By Peter H. Milliken
Judge William H. Wolff Jr., the visiting judge who presided over the now-dismissed Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal-conspiracy case, has scheduled a hearing on the defendants’ motions to seal the case records from public view.
In a decision and order released Wednesday, Judge Wolff set that hearing for 9 a.m. Oct. 3 in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.
Judge Wolff dismissed the 73-count Oakhill indictment last month at the request of the special prosecutors, who said the FBI’s refusal to provide tape recordings for the pretrial evidence exchange known as discovery made it impossible for them to proceed.
However, Judge Wolff dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning the charges could be refiled.
The Oakhill case involved charges of conspiracy to impede the move of the county’s Department of Job and Family Services from Cafaro Co.-owned rented quarters to the county-owned Oakhill Renaissance Place.
Oakhill is the former Forum Health Southside Medical Center.
In July, charges were dropped against Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., former president of the Cafaro Co.; Flora Cafaro, part-owner of the Cafaro Co.; the Cafaro Co. and two of its affiliates; County Commissioner John A. McNally IV; County Auditor Michael V. Sciortino; former county Treasurer John B. Reardon; former county JFS Director John Zachariah and Atty. Martin Yavorcik.
Judge Wolff wrote that he believes he can decide the sealing issue based on written filings and without a hearing. However, he said the hearing must take place unless each defendant, the special prosecutors and The Vindicator and 21 WFMJ-TV agree to waive the hearing.
The newspaper and TV station have sought to make public the case documents, including the bills of particulars, which give details of the charges against each defendant.
“The court agrees with The Youngstown Vindicator and WFMJ-TV that they have a right to participate in these particular proceedings,” Judge Wolff wrote.
The judge overruled the Cafaro defendants’ motion to strike from the case record the objections from the newspaper and TV station to the Cafaro motion to seal the case records. The Cafaro defendants sought the sealing to protect what they said were their privacy rights.
In his Wednesday order, Judge Wolff also said all filings relative to the motions to seal and the earlier Cafaro motion to dismiss the case due to alleged prosecutorial misconduct should be unsealed, except for a portion of a response from the special prosecutors to the dismissal motion.
The judge ordered redacted from public view details of the alleged wrongdoing of Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., which the judge said constitute “the functional equivalent of a bill of particulars.”
Judge Wolff has refused to unseal the bills of particulars pertaining to the defendants charged with conspiracy in the Oakhill case, saying he believes their release would jeopardize the fair trial rights of the defendants.
Saying moving the trial to another Ohio county would have been the remedy had juror bias interfered with a trial in Mahoning County, the newspaper and TV station are seeking a writ of prohibition from the Ohio Supreme Court to bar Judge Wolff from keeping those bills sealed from public view.
“They never should have been sealed from the public in the first place,” said Marion H. Little Jr., a lawyer for the newspaper and TV station. “The records [including the bills] should have been released last fall, and the defendants want to compound that mistake by now sealing the entire record,” he added.
“The public has a right to know why these charges were brought, and the bills of particulars should provide a detailed explanation why,” he continued.
In his motion to seal the case records, which was unsealed Wednesday, Sciortino’s lawyer, John B. Juhasz wrote: “Because the allegations leveled against Michael Sciortino are unproven allegations; and because his interest in having these records sealed is not outweighed by any reasons the government might offer to oppose sealing the official records, the defendant seeks an order sealing the records of this case.”
Juhasz added: “To permit these court records to remain public denies Sciortino the basic fairness with which he is entitled to be treated.”
However, stating their objection to sealing any of the case records, the special prosecutors wrote that public’s right of access to the case remains “hampered by the court’s sealing order. The public has no significant understanding of why the case was indicted.”
Except in cases of a court-ordered expungement, standard practice in common pleas court here is to keep case documents on file and available to the public in paper and electronic form even after a case is closed.
The bill for Flora Cafaro and Atty. Yavorcik went public before the judge issued his sealing order.
Judge Wolff also ruled that the Cafaro defendants and Sciortino are entitled to return of any original documents they provided to the grand jury under subpoena, but the special prosecutors are entitled to make and keep copies.