By Ed Runyan
The Trumbull County commissioners authorized sending a letter to the Ohio Ethics Commission requesting an investigation into a complaint by current county Engineer Randy Smith.
The complaint is about the relationship between former Engineer David DeChristofaro and the president of BECDIR Construction of Berlin Center.
In March 2009, in the first three months of DeChristofaro’s term as county engineer, he settled a law- suit that BECDIR filed against the county in March 2006 over a contract BECDIR had with the county to restore the historic Newton Falls Covered Bridge. The settlement paid BECDIR $300,000.
Smith filed the complaint with the ethics commission Oct. 24, 2012, and provided copies of the complaint to reporters Wednesday. Included in it are copies of emails between DeChristofaro and BECDIR President David DiRusso and copies of depositions taken in an unrelated civil suit involving Nicole Klingeman, who sued DeChristofaro and the county for wrongful termination from her job at the county engineer’s office.
The emails indicate that DeChristofaro and DiRusso corresponded in March 2007 about gas and oil wells that DeChristofaro had invested in and which he suggested that DiRusso also invest in. DeChristofaro was working for the Cafaro Co. at the time.
DeChristofaro would run for — and be elected — county engineer the following year.
In depositions taken in the Klingeman lawsuit, DeChristofaro indicated he received about $300 worth of campaign donations from DiRusso during DeChristofaro’s campaign for county engineer.
DeChristofaro also acknowledged he and DiRusso had both invested in the same well-drilling company and that DeChristo-faro had talked with DiRusso before 2009 about settling the pending lawsuit with DiRusso when he became county engineer.
After the county commissioners’ vote Wednesday, Commissioner Frank Fuda said commissioners approved the letter because the county prosecutor’s office had indicated the letter might help “recoup money lost” by the county on the covered-bridge project.
In Smith’s letter, he notes the county, under former county engineer John Latell, countersued BECDIR for $600,000, so DeChristofaro’s actions “could be viewed as a $900,000 loss of funds toward Trumbull County.”
DeChristofaro said the same attorneys who worked on the lawsuit for the Latell administration also worked on it for him, and they felt the $300,000 settlement was the best deal for the county.
Legal fees already had gone to $270,000 by the time he took office, DeChristofaro said, so settling the issue quickly seemed like the best idea.
Julie Korte, chief investigative attorney for the ethics commission, said she could neither confirm nor deny that Smith made the complaint.
BECDIR filed suit against the county in March 2006 after working about six months on the $1 million restoration of the historic Newton Falls Covered bridge.
The dispute, which started when Smith was deputy engineer under Latell, centered on costs associated with changes to the project that were made after the project started.
The county later ended its contract with BECDIR and hired another company to complete the restoration.
DiRusso, when contacted by phone Wednesday, said he has “had a professional relationship with David DeChristofaro. That’s it. I don’t know anything about these allegations and I don’t know if anyone [from the ethics commission] will talk to me” about them. He said the complaint is “not surprising coming from Randy Smith.”
“I think it would have cost the county a lot more money if it [the settlement by DeChristofaro] hadn’t gone forward,” DiRusso said.
DeChristofaro, 55, of Niles, was convicted of felony theft and misdemeanor conflict of interest in 2011 and was sentenced to two years’ probation for having his staff at the engineer’s office do political and personal tasks for him on county time.
DeChristofaro resigned as county engineer in July 2011, as part of a plea agreement worked out with prosecutors.