After spending six years in his native Greece to kick a cocaine addiction, a bridge painter has finally been sentenced to prison in the United States, ending a massive Ohio paint inspection bribery scam that dates back 20 years.
George Kafas, 41, the former owner of Skyway Industrial Painting and Contracting Inc., was sentenced last week to 27 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster in Northern Ohio.
Polster also ordered the former painting contractor to pay $60,000 in restitution to the Ohio Department of Transportation and more than $60,600 to the Internal Revenue Service.
GandZ (left) and pdcook (right) / Wikimedia Commons
The Interstate 90 Inner Belt Bridge (left) and the I-480 Valley View Bridge in northeast Ohio were two of more than 200 bridges whose paint failed early and had to be recoated at two to three times the original $30 million cost.
Kafas fled to Greece in October 2006 before he was indicted by a northern Ohio grand jury on conspiracy, bribery and tax charges. He returned to the U.S. voluntarily in May and pleaded guilty in the case several days later.
Addiction and Remorse
Kafas, of Seven Hills, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he was remorseful and had made foolish, thoughtless mistakes.
His attorney, David Grant, said in a sentencing memorandum that Kafas had a serious cocaine addiction that "clouded his business judgment in a significant manner. His addiction became extensive and expensive. It caused Mr. Kafas to take reckless and thoughtless actions in his affairs. . ."
The memo said Kafas' drug addiction played a significant role in his leaving the country: "While fully aware that criminal charges would be forthcoming, Mr. Kafas also departed to seek long-term sobriety."
Records show Kafas paid about $3,700 in bribes to Ohio bridge inspectors in the scheme that dated to the 1990s. Grant said the bribes "were part of the 'culture' of the business."
The lawyer added that although the bribes were wrong, they were "designed to facilitate a more expeditious approval of Skyway's work and thus quicker payments."
Contractors, Inspectors Convicted
Kafas became the last of more than a dozen contractors and inspectors convicted in the scheme. His brother, John, was sentenced to 18 months in the scheme in 2007.
In the scam, which ran for years, bridge painting contractors earned millions of dollars to strip and paint highway bridges according to Ohio DOT specifications. But the painters cut corners, ODOT and federal prosecutors said. On more than 200 bridges statewide, officials said, the contractors:
Painted in bad weather, when conditions made it impossible for the coatings to adhere;
Skipped scraping, sanding, blasting and priming;
Painted over dirt and rust;
Made coatings thinner than required; and
Damaged the paint jobs when removing equipment.
ODOT inspectors and companies hired by the state certified reports swearing the contractors had met specifications, prosecutors said in court documents. In return, the inspectors received cash, vacations, steaks, dinners and seats at sporting events and, in one case, a guitar.
Many of the coatings failed, and projects had to be repainted at two to three times the $30 million originally spent on the work.
ODOT’s chief counsel told the Plain Dealer that more than 200 bridges were “bleeding rust” a few years after painting.
‘Culture of Bribery’
"At the time, it was a culture of bribery,'' former federal prosecutor Richard Blake told the newspaper. “It was a significant case.''
Former prosecutor Richard Blake cited a "culture of bribery" at Ohio's Department of Transportation in the 1990s.
The investigation began in the 1990s when an informant from Pittsburgh agreed to help the FBI in cases in Cleveland. The informant recorded more than 200 conversations with Pennsylvania officials concerning payoffs, according to reports by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Associated Press. He then began working with officials in Ohio.
Kafas' lawyer said his client paid the inspectors “not to allow substandard work but to expedite projects and to get work orders moving.” He urged leniency in sentencing.
Arturo Hernandez, an assistant U.S. attorney, urged that Polster sentence Kafas to 33 months in prison. He called the bribes violations of the public trust, the Plain Dealer reported.
"The public trust is sacred,'' he said.
Contractors Blame ODOT ‘Shakedown’
Contractors, however, blamed ODOT for the scandal.
Lawyer James Wooley, who represented the Cleveland-area Atlas Central Corp., told the Plain Dealer: "The whole problem centered around the fact there were corrupt public officials with their hands out.
"These companies are populated by people who want to work hard, get up and go to work every day and do a job," said Woolery, who client was accused of submitting bribes on six bridge painting projects. "If you didn't have corrupt public officials, none of this would have happened."
Attorney Patrick McLaughlin, who represented contractor Michael Lignos, agreed.
"The common denominator in the approximately 15 similar cases is the 'shaking down' of industrial bridge painters by ODOT officials/agents," McLaughlin said in a court brief.
"The ODOT officials/agents engaged in and furthered a scheme of institutional corruption within the Ohio Department of Transportation and made the bridge painters play their game."