The luncheons create the appearance of wrongdoing, the president of the watchdog group said.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The private Cafaro roundtable luncheons will go on, despite demands from the Citizens' League of Greater Youngstown that they stop immediately.
"We will not be intimidated by this organization making accusations that have no foundation," said Anthony Cafaro, Cafaro Co. president and the luncheons' organizer. "This gives us more reason than ever to continue these luncheons."
The Citizens' League, which calls itself a public watchdog group, held a press conference today at the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, calling for an end to the Cafaro roundtables.
The gatherings bring together prominent local leaders -- and occasional state and national figures -- to discuss politics, current events, policy and the Mahoning Valley.
They were established by the late William Cafaro, patriarch of the mall-developing family and Anthony Cafaro's father.
League's concerns: Lowell J. Satre, the league's president, said the meetings have "the ingredients for a shadow government, fraught with the appearance of impropriety, and the potential for undue influence and conflicts of interest."
The league also says public officials should not be meeting privately with J.J. Cafaro, Anthony's brother and Cafaro Co.'s executive vice president, because he is a convicted felon. J.J. Cafaro admits he bribed U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. of Poland, D-17th, and plans to testify against the congressman, who is facing a 10-count federal indictment.
But Anthony Cafaro said his brother has not attended a roundtable luncheon since he pleaded guilty May 14 to providing Traficant with an illegal gratuity and has been to only one of them this year.
The league also finds it objectionable that local politicians are meeting privately with Anthony Cafaro and Bruce Zoldan, another prominent local businessman.
"It is this confluence of private interests and public power that the league believes creates the appearance of impropriety and the potential of undue influence and conflicts of interest," Satre said. "...The unseemly close relationships evidenced by these meetings are inappropriate, not in the public's interest and must end."
Anthony Cafaro said the league is misrepresenting what happens at the roundtable luncheons.
"We normally have 20 people at the luncheon and the average number of political officeholders is three to four. It's not a political meeting. The premise these people have is if anyone has achieved any degree of success or prominence then they conclude they got it illegitimately. It's a sad situation we find ourselves in to defend a monthly luncheon."
Two regular guests to the roundtable attended the league's press conference to defend the private get-togethers.
"You've impugned my integrity and made misrepresentations about what takes place," the Rev. Thomas S. Acker, a Cafaro family friend and executive director of Forward Southern West Virginia Inc., told league officials. The Rev. Mr. Acker has attended the roundtables for 15 years.
Police were called: The Cafaro roundtable became an issue after Youngstown Mayor George M. McKelvey called police at the Aug. 4 luncheon contending there was a suspicious character, possibly a sniper, outside Anthony's On the River, where the event was being held.
That person turned out to be Robert Fitzer, a league member and its former president, who was on the ground with binoculars and a notebook. Fitzer was not charged by police and has not commented on the matter.
James Callen of the Citizens' League said Fitzer had every right to be where he was and did nothing illegal. Callen said the Fitzer controversy was not the reason the league is criticizing the meetings and that it has more to do with J.J. Cafaro's supposed involvement with the luncheons.