Robert Rybak used his influence as a union official to obtain favors. He’s now obtained a bad reputation. Rybak, until his recent firing the business manager-financial secretary for Journeymen Plumbers Union Local 55, pleaded guilty in Cleveland federal court on October 26 to bribing various persons, including a Cuyahoga County commissioner, with free plumbing and other things of value in return for favors for union and family members. He had been arrested on September 15 and initially pleaded not guilty to five counts related to conspiracy, embezzlement and witness tampering. The actions are part of a much larger ongoing FBI investigation into countywide corruption. Rybak is likely to get a prison sentence of between two and three years at his hearing next month, in addition to having to make restitution.
Federal prosecutors have been busy in Cuyahoga County these past few years. Thus far, they have charged more than 50 people, securing around 40 guilty pleas. Persons caught in the net, in addition to Rybak, include elected county officials, county hospital executives, school board officials, building inspectors and private-sector contractors. The probe has focused on former County Auditor Frank Russo and Board of County Commissioners member Jimmy Dimora. Russo already has pleaded guilty to more than 20 charges and appears headed for prison at his December 15 sentencing. It was Robert Rybak’s ties to Dimora that proved his own undoing, though the latter repeatedly has proclaimed his innocence.
As a union official in a heavily unionized city, Robert Rybak, now 53, a resident of Independence (just south of Cleveland), frequently came into contact with people who could benefit him and his 500-member union, which is not the subject of the investigation. This created opportunities for entering into quid pro quo arrangements, legal or not. The feds alleged that Rybak bribed Dimora and other persons with free home plumbing, a political donation (to the campaign of County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, who has not been charged), $5,000 in drinks, and $2,000 in Morton’s Steakhouse gift cards. In exchange, Rybak obtained: 1) a pay raise for his wife, who is an employee of the Cuyahoga County Human Resources Department; 2) a summer job for his daughter; and 3) county jobs for two union members.
Rybak’s plea agreement protects his wife and any other family member from prosecution. But it does require him to pay more than $11,000 in restitution to his union and its Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee Fund. Federal sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of between 27 and 33 months; prosecutors have agreed to a low-end term if he helps them nail other defendants. The travails of Rybak came as a surprise to fellow members of Local 55, an affiliate of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters. Giving away bottles of liquor to contractors and public officials, local finance committee member John LaRiche pointed out, is a longstanding union tradition, especially at Christmas. As far as influence-peddling goes, Robert Rybak is small time. But, legally or otherwise, it’s apparently a game that many in the Cleveland area play.