By Bertram de Souza
In September 2005, at the formal announcement by Pan Am Airlines that its regional carrier, Pan Am Clipper Connection, was starting regular scheduled flights from Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, then Trumbull Commissioner James G. Tsagaris was in a jovial mood.
As the gathering of politicians, business and community leaders and reporters awaited the arrival of David Fink, president of the airline, in the terminal, Tsagaris turned to this writer and asked, “So what big question are you going to ask Mr. Fink?”
“I’m going to ask him if his airline has a prison plane to transport our crooked politicians out of here.”
A month earlier, a grand jury that had heard testimony from Trumbull County officials and employees about a kickback scheme had been dismissed after nine months’ service. No indictments were announced, but the rumor mill that been operating since the so-called purchasing scandal was first revealed by The Vindictor, went into high gear.
One name mentioned most often was that of Tsagaris’, but the then commissioner kept insisting that he was not going to be indicted because he had not done anything wrong. But even though his demeanor at the airport certainly suggested that he didn’t have a care in the world, the following observation was made by this writer in a subsequent column about the exchange:
“The commissioner may be laughing now, but if this investigation continues indefinitely and his name keeps cropping up as one of the officeholders in Trumbull County who will be indicted, he will cease to think it’s funny.
“It’s time for prosecutors to act.”
Four months later, in January 2006, Tsagaris announced that he would be leaving office when his term came to an end in December 2006. He insisted that his decision not to seek re-election had nothing to do with the ongoing investigation into the purchasing scandal involving the maintenance department.
In May 2004, former maintenance director Tony Delmont contended in an affidavit that he gave $50,000 to elected officials, as well as sporting events tickets, electronics equipment and other gifts. Delmont said his actions were at the specific direction of the commissioners and/or the sheriff. None of those officials was ever charged.
Tsagaris insisted that he was leaving office because “You can’t go on forever.” He also said, “I’d like to see some young blood” in the commissioner’s office.
He said that his son, Jimmy, had urged him to retire, and there were friends who contended that the purchasing scandal had taken its toll.
Gus Michelakis said throughout the controversy and rumors of Tsagaris’ involvement, that his friend remained honest and clean.
“I know that this guy never took a dime for his own benefit,” Michelakis said. “He got a bad rap for six years.”
Fast forward to June 5 — nine days ago. James G. Tsagaris stood before U.S. District Court Judge Sara Lioi and pleaded guilty to two federal counts relating to his failing to report a $36,551 loan from an area businessman supposedly in 2004. In return, the federal prosecutor charges, Tsagaris as commissioner supported the businessman’s proposals to do business in Trumbull County.
The federal government contends the loan scheme amounted to Tsagaris’ attempt to “defraud and deprive Trumbull County and the citizens of Trumbull County ... of the honest services” of the then comissioner.
Because the federal prosecutor has refused to identify the businessman, it is not known whether the loan scheme had anything to do with the purchasing scandal or some other issue in which Tsagaris was actively involved.
Nonetheless, he faces between 18 months and two years in prison.
When he appears before judge Lioi for sentencing in August, he won’t be chuckling nor insisting that he did nothing illegal during his tenure in office.
Who was Tsagaris?
As for his friends, they are left to wonder whether they really knew the man.
Tsagaris, who will be seeking leniency, will not find a sympathetic ear in the Mahoning Valley unless he shows he truly is sorry for adding to the region’s negative political reputation. He can demonstrate his regret by identifying the businessman who gave him the loan — without a repayment schedule or a demand for collateral — even if the federal prosecutor refuses do so.