Remove element of surprise from Oakhill trial proceedings

The lawyers in the Oakhill Renaissance Place trial are shocked, shocked to find that a newspaper might want to respond to public interest in how Mahoning County elected officials and influential businessmen interact in ways that might be illegal.

And we suppose that we should stipulate that in paraphrasing a line from “Casablanca,” a 68-year-old movie, we’re not implying that there are any corrupt French police captains involved in this case, any more than The Vindicator was trying to evoke memories of a 42-year-old inciting-to-riot trial in Chicago when a headline referred to the “Oakhill 7.” Sometimes, words are just words.

And sometimes, people do things that result in their being indicted, and as the trial looms, other people want to understand the nature of the accusations.

Until this week, much of what’s been going on in the Oakhill case has been a secret because much of the paperwork has been filed under seal. That’s the way the defendants wanted it.

But this isn’t just about the defendants. They have rights, including, of course, the presumption of innocence. But the people have some rights too, one of which is to be kept informed about a complicated legal process in which prosecutors are their surrogates.

This case involves a battle over moving the Mahoning County Department of Job and Family Services from rented space on the city’s East Side to the former South Side Medical Center, which had been acquired by the county. The Cafaro Co., the largest locally owned development company in the area, resisted the JFS move from a former shopping plaza it owned. And the company found support in its battle from some county officials. The purity of that support is what’s at question. A grand jury returned indictments against four present or former county officials: Commissioner John A. McNally IV; Auditor Michael V. Sciortino; former Treasurer John B. Reardon, and ex-county JFS director John Zachariah. Also indicted were Anthony Cafaro Sr., the retired president of the Cafaro Co., and his sister, Flora Cafaro, part-owner of the company. The seventh defendant is attorney Martin Yavorcik, who ran unsuccessfully against County Prosecutor Paul Gains.

Interesting, but not yet enlightening

The hundreds of pages of court documents that have been released this week provided some interesting reading (such as the complaint referenced above, that a Vindicator headline was a “not so subtle reminder of the infamous ‘Chicago Seven’ trial of the 1960s”). But the documents that have the potential to truly illuminate the case are the bills of particulars, which set out part of the case that the state will bring to trial. It was after the release of the bills of particulars in the charges against Flora Cafaro that the defendants’ lawyers sought, and for a while prevailed, in having the court record sealed.

How illuminating could the bills of particulars be. Well, Anthony Cafaro hasn’t yet seen those that prosecutors are drafting in his case, which caused his lawyer to argue that the charges against Cafaro should be dismissed because he is in a position of not knowing exactly what he is accused of doing.

To which we say, welcome to the club. At this point, very few people know what most of the defendants in this case are accused of having done. Which is why the bills of particulars should be made a part of the public record. Giving the people of Mahoning County an insight into what is alleged in a case involving public officials, public money and public trust is not unreasonable.

Release also does not, of itself, deny the defendants a fair trial. People who read can spot a weak case as well as a strong one. But in any event, if, when it comes time to seat a jury, the jury pool here has been affected by pretrial publicity to the extent that 12 fair-minded men and women can’t be found, the judge has an option. It’s called change of venue. Under those circumstances, moving the trial is not only an appropriate remedy, it is the remedy endorsed by the Ohio Supreme Court.

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