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Former official admits guilt



Published: Tue, February 11, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



The car was leased by the Columbiana County Democratic Party chairman.

& lt;a href=mailto:sinkovich@vindy.com & gt;By PEGGY SINKOVICH & lt;/a & gt;

and DAVID SKOLNICK

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS

LIBERTY -- A former prosecutor acknowledges he did something improper and he's taking full responsibility for his actions.

J. Walter Dragelevich of Liberty, who is now a defense attorney with a practice in Niles, says he should have walked away when a man he had befriended began talking about odometer tampering.

He declined to name the man.

"I didn't walk away and I should have," Dragelevich said Monday. "I put my own fat foot in my mouth. He talked, and I responded to a subject that was improper."

Dragelevich was Trumbull County prosecutor from 1971 to 1984.

In information filed in U.S. District Court in Cleveland last week, authorities say that on May 12, 2001, Dragelevich had the odometer on an Oldsmobile Bravada "disconnected, reset and altered, intending to change the mileage registered by the odometer, from 26,624 miles, to 16,651 miles."

If Dragelevich, 60, is convicted, he could face up to three years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. He would also face a fine of up to $250,000.

How situation came about

"In 2000, a father went through a very bitter divorce trial and lost custody of his son so I felt sorry for him and did everything I could to help him," Dragelevich said. "I didn't know this at the time, but this man was under some kind of investigation involving a boat he purchased, so at some point he began wearing a wire," meaning a device used by investigators to secretly record conversations.

Dragelevich said the man would often bring up "strange subjects" and he would just walk away.

"I just want to make it clear that I am not blaming or pointing fingers at anyone," Dragelevich said.

"I'm responsible for my own actions. No one else."

The attorney also said that the political boss who leased the car he is accused of tampering with had nothing to do with the matter.

"I know him through a friend of a friend of a friend and he was able to get it at a good rate," Dragelevich said, noting the car was leased. "There was nothing improper about it."

Dennis Johnson, the Columbiana County Democratic chairman, leased the Bravada under his General Motors employee discount, then allowed Dragelevich to use the car. Johnson was on leave from the Lordstown GM plant at the time.

Johnson, who could not be reached Monday to comment, has not been charged.

Discount rules

GM allows employees to buy its vehicles at a discounted price, which varies based on the vehicle and the purchase program, but which typically ranges from 5 percent to 15 percent, said Dan Flores, a GM spokesman at the company's Detroit headquarters.

In most cases, family members of GM employees can also receive the discount, he said, but friends aren't permitted to use the GM employees' discount.

Flores said he does not know of any punishment that is given to GM employees who violate the company's policy.

"Generally speaking we don't discuss personal, disciplinary issues, but it would be addressed appropriately through the personnel policy," he said.

It is not known when Dragelevich will be in court. A plea agreement between Dragelevich and federal authorities has been worked out, but had not been filed as of Monday.

For the government to file an information the defendant must waive his right to indictment by a grand jury. The defendant then, in nearly all cases, agrees to a plea agreement as part of the waiver.

Other problems

Johnson, Columbiana County Democratic chairman since 1991, has made headlines in recent years.

The 61-year-old Salem man was found guilty of driving under the influence in November and ordered by a judge to attend a three-day driver's intervention program and pay a $250 fine.

When Johnson was arrested on DUI in December 2001, he repeatedly said he was a deputy sheriff and flashed a badge and civil commission ID card, according to the Mahoning County deputy who arrested him.

Also in October 2001, Johnson testified at a federal case-fixing trial that he spoke to the Columbiana County prosecutor and the East Liverpool police chief about a robbery case involving a Warren man.

Johnson said he talked to those two about the case at the request of Russell J. Saadey Jr., convicted in the trial of racketeering conspiracy and extortion.

Johnson was hired in March 1999 as a staff representative to James A. Traficant Jr. and testified on the former congressman's behalf during Traficant's corruption trial. Johnson stayed on the staff after the U.S. House expelled Traficant on July 24, finishing out the year.

During that time, he was on a political leave of absence from his production supervisory job at GM, where he worked for 20 years.

& lt;a href=mailto:sinkovich@vindy.com & gt;sinkovich@vindy.com & lt;/a & gt; & lt;a href=mailto:skolnick@vindy.com & gt;skolnick@vindy.com & lt;/a & gt;




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