the FBI twice more and admitted money from the consultant was linked to two contractors — a law firm that handled tax collection in the city and another that ran the city’s water system, according to prosecutors.

“In both instances, Onunwor confirmed that the amount of his monthly payments fluctuated in correlation with official acts or omissions relating to those contractual relationships,” the prosecutors said.

But the mayor also tried to hinder the investigation, prosecutors said. They said Onunwor informed the consultant that the government had placed an electronic listening device in the consultant’s office. Within days, the businessman hired a professional to sweep his office of bugs.

Onunwor also told an unidentified city vendor about the federal investigation, according to the documents. He urged the contractor to stop making the bribes because the mayor was “being watched.”

Onunwor met with the same contractor in a hotel to coach the businessman on what to tell federal agents about the bribes, records show. The mayor, according to prosecutors, wanted the contractor to describe the same number of bribes that Onunwor had detailed to agents, even though the contractor had given many more payments to the mayor.

“Even as [Onunwor] was discussing cooperation with the United States, he was simultaneously taking affirmative steps to obstruct the investigation into his confederates and himself,” prosecutors said.