Let us stipulate that Gene Donofrio, a 7th District Court of Appeals judge, is a nice man who, from all accounts, has done a decent job and has walked the straight and narrow in the conduct of his duties. Let us also stipulate that the Mahoning Valley resident deserved to be seriously considered for the federal judgeship vacated by Peter C. Economus, who retired July 1.
That said, Donofrio’s not being recommended by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, for nomination by President Obama to the federal bench did not come as a surprise. Of the three finalists in the application process established by Brown and Ohio’s other senator, George V. Voinovich, a Republican, Donofrio was the least qualified. This is not to trash his r sum , but rather to point out that the other two applicants, U.S. Magistrate Benita Pearson, who serves in Akron, and Geoffrey Mearns, dean of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and a former special attorney to the United State attorney general, had stronger credentials. Indeed, had Sen. Brown recommended Donofrio, he would have opened himself up to criticism that he was playing politics with the position.
The predominantly Democratic Mahoning Valley is where Democratic Party candidates get their huge margins of victory in order to win statewide. The senator has been around long enough to know the political value of this region. He could easily have put his and the state party’s interests ahead of an objective evaluation and given the nod to Donofrio. The fact that he didn’t should be applauded, rather than criticized.
But, Brown has raised the ire of Valley residents who believe Donofrio deserved to be recommended to President Obama simply because of his deep family roots in Mahoning County.
“Are you guys going to blast Sherrod for picking an outsider?” asked former county Commissioner Ed Reese, contending that the senator’s failure to select Donofrio was an insult to the Valley.
Reese said the action by Brown sends the message that there’s no one from the Valley who’s qualified to sit on the federal bench.
He refused to concede the point, even after it was pointed out that Judge Economus is a lifelong resident and served in the county common pleas court before being appointed 16 years ago by former President Bill Clinton.
Reese would not be appeased. He said that Brown will have a lot of explaining to do when he next visits this region. The senator’s public statement that federal Magistrate Pearson’s background and experience made her “ready to go” as a federal judge won’t cut it with hard-core Democrats, particularly those old timers who knew Donofrio’s father, the late Judge Joseph Donofrio, and long-time financial backers of the Democratic Party.
But while Sen. Brown went out of his way to say positive things about Donofrio and Mearns, there is a reason his recommendation of Pearson made sense: She was the only one of the three who was in no danger of being tripped up by something in her past.
For Mearns, a nationally respected lawyer, it was his representation of Youngstown businessman J.J. Cafaro, who pleaded guilty to bribing former Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. of Poland, D-17th. As was suggested in this space on July 5, Mearns faced the possibility, if nominated by the president for the federal judgeship, of being asked about Cafaro during the Senate confirmation hearings.
After all, Cafaro, an executive with the Cafaro Company, one of the leading shopping center developers in the nation, never spent a day in prison for pleading guilty to conspiring to provide an “unlawful gratuity” to Traficant. He received 15 months probation, was fined $150,000 and was required to testify in the trial of another individual caught up in the Traficant saga.
Donofrio’s vulnerability stems from his friendship and business association with the late James Philomena, the county prosecutor who spent time in prison for selling justice.
Donofrio was never implicated in wrongdoing, but given the Valley’s reputation for government corruption and organized crime, he undoubtedly would have been asked about his ties to Philomena.
Unfair? Perhaps. But, this region will forever be haunted by its history.