Blessed is the criminal? Read on

By Bertram de Souza

It is not surprising that politicians, by and large, rise to the defense of one of their own — especially when one has had a brush with the law. But for the grace of God go I — or something to that effect.

However, when the intervention seems divinely inspired, all sorts of questions come to mind, foremost of which is this: What price redemption?

The history of corruption in the Mahoning Valley is replete with apologists for those who have done wrong. But there is something untoward when individuals whose job it is to guide us on the straight and narrow seek to influence how the wayward are punished.

Over the years, this space has featured letters from men and women of the cloth to judges preparing to sentence corrupt public officials. And yet, such letters still surprise.

Two weeks ago, former Trumbull County Commissioner James Tsagaris received a tap on the wrist from federal Judge Sara Lioi after he pleaded guilty to not reporting a “loan” from a businessman who was seeking to do business with county government.

There were more than a dozen letters sent to the judge urging leniency, including this one:

“I write to you regarding James Tsagaris of Warren, Ohio, whose case is pending in your court. Though all regret the apparent unintentional infraction of the law on the part of Mr. Tsagaris, as you conclude your investigation, I respectfully ask that you consider the following.

“Mr. Tsagaris has been a long-standing civic leader known for his integrity and constant commitment in serving the community. His record of honesty and high ethical standards is well known to many.

The letter was signed by “The Very Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Cariglio, Jr.” He is pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Youngstown.

Conniving? Heaven for fend

Another letter contained this sentence about Tsagaris:

“I see Jim Tsagaris as a relatively simple and unsophisticated man, not one who is conniving or devious, but more interested in making a contribution to society as part of his worth.”

That was written by Father Thomas S. Acker, a Jesuit priest who served for 18 years as president of Wheeling Jesuit University and now travels to Youngstown once a month, “to have lunch with friends,” including Tsagaris. The priest sought to downplay the seriousness of the ex-commissioner’s crime by noting that his friend is not a dynamic leader nor a man of detail and, therefore, failed to understand the importance of filling out the required forms.

Tsagaris admitted that he received a $36,551 loan from the businessman in 2004 and failed to report it. However, the record shows that there weren’t any interest charges or conditions tied to the repayment of the loan.

Thus the question: Was it a loan or some other type of transaction?

The Very Rev. Fr. Stelios Menis, archimandrite, parish priest of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Warren, also wrote on behalf of Tsagaris.

“He participates in the life of the Church and the Parish, working as a volunteer to many activities,” Rev. Menis wrote. “He is very well known and respected.”

But what is forgiveness without true regret? The men of the cloth who waxed eloquent on behalf of Tsagaris have a responsibility to the community at large to persuade him to identify the businessman.

Such secrecy merely confirms that crime does pay. And that isn’t a message men of God would want to deliver.

Lest the priests think they’re being singled out for criticism, it should be noted that among the letters of support for Tsagaris sent to Judge Lioi, is one from the retired publisher and chief executive officer of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, Alex Machaskee.

Machaskee, a native of Warren, urged probation for his friend, saying that he is confident the charges against Tsagaris “were his only involvement with our criminal justice system, and that he will not be a recidivist in his remaining years.”

Tsagaris sure has friends in high places — which explains the judicial tap on the wrist.

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