By BERTRAM de SOUZA
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It was the seminal moment in this era of
government corruption in the Mahoning Valley.
On Christmas Eve in 1996, then Mahoning County Prosecutor-elect Paul Gains was standing in the kitchen of his Boardman home when he heard a sound at the back screen door. He didn’t react because he thought it was his cat.
Gains was the target of a Mafia contract hit that went awry when the shooter’s gun jammed as he was standing over the former Youngstown police officer who had been shot once in the arm. The bullet lodged in his side.
The shooter fled, Gains survived and the Mahoning Valley was thrust into the spotlight of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Even the office of the United States Attorney General got involved.
The attempted killing of a lawman in a region with a sordid reputation is no laughing matter.
The subsequent investigation, by Boardman and Youngstown police, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was likened to a person picking at a huge scab. The deeper the agencies dug, the more disease they uncovered.
When it was determined that Gains’ murder had been sanctioned by Mafia boss Lenine “Lenny” Strollo and was designed to make sure the prosecutor-elect did not take office, the stage was set for what was to become a major chapter in the Valley’s political — and criminal — legacy.
Why did Strollo and members of his “family” not want Gains as prosecutor? Because they wanted to ensure that his predecessor, James Philomena, whom he had defeated in the Democratic primary in 1996, would hold on to the job through appointment.
Philomena, who subsequently served four years in the federal penitentiary and three in state prison for bribery and perjury charges, was a major player in a case-fixing scheme that involved an assistant county prosecutor, defense lawyers and a county judge. The “Justice for Sale” sign that he erected outside his office in the county courthouse (figuratively speaking) endeared him to Strollo.
Philomena, who was released from prison in 2006 and died in 2007, offered this mea culpa during one of his court appearances:
“I’ve helped pollute the Mahoning Valley, and I feel I must cleanse it. I’ve embarrassed my friends and family and the voters who voted for me. I betrayed justice.”
But he wasn’t alone in his betrayal. Nor was he the last.
Mahoning County Sheriff Phil Chance was convicted in 1999 by a federal jury of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, RICO conspiracy, obstruction of justice and two counts of extortion. The corruption case centered mostly on Chance’s 1996 election campaign, when he sought Strollo’s financial support.
The ex-sheriff was sentenced to 71 months in federal prison and began serving in 2000. He was released in 2004 and transferred to a halfway house. His sentence was reduced because he earned “good time” while behind bars.
Strollo, who pleaded guilty to heading the most successful organized crime syndicate in the history of the Valley, was sentenced to 12 years, instead of life, in federal prison, because he agreed to become a government witness.
He was indicted in 1997 of RICO violations of aggravated murder, casino-style gambling and numbers lottery.
The murder charge stemmed from his ordering a hit on mob rival Ernie Biondillo Jr. in June 1996. He also was charged in state court with the attempted murder of Gains.
Strollo is now a free man.
In all, 70 Mahoning Valley residents were convicted in the late 1990s and early 2000 of involvement in government corruption and organized crime.
At the time, leaders in the community expressed the hope that the region had finally rid itself of the dregs of our society and had turned the page.
It was wishful thinking.
Former Congressman James A. Traficant Jr.’s much publicized trial and subsequent seven-year prison sentence forced the Valley to again deal with its legacy of corruption.
After Traficant, former Judge Maureen Cronin and former Trumbull County Commissioner James Tsagaris went off to jail for misusing their public positions, and mall developer John J. Cafaro, was convicted of corrupting government, but avoided time behind bars.
The end? Hardly.
Last week, a special grand jury in Mahoning County handed up a 73-count indictment of seven individuals and three corporations in still another case of government corruption. Commissioner John A. McNally IV, Auditor Michael Sciortino, former Treaurer John Reardon, former Job and Family Services Director John Zachariah, Cafaro Co. owners Anthony Cafaro Sr. and Flora Cafaro and Atty. Martin Yavorcik are accused of conspiring to undermine the conduct of county government business.
The indictment has triggered — again — the debate in the community about the corrupt and corruptible nature of local government. It also has raised this question: Are the charges as serious as murder, or selling justice or a congressman’s acceptance of bribes?
Given our legacy, there can be no other answer but “Yes” because the charges against McNally and the others cannot be viewed in isolation. They are part of a putrid whole.
Since that Christmas Eve when Paul Gains heard a noise at his door, each subsequent criminal corrupting government action should have been met by Valley denizens with less surprise and more outrage. Each act has chiseled away at the Valley’s reputation — at its very core.
There’s a better question that should be asked: Will we ever be free of the shackles of government corruption?
The answer: It depends on whether we’re mad as hell and won’t take it any more.
Vindicator Managing Editor Mark Sweetwood contributed to this news analysis.