By Bertram de Souza
It didn’t take long in 2000 for this column to become the beacon of all that’s bright and beautiful about politics in the Mahoning Valley. Who would have thought that the headline in January a decade ago, “Time behind bars is a breeze,” would become the foreword to a woeful chapter in our region’s history?
Here’s what was written: “Who says crime doesn’t pay? Certainly not the newest additions to the Rogues’ Gallery in the Mahoning Valley. Their time behind bars will be a breeze, literally. And when they emerge from their respites, they’ll still have the fruits of their criminal labors to make it all worthwhile.
“So all together now, ‘We are family/Lenny and Philly and me ...”
“Lenny,” of course, was Lenine “Lenny” Strollo, this region’s claim to Mafia fame, the godfather of the local mobsters, the man who made the phrase “Murder is only business” a part of our cultural lexicon. Strollo turned out to be a coward when confronted by the feds about his illegal activities, including the bribing of elected officials. He became a major snitch for the government, and in return got a feathered tap on the wrist. His 12 years behind bars were easy time for a man who ordered the murder of his mob rivals. Strollo is now out and enjoying the blood money the feds allowed him to keep.
“Philly” referred to the corrupt former prosecutor of Mahoning County, James A. Philomena, who used his office as some Third World bazaar, where deals were made and cases disappeared for so many pieces of gold.
Here’s what was written about him: “There’s James ‘Pretty Boy’ Philomena serving his four-year sentence at a former Air Force base in Montgomery, Ala. The Federal Prison Camp is a minimum-security facility with no cells, no barbed-wire fencing and no blood-thirsty guard dogs.”
Philomena returned home from his prison stint and died in September 2007.
From that column in January 2000 to the one last week headlined, “Traficant plays us, the press, for fools,” there were hundreds relating to corruption in the Mahoning Valley, with the King of the Corruptibles, James A. Traficant Jr., the subject of regular commentary — most of it negative.
Why? Because he just couldn’t keep his nose clean.
“Traficant should stop ducking;” “Traficant should identify FBI agent,” “Traficant must provide rape proof.” And on and on.
There was even a column in 2004 that was a poetic cry: “Will we never be rid of Traficant?” read the headline.
The answer, after a decade that included this blight on our community going to federal prison for more than seven years, is a resounding “No.” That’s because too many Mahoning Valley residents have drunk his Kool-Aid.
The past 10 years also brought uplifting columns about the region’s blowhards, led by Marc Dann, who pompously attacked Republicans for sullying politics when he ran for attorney general, and then became the Sullier-In-Chief after taking office.
Along with another blowhard, Leo Jennings, the attorney general gave new meaning to the phrase “Cock-and-bull story.”
There were even a couple of columns that were guided by the hand of God, such as this one headlined, “Blessed are the criminals? Read on”
Here’s what was written, in part:
“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.”
In a decade of political sludge and scum in the Mahoning Valley, the most depressing aspect for a long-time observer is that our crooks from the public and private sectors didn’t have sense enough not to get caught.