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Recusal in unusual case sparks questions

Published: Sun, May 30, 2010 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)

Had it been any other defendant, U.S. District Court Judge John R. Adams’ abrupt withdrawal from the highly publicized case would certainly have prompted questions, but not have triggered concern. After all, judges bail out of cases all the time, for any number of reasons.

However, because Judge Adams decided not to continue presiding over the criminal case involving Youngstown businessman J.J. Cafaro, speculation is rampant as to the reason.

It has been more than a month since Adams, who sits in Akron, recused himself from any further proceedings in the Cafaro case, as he is permitted to do under a federal code. He did not give a reason for his decision, and isn’t required to provide one.

Therein lies the problem — and the basis for speculation.

The applicable code says a judge or magistrate “shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

The keywords are “impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” and because there is no explanation, the Cafaro factor rears its (politically ugly) head.

It is important to remember that J.J. Cafaro, the now retired executive vice president of the Youngstown-based Cafaro Co., is a convicted felon who has a previous felony conviction under his belt.

Campaign finance laws

In February, he pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws in 2004 when he funneled $10,000 into his daughter’s congressional campaign. Capri Cafaro, a Democratic state senator from Liberty Township and minority leader of the Senate, was not implicated in her father’s scheme.

J.J. Cafaro told federal prosecutors that he loaned $10,000 to a campaign staff member who then directed the money to his daughter’s campaign.

In the overall scheme of things, the violation of federal campaign finance laws that Cafaro has been charged with is a relatively minor felony. However, when added to his conviction of providing an “unlawful gratuity” — legalise for a bribe — to former Congressman-turned-federal convict James A. Traficant Jr., it is no longer a matter to be shrugged off.

Indeed, Cafaro’s arrogant disregard for the law must be taken into consideration. Here’s why: He pleaded guilty in 2002 to giving Traficant $13,000 in cash to have the then-congressman help his company, US Aerospace Group, secure a federal contract.

But even though he pleaded guilty to this serious criminal act and admitted that he had committed perjury in another criminal trial — that of former Mahoning County Sheriff Phil Chance, the perceived big man of Mahoning Valley politics did not spend a day behind bars.

Instead, he was given a judicial tap on the wrist: 15 months’ probation and a fine of $150,000.

But in March, Cafaro’s bubble burst. Judge Adams sent him to jail for several days after he failed to provide the court with information necessary for the judge to decide on bond.

“I’ve been here seven years, and I can’t remember one instance where the defendant didn’t give the basic information to determine bond,” the judge said when he handed out the “go directly to jail” card.

His action was hailed in this space and by many Mahoning Valley residents who have grown weary of the polluting of our politics.

But now, Adams is gone — with no explanation. That’s troubling.

Glimmer of hope

If there is a glimmer of hope that J.J. Cafaro will be sent to prison based on his criminal history, it is that the case is now in the hands of U.S. District Court Judge Kathleen M. O’Malley. If her name rings familiar, it is because Judge O’Malley has presided over several high-profile cases involving members of this region’s criminal class. She is quite familiar with the corrupt nature of Valley politics.

Among the crooks who were sentenced by her: Mafia chieftain Lenny Strollo; ex-sheriff Chance, and the late James Philomena, former county prosecutor.

Judge O’Malley would be striking a blow for honest government if she takes the same no-nonsense stance adopted by her colleague, Judge Adams, against Cafaro.

With two felony convictions, he has earned a prison sentence — when he appears before her in June.

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