What’s the criteria for granting immunity?

By Bertram de Souza

One of the main subtexts of the political saga of James A. Traficant Jr. is how the man who admitted to bribing the then member of Congress never spent a day behind bars. Mahoning Valley mall developer J.J. Cafaro’s testimony was instrumental in Traficant’s conviction on 10 federal criminal charges, including racketeering, bribery and tax evasion.

Cafaro pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide an “unlawful gratuity” to the Valley’s top officeholder. (Never mind the hifautin legalese, it’s a bribe.) The Cafaro Co. executive 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.

Federal prosecutors recommended leniency for Cafaro because they said his cooperation in the government’s criminal trial against Traficant was unprecedented.

How lenient were they? Not only did their key witness avoid serving any time for bribing a member of Congress, but federal prosecutors chose to disregard the fact that Cafaro, a political kingmaker and financial backer of federal, state and local politicians, admitted he lied when he testified under oath that he did not give any cash directly or indirectly to Phil Chance in his race for Mahoning County sheriff. Chance went to prison after being convicted of racketeering charges.

Cafaro was offered immunity from prosecution when he agreed to cooperate with the federal government in its investigation of Traficant.

Cash transaction

But even then, one of the Valley’s most prominent businessmen was not entirely truthful. He failed to inform prosecutors about the $13,000 in cash he claimed he had given Traficant.

Cafaro’s lawyer insisted that the transaction wasn’t a bribe, but was an “unlawful gratuity.” It is noteworthy that during the time of the transaction Traficant was working on Cafaro’s behalf to secure a federal contract for a radar navigation system that one of J.J. Cafaro’s companies was developing.

And who was the lawyer who worked out this great deal for his client? His name is Geoffrey Mearns, a high-powered, nationally renowned lawyer who now is the dean of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Mearns also is a former assistant U.S. attorney and was a special attorney to the U.S. attorney general.

And today, Mearns is one of three finalists for the U.S. District Court judgeship that has been vacated by Judge Peter C. Economus.

Economus has served in the federal court in Youngstown since 1995. He has taken senior status, which means he will hear cases on a limited basis.

His successor will be appointed by President Barack Obama, with Senate confirmation. The White House will receive a recommendation from Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who, like Obama, is a Democrat. Brown and Ohio’s other senator, George V. Voinovich, a Republican, will interview the three finalists: Mearns; Judge Gene Donofrio of the 7th District Court of Appeals in Youngstown; and federal Magistrate Benita Pearson of Akron.

Given his r sum and his national reputation, Mearns has the inside track. As such, he undoubtedly will be questioned on a whole range of issues pertaining to the criminal justice system, including (it is to be hoped) the granting of immunity from prosecution. If Mearns is nominated, he would appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of the confirmation process.


It would be instructive, indeed, to hear his answers to the following questions:

1. In light of J.J. Cafaro’s immunity deal, why should people not wonder if there is a two-tier system of justice in this country, one for the rich and the other for everybody else?

2. Has the goal by federal prosecutors to hook the “big fish” led to a willingness by the government to diminish the seriousness of crimes such as bribing a member of Congress or lying under oath?

3. Given that bribery of officeholders in the Mahoning Valley has been a part of the region’s political culture, should those paying the bribes not be treated as harshly as those accepting them?

The issue of the Valley’s reputation as a hotbed of public corruption and organized crime will undoubtedly be raised in the U.S. Senate. At least, it should.

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