Is there a reason for Valley to worry?

By Bertram de Souza

The two words in the New York Times and Washington Post stories literally jumped off the pages: “Honest services.” They had such a familiar ring that a quick archive search on showed why: Those same words have been used in two recent high-profile, local criminal cases, one involving former Trumbull County Commissioner James Tsagaris, and the other former Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge Maureen Cronin.

The Times story involved ex New York Senate majority leader Joseph L. Bruno, who was found guilty of concealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from a businessman who sought help from the Legislature.

Here’s the paragraph that would resonate locally: “The federal statute under which Mr. Bruno was charged, which makes it a crime for officials to use wires or the mail to deprive constituents of their ‘honest services’ by concealing conflicts of interest, are set to be reviewed by the Supreme Court and could be struck down in whole or in part during the coming months, potentially aiding any appeal.”

The Supremes began the review on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, the Washington Post had a story headlined, “Court weighs limiting ‘honest services’ law or labeling it vague.”

Scummy politicians

These two paragraphs should send shivers down the spines of all honest Mahoning Valley residents who cheer every time federal prosecutors go after one of our scummy politicians:

“A federal law that makes it a crime to deprive the public or one’s employer of ‘honest services’ is a favorite of prosecutors on the hunt for corrupt politicians and self-dealing corporate honchos.

“But it found few admirers Tuesday at the Supreme Court.”

Bottom line: The 1988 law could well be tossed out by the highest court in the land. And with it, the pleasure honest citizens have of seeing highfalutin officeholders in handcuffs.

Is there reason for the people of the Mahoning Valley to worry? There could be.

The Tsagaris and Cronin cases make it clear that corruption is in our DNA. How else to explain their illegal acts after the federal government had convicted 70 public officials, including judges, a prosecutor and a sheriff, and mobsters in a crackdown of government corruption in this region?

Tsagaris has pleaded guilty to two counts of felony mail fraud brought against him by the U.S. attorney’s office in Cleveland. He was charged with receiving payments and a $36,551 loan from an area businessman who at the time did business with Trumbull County. Tsagaris did not report the loan, which did not have a repayment schedule, interest rate or collateral.

He was sentenced to one year electronically monitored house arrest, three years’ probation and a $4,000 fine. On Thursday, he was found guilty of violating the terms of his probation and will spend the next nine months behind bars.

Former Judge Cronin was charged with two federal felony counts stemming from an $18,000 loan she received from “a senior executive of a business with multiple cases pending” in her court.

The federal government contended Cronin “engaged in a scheme and artifice to defraud and deprive Mahoning County, and the citizens of Mahoning County, of their intangible right to her honest services.”

The government, while refusing to reveal the identity of the businessman, has said in court documents that he is the same individual who gave Tsagaris money.

Cronin is cooperating with authorities and has agreed to plead guilty to the charges.

Jaundiced eye

But now, with the U.S. Supreme Court casting a jaundiced eye on the 1988 law, there is a distinct possibility that Tsagaris, Cronin and anyone else convicted under the statute could prevail upon appeal — if the justices find it unconstitutional.

The Post talked to Andrew Wise, a Washington lawyer who specializes in white-collar crime, and this is what the newspaper reported: “Those with active appeals of their convictions could use the decision to their advantage … But even those with final judgments could have pretty good grounds to go back to the trial court and say, ‘My conviction has to be overturned because what I was convicted of was not a crime.’”

That should worry us all.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.