A potential $970 million expansion project and Forum Health’s bankruptcy also made our list of the top 10 local stories of 2009.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
Out of the spotlight since 2002, when he started serving a seven-plus-year federal prison sentence, ex-U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. made a well-publicized return to the Mahoning Valley this year.
Traficant’s Sept. 2 prison release and what he’s done since is the top local news story of 2009 as selected by reporters and editors of The Vindicator.
When told of the honor, the ever-defiant Traficant said, “I don’t read The Vindicator.”
Whether or not he’s reading, Traficant was the subject of numerous newspaper articles during the last four-plus months of the year. Traficant was found guilty in 2002 of 10 felony counts, including racketeering, bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion. He was expelled from Congress.
During his more than 17 years in the U.S. House, Traficant was known for his outlandish behavior and outrageous statements. His prison term didn’t mellow him.
Only four days after his release, he was the guest of honor at a welcome-home event that attracted a crowd of 1,200.
Rather than apologize for his crimes, Traficant said the federal government, “Had to cheat to convict me.”
In his first post-prison interview with Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, Traficant said about Israel that, “They own the Congress.”
He made numerous other national television appearances and then held his first press conference since his prison release on Dec. 17. At that event, Traficant said he’s looking at three congressional districts in which to seek office and said he wanted to bring an Indian gambling casino the area, something currently not permitted under state and federal law.
Other top stories of 2009 include:
GM ON CRUZE CONTROL
General Motors commits to building the Chevrolet Cruze, a fuel-efficient sedan, at its Lordstown Complex. The auto company completed a $351 million upgrade at the Lordstown plant even as it tumbled into bankruptcy in 2009.
The Lordstown plant scaled back its workforce in 2009 because of the auto-market slump. But GM later brought back a second shift and ended the year with 3,500 hourly and salaried workers at Lordstown.
The compact car has won favorable reviews from a variety of auto analysts.
FORUM HEALTH’S ILLS
Forum Health, a major Valley employer with about 4,000 workers, declared bankruptcy in March. The health-care organization has three bidders interested in operating its entire system, and one interested only in Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital in Howland. Forum’s board of directors and creditors plan to decide by Jan. 11 whether it can reorganize or sell its assets, which also includes Northside Medical Center in Youngstown and Trumbull Memorial Hospital in Warren.
Convicted 18 years ago in the brutal murder of Tami Engstrom, Kenneth Biros, 51, of Trumbull County was executed by the state of Ohio after many delays by lethal injection on Dec. 8. Also executed in August was Jason Getsy, convicted in the 1995 killing of Ann Sarafino as part of a murder-for-hire plot triggered by a dispute over a Hubbard landscaping business.
TROUBLES FOR CRONIN, TSAGARIS Maureen A. Cronin, a former Mahoning County Common Pleas Court judge, pleaded guilty Dec. 15 to two felony counts of fraud. Cronin admitted that while she was a judge, she took and concealed an $18,000 no-interest cash loan from a senior executive of a business that had cases in front of her. She’ll be sentenced Feb. 23.
Meanwhile, ex-Trumbull County Commissioner James Tsagaris, also convicted of fraud, was sentenced Dec. 10 to nine months in a federal prison for violating his parole. A judge had placed him on 12-months house arrest in August. Tsagaris violated the house-arrest order.
MOONEY TEENS FOUND DEAD
Jamie Serich and Colin Hart, both of Boardman and seniors at Cardinal Mooney High School, were found dead Dec. 6 in Forest Lawn Memorial in Boardman. Both had been shot in the head. The deaths were discovered on the same weekend Mooney’s football team won the state championship for the year.
YSU PRESIDENT TO STEP DOWN
The Youngstown State University Board of Trustees sent President David C. Sweet a letter April 1, 2009, that Sweet’s job will end June 30, 2010. The board told Sweet, YSU president since July 20, 2000, that it had no interest in renegotiating any terms of his contract. A national search for his replacement has begun. University officials are interviewing four finalists to replace Sweet. They include one YSU administrator.
YOUNGSTOWN SCHOOLS GET AN F
The year didn’t bring good news for the Youngstown school district. The state’s annual report card had Youngstown as the only public school district in Ohio in “academic emergency,” the lowest rating the state gives.
HEROICS OF WARREN FIREFIGHTER
Also, Warren Patrolman Doug Hipple ran into a burning group house for mentally challenged people April 27 on Bonnie Brae Avenue in the city in an effort to save the lives of three women trapped inside. Hipple and the three women were rescued by firefighters a short time later. One of the women, Melissa Watson, died in July. Hipple received burns, and it wasn’t until late this year that he was able to return to work.