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Vetting failed in YSU trustee selection

Published: Sun, November 29, 2009 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)

By Bertram de Souza

Had Atty. Liz Bernard not resigned as a trustee of Youngstown State University, the governor’s office would, in all probability, have asked her to step down.

Why? Because of the controversy that was swirling around Bernard from the moment Gov. Ted Strickland announced Oct. 30 her appointment to succeed Dr. H.S. Wang.

On Nov. 2, this writer received a call from a veteran law enforcement official who posed the following questions: Do you know that Liz Bernard is involved with Phil Chance? Will Chance be accompanying her to YSU events and sit in the presidential suite during football games? Did the governor’s office know about Bernard and Chance?

The questions prompted telephone calls to Atty. David Betras, chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party and a former law associate of Bernard’s, and Kenneth Carano, the governor’s representative in the Mahoning Valley. Subsequently, a call was placed to YSU Trustee Harry Meshel, a confidante of the governor’s. Asked if they were aware of Bernard’s relationship with Chance, the answer was no.

For those readers who have forgotten, Phil Chance is a former Mahoning County sheriff who was convicted on July 13, 1999, by a federal jury of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, RICO conspiracy, obstruction of justice and two counts of extortion. He resigned as sheriff three days later.

The corruption case centered mostly on his 1996 election campaign, when he sought the financial support of Lenine “Lenny” Strollo, Mahoning Valley Mafia boss at the time,

Chance was sentenced to 71 months in federal prison and began serving on Jan. 24, 2000. He was released Sept. 21, 2004, and transferred to a halfway facility in Akron. His sentence was reduced because he earned “good time” while behind bars.

In sentencing Chance, federal Judge Kathleen M. O’Malley in Cleveland said the then sheriff wasn’t just some cop on the street taking a bribe. He accepted bribes from organized crime figures and violated state campaign finance laws, O’Malley said.

The issue is not what Atty. Bernard does in her private life. Rather, it’s how her relationship with Chance would reflect on the governor, who appointed her.

Betras, Carano and Meshel each talked to her about Chance and each came away with a different interpretation of the relationship. And even after she assured them that the ex-sheriff would not accompany her to YSU-related functions, there was concern about the fallout.

Indeed, the chatter has spread on the campus of YSU.

Bernard had no choice but to resign — which she did on Nov. 19.

She explained her decision thus: The demands of her law firm — she is a sole practitioner with a secretary — and the responsibilities that came with being a member of the university’s board of trustees were just too much for her to handle.

The question that still remains unanswered is this: How did the governor’s office miss the Bernard-Chance connection?

The vetting process is designed to protect the administration from politically embarrassing situations.

The governor makes hundreds of appointments during his term, but it takes just one Phil Chance moment for his political enemies to make political hay.

That’s why Bernard’s departure was inevitable — after questions were raised about her relationship with the sheriff-turned-criminal.

Now, the appointment process begins anew and Gov. Strickland, who is facing a tough re-election battle next year, must know that the individual he selects will be scrutinized by all the special interests at YSU.

This isn’t about dissuading people who want to serve in some public capacity from applying. But, given the fact that there are no secrets in this era of the Internet, the administration must be certain that the vetting of prospective candidates is as complete as possible.

There is an opportunity for Strickland to tap someone with knowledge of Youngstown State University and a deep understanding of the vision for higher education in Ohio embraced by the governor and Chancellor Eric Fingerhut.

Fingerhut has made it clear on many occasions that Ohio’s universities and colleges can no longer depend on the status quo. He has challenged each institution to identify areas of academic study that would set it apart from the rest.

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