Perhaps the pressure of the Traficant trial had taken its toll. Or, perhaps she simply didn't want to be viewed as someone who shows no mercy. Whatever the reason, U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells blew it in the James R. Sabatine Sr. case.
Wells, who was admirably dispassionate throughout the criminal trial of then-U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., was almost apologetic the other day when she sentenced Sabatine. The Canfield businessman has admitted that he engaged in a pattern of racketeering between June 1993 and December 1999 and filed a false tax return for 1994. He understated his income by $239,000. He also admitted giving Traficant a $2,400 bribe in 1998. Sabatine wanted to buy the then 17th District congressman's influence for a rail line to serve his asphalt plant in Youngstown.
And for all that, Judge Wells sentenced him to five months incarceration -- in a halfway house, most likely -- and five months electronically monitored house arrest.
Recently, we praised the judge for the exemplary manner in which she presided over Traficant's 10-week trial, and for her steely determination not to be bullied or intimidated by the congressman.
Relief and gratitude
When Wells sentenced Traficant to eight years in federal prison and ordered him to be taken from the courtroom in handcuffs, the honest residents of the Mahoning Valley were relieved and grateful. Traficant had come to represent all that was wrong with government in the region.
We are hard-pressed to understand how such an insightful federal judge could ignore the fact that individuals such as Sabatine are the reason that government corruption has run rampant in the Mahoning Valley. Testimony in the Traficant trial -- Sabatine was one of the many witnesses called by the prosecution -- revealed the breadth and the depth of the corruption. It showed that bribery of government officials does not occur in a vacuum.
For every officeholder eager to accept a bribe, there must be an individual willing to pay the bribe.
Sabatine was willing to pay bribes, including $20,000 in 1994 to then Mahoning County Engineer William Fergus, and as such was a participant in the criminal enterprise called public corruption.
Yet, Judge Wells chose to be influenced by the 100 letters of support for Sabatine from his family, friends, neighbors, lawyers, business associates and priests. Shame on those who wrote gushing letters for a corrupt contractor, and shame on the judge for giving those letters undue influence.
We are reminded of a Mahoning County grand jury report last year that urged Prosecutor Paul Gains to pursue individuals who bribed judges and lawyers to fix cases. Here's what the report said: " ... corruption of public officials could not exist absent a market place for their illegal services" and that "there must be consequences for the buyer."
In Sabatine's case, the consequences are minor.
We understand that federal prosecutors must make deals with individuals who agree to testify against others in a conspiracy. But letting the Sabatines of the world walk away with a slap on the wrist makes a mockery of justice.
James Sabatine didn't wake up one morning and decide that he needed to confess his sins to the FBI and the Justice Department. He was caught in the federal government's crackdown on government corruption and organized crime in the Mahoning Valley, and only then did he offer to tell all.
The sentence he received from Judge Wells ignores that reality.