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Cafaros know how to get even

Published: Sun, April 5, 2009 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)

By Bertram de Souza

Reports of Anthony Cafaro’s political demise — in this space — have been exaggerated. Cafaro, chief executive officer and president of the Cafaro Co., one of the top shopping center development firms in the country, smacked down Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams and Mahoning County Commissioner Anthony Traficanti in the recent battle over the Area Agency on Aging 11 Inc.

After more than 20 years in downtown Youngstown, AAA 11 has decided to move its offices to the Cafaro-owned Eastwood Mall in Niles — despite an aggressive campaign by Mayor Williams, Commissioner Traficanti and others to keep the 70-employee, taxpayer-funded entity in the city.

The Cafaro Co. will earn $1,610,921 over the 10-year period of the lease.

But if you think this rumble was merely over a lease, you don’t know Mahoning Valley politics very well. It was about payback being a (expletive).

Remember the JFS

It was particularly sweet for business magnate Anthony Cafaro because he got to cross swords with two individuals who had defeated him in 2007. That was the year of the very public, politically charged fight over the Mahoning County Job and Family Services lease. For more than two decades, the JFS had occupied space in the Cafaro-owned Garland Plaza on the city’s East Side. But when the company CEO tried to get another long-term commitment from county commissioners, two of the three, Traficanti and David Ludt, said no. They led the charge for relocating the JFS to the county-owned Oakhill Renaissance Place, the former South Side Medical Center complex on Oak Hill Avenue near the downtown area.

The third commissioner, John McNally IV, joined with county Auditor Michael Sciortino in trying to block the transaction.

But Traficanti and Ludt would not succumb to the intense legal and political pressure from officials of the Cafaro Co., including Anthony and his brother, J.J., executive vice president.

The commissioners prevailed in court and the mall developers lost their bid to hold on to the JFS lease.

The main reason Traficanti and Ludt gave for pulling the county employees out of the Garland Plaza was simply this: Financially strapped Mahoning County government could not continue shelling out more than $1 million a year in rent and other costs for office space that employees said was a health hazard.

The commissioners pointed out that under the provisions of the lease that had been in existence for many years, the county was responsible for fixing leaks in the roof and taking care of mold in the walls and other problems associated with the leased space.

They also noted that the more than 100 worker’s compensation complaints had been filed relating to work-related health problems.

With the strong support of Mayor Williams, the two commissioners successfully argued that county government would not only save money by moving the JFS offices to Oakhill Renaissance Place, but would avert potential lawsuits stemming from employees claiming illness as a result of working in the Garland Plaza.

The relocation was a defeat for the Cafaro Co., which used its money and political muscle to block the JFS move.

Telephone calls

There were more than 200 telephone calls between the Cafaro headquarters and Auditor Sciortino, Commissioner McNally and Treasurer Lisa Antonini, who also is chairwoman of the Democratic Party.

Thus, the reports in this space of Anthony Cafaro’s political demise. The role played by J.J. was less public, obviously, because he is a convicted felon. He pleaded guilty to federal charges of bribing former Congressman James A. Traficant Jr.

The brothers did attempt to punish one prominent county officeholder who had the temerity to go against them: Prosecutor Paul Gains. In last year’s election, they heavily funded Gains’ challenger, Martin Yavorcik, but the incumbent won handily.

Now, however, they’re baaaaaack.

The successful grab by the Cafaro Co. of the Agency on Aging 11’s lease is a wonderful illustration of time-worn political saying, “Don’t get mad, get even.”

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