Port Huron — Trash mogul Chuck Rizzo remained free on bond Thursday after a federal judge postponed deciding whether a central figure in the Macomb County corruption scandal tried to tamper with a government witness.
U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland wants to hear testimony from Rizzo’s bag man, Quintin Ramanauskas, who was unmasked Thursday as the witness involved in a chance encounter last month with Rizzo at a Detroit casino Christmas party that threatens to deepen the trash mogul’s legal problems.
Ramanauskas, 54, of Shelby Township is among 19 people charged in the widening corruption scandal that started in Macomb County and spread to Detroit. He is awaiting a prison sentence after striking a plea deal with prosecutors in July, admitting he helped Rizzo bribe public officials to secure or maintain multimillion dollar garbage-hauling contracts for Rizzo Environmental Services.
During a hearing Thursday, Rizzo’s lawyer portrayed Ramanauskas as a corrupt alcoholic who appeared drunk during the casino encounter and who has incentive to lie about whether Rizzo tried to intimidate and influence him. Ramanauskas is cooperating with the FBI and helped the government secure a conviction against Rizzo, a fact prosecutors said made the trash mogul berate Ramanauskas at the casino.
“The question is: who do you believe?” Rizzo lawyer David Debold asked the judge.
Prosecutors want Rizzo jailed immediately for violating bond conditions by meeting with Ramanauskas at MGM Grand Casino last month. Rizzo is free on bond after pleading guilty for his role in the scandal and is barred from having any contact with a list of witnesses that includes Ramanauskas.
Rizzo met with Ramanauskas after receiving assurances from one of his defense lawyers that a meeting would not violate bond conditions and endanger his freedom, Debold said.
It is the latest legal problem for Rizzo, who went from star witness for the FBI to a target after he stopped cooperating with investigators, fired his high-powered lawyer and got indicted in May.
“Here, we have a repeat obstructor of justice who was given opportunity after opportunity and each time decided not to keep his promise to the FBI and the court,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Bullotta told the judge.
The Dec. 16 encounter at MGM Grand Casino happened while Rizzo was free on bond and awaiting a March 13 sentencing that could send him to prison for 10 years. Rizzo pleaded guilty in November, admitting he bribed Macomb County politicians and stole money from the private-equity company that owned most of his trash-hauling company while building Rizzo Environmental Services into a regional powerhouse.
Rizzo denied trying to intimidate and tamper with a government witness and reminded federal prosecutors he lived a lie while working undercover to help convict politicians in the Macomb County public corruption scandal.
Rizzo responded late Wednesday to the government’s request to revoke his bond and send him to prison immediately while awaiting a possible 10-year federal prison sentence in March for his role in the corruption scandal.
Ramanauskas, referred to in court filings as “Witness A,” is unreliable and was drinking alcohol heavily during the encounter Dec. 16 at MGM Grand Casino, Debold said. Ramanauskas ordered three rounds of drinks during two meetings with Rizzo at the casino restaurant and earlier that afternoon his wife posted Facebook photos indicating they were drinking shots at another Detroit location, the lawyer said.
“Just in the limited amount of time counsel for Mr. Rizzo has had to look into those allegations, they are not credible,” Rizzo’s lawyers wrote in a court filing. “Among other things, Witness A lied about whether he had been drinking that night — even though he spent the evening in at least two bars — and he violated his own bond conditions because he used alcohol excessively.”
FBI Special Agent Robert Beeckman admitted Thursday he did not know how many drinks Ramanauskas consumed on Dec. 16. Ramanauskas can drink alcohol while free on bond, but not excessively, the agent testified.
The hearing happened two days after federal prosecutors asked Cleland to revoke Rizzo’s bond. Prosecutors chronicled an odd series of events that brought together a key figure in the Macomb County corruption scandal and a witness who helped the FBI secure Rizzo’s conviction.
Rizzo and his father own a trucking company that was holding a Christmas party at the casino Dec. 16. That’s the same night Ramanauskas and his wife arrived at the casino to eat dinner and watch a football game.
The night ended with Rizzo violating bond conditions by contacting Ramanauskas at AXIS Lounge, prosecutors allege.
“Rizzo attempted to intimidate, retaliate against, and tamper with a witness for the government, a witness whose statements are likely to figure in heavily at the defendant’s impending sentencing,” federal prosecutors wrote in a filing Tuesday.
Not true, Rizzo’s lawyers wrote late Wednesday.
Rizzo asked Ramanauskas to agree to be interviewed by the trash mogul’s lawyer ahead of the March sentencing, according to the filing.
Rizzo did not violate bond conditions by contacting Ramanauskas, his lawyers argued.
The restriction barred Rizzo from contacting witnesses during the investigation and prosecution, his lawyers argued. Since Rizzo pleaded guilty in November, the investigation and prosecution phase was over, according to the lawyers.
“The person with whom Mr. Rizzo spoke at the MGM Grand thus was not a witness in the investigation or prosecution,” the lawyers wrote.
Prosecutors and the judge disagreed. Cleland said the prosecution was ongoing.
The judge Thursday remarked on the coincidence of what has been described as a chance encounter between Rizzo and Ramanauskas at the Detroit casino.
“A series of remarkable coincidences, it would seem,” Cleland said.
In the Wednesday court filing, Rizzo’s new lawyers reminded prosecutors that the trash mogul’s initial cooperation was “extensive and extraordinary.”
“Between January and October 2016 (when the government’s investigation became public), Mr. Rizzo made consensual phone calls, wore wires during undercover meetings with corrupt politicians, made introductions so that undercover FBI agents could further infiltrate the corruption, and made himself available on demand to the FBI — for hours on end,” Rizzo’s lawyers wrote. “The government well knew that Mr. Rizzo had been involved in embezzling money from his employer, and the government also knew that the genesis of that conduct was an ill-advised effort by Mr. Rizzo to reimburse himself for using his own money to fund political action committees, as requested by his employer.”
Rizzo’s undercover cooperation created an unusual predicament, his lawyers wrote.
“The government needed Mr. Rizzo to live a lie so as to keep his cover from being blown,” Rizzo’s lawyers wrote. “He could not tell anyone about his months as an undercover cooperator — not even his wife. He also needed to find a way to stop the embezzlement in which Witness A and others had participated without telling them why it must stop. He wasn’t perfect in carrying that out, but he did protect his cover and managed to pay back all that he had taken.”