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Oakhill is not on trial

Published: Sun, September 5, 2010 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)

The criminal case against current and former Mahoning County government officials and members of a prominent Valley family centers on one issue: political corruption.

The case isn’t about the decision by Mahoning County to move the Job and Family Services agency from one location to another. And, it certainly isn’t about the county’s purchase of Oakhill Renaissance Place, the former South Side Medical Center in Youngstown.

Despite what defense lawyers contend, and what a recent front-page headline in The Vindicator suggested, Oakhill is not on trial.

If it were, then the Garland Plaza (McGuffey Mall) on Youngstown’s East Side would also be on trial. Why? Because the plaza, owned by the Cafaro Co., one of the largest shopping center developers in the country, is at the heart of what has now come to be known as the JFS relocation controversy.

For almost two decades, Mahoning County had leased space in the plaza, and in the last years of the agreement had been spending at least $1.2 million for rent and other expenses.

The relocation was pushed by the JFS employees, who contended that the building was a health hazard. Almost 100 worker’s compensation health claims had been filed while the agency was at Garland.

Oakhill purchase

Thus, the decision was made by the commissioners to move the agency to another location, and after studying various options, two of the three commissioners, Anthony Traficanti and David Ludt, voted to purchase Oakhill Renaissance Place.

Commissioner John A. McNally IV voted against the purchase. McNally is one of the seven individuals charged in what the state says was a criminal enterprise.

In a nutshell, McNally, county Auditor Michael Sciortino, former county Treasurer John Reardon, former JFS Director John Zachariah, former Cafaro Co. President Anthony Cafaro Sr., company executive Flora Cafaro, and Atty. Martin Yavorcik are accused of trying to undermine the conduct of official government business.

How this enterprise operated will be laid out in detail when the bill of particulars relating to the indictments are filed by the special prosecutors, and when evidence is presented through discovery.

Suffice it to say that the state will be out to prove that the Cafaro brother and sister used their financial wealth and influence — three of their companies, Cafaro Co., Ohio Valley Mall and Marion Plaza, were also named in the indictments — to corrupt the current and former county government officials.

All the defendants have denied the charges and promise to fight them in court.

Last week’s release of a bill of particulars pertaining to the charges against Flora Cafaro and Yavorcik sheds a great deal of light on the direction the prosecutor are taking the case.

The details of the bill of particulars were published in Wednesday’s Vindicator.

But there’s one sentence in the nine-page document that reveals the strategy prosecutors have adopted:

“This is not the first time Anthony Cafaro or other members of the Enterprise [have] made clandestine payments and the State will seek to offer and introduce other acts evidence.” (A Google search for “other acts evidence” provides a clear definition of the legal concept.)

Why would prosecutors include that sentence in a document that lays out what Flora Cafaro did to conceal a $15,000 transaction involving Atty. Yavorcik?

To let the defendants know that their attempt to turn this case into a discussion about the purchase of Oakhill Renaissance Place will not succeed.

Special prosecutors Dennis P. Will, Paul Nick, David Muhek and Anthony Cillo are taking the government/political corruption route.

Fair game

But if the defendants insist on putting Oakhill Renaissance on trial, then Garland Plaza, starting with the lease agreement between the Cafaro Co. and Mahoning County, becomes fair game.

While Anthony Cafaro has contended in the past that there was nothing unusual about the lease — the landlord was only responsible for maintaining the building’s superstructure — the idea of taxpayer dollars being used to pay for the upkeep and repairs of a privately owned building does give pause.

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