By Peter H. Milliken
The foreman of the grand jury that unanimously issued the 73-count indictment in the now-dismissed Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy case has provided in a notarized statement a rare glimpse into the secret grand-jury proceedings.
The affidavit, signed by the foreman, Michael T. Heher, on June 24, 2011, was unsealed along with numerous other Oakhill documents Wednesday as ordered by visiting Judge William H. Wolff Jr. of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.
Although only prosecutors presented evidence to the grand jury, Heher said he believes the presentation was “fair and unbiased” and enabled the grand jury “to reach a decision based on the facts.”
Judge Wolff dismissed the criminal case July 11 without prejudice, meaning the changes could be refiled at a later date.
The dismissal was requested by the special prosecutors, who said the FBI’s refusal to provide tape recordings made it impossible for them to fulfill their obligations in the pretrial evidence exchange with the defense, known as discovery.
In the Oakhill case, five people and three companies were charged with conspiring 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, which the county bought in 2006 and to which JFS moved in 2007.
Heher said in his affidavit that special prosecutors Dennis Will, the Lorain County prosecutor, and Paul Nick, then chief investigative counsel and now executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, introduced themselves to the grand jury in February 2010 and asked panel members “to keep an open mind and review all information presented.”
Only Will, Nick and David Muhek, an assistant Lorain County prosecutor, presented evidence to the nine-member panel, Heher said.
“There were no other prosecutors or presenters other than these three gentlemen during the several months of the session,” Heher said.
“The prosecutors made it very clear that the issue before us was not whether or not the move to Oakhill or the purchase of Oakhill was good or bad [and that] what we were to do is to decide if there was any improper conduct during the process,” Heher added.
Paul Gains, Mahoning County prosecutor, and Linette Stratford, chief Mahoning County civil-division prosecutor, were witnesses before the grand jury “and were never present in any other capacity” inside the grand-jury room, Heher said.
“After several months of listening to testimony, the jury felt that we needed to hear from several individuals that had not come before us,” Heher said, adding that his research showed the grand jurors could subpoena witnesses.
The grand jurors gave Will and Nick a list of witnesses they wanted to hear from, including Judges R. Scott Krichbaum and Maureen A. Sweeney of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, Heher said.
“The jury wanted to talk to these two judges for two entirely separate issues, and, in one case [the matter] had nothing to do with the jury extension or anything pertaining to the grand jury,” Heher said.
The second of two grand jury extensions was requested by the grand jurors because they believed they “needed more time to digest the massive amount of information that was presented,” Heher concluded.
Originally scheduled to serve from January through April 2010, the grand jury did not complete its work until July 29, 2010, when it issued the Oakhill indictment.
Heher’s affidavit was attached to the special prosecutors’ response to a motion by the Cafaro defendants to dismiss the case due to alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
The Cafaro motion alleged the special pro-secutors tried to intimidate Mahoning County Common Pleas judges by subpoenaing Judges Krichbaum and Sweeney to testify before the grand jury after those judges questioned the reason for the first extension.
The first extension was requested by the special prosecutors on the grounds that they wanted continuity of evidence presentation before a single grand jury.
Judge Sweeney said in an interview that she never felt intimidated, and Judge Krichbaum declined to comment at all on the Cafaro assertion.
The Cafaro defendants also had complained that Gains’ staff was improperly involved in the prosecution of the Oakhill criminal matter after Gains requested, and the county common pleas judges appointed, special prosecutors for Oakhill, who Gains had said would function independently of his office.
In the Oakhill case, those charged were Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., former president 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 and former County JFS Director John Zachariah.