By Peter H. MILLIKEN
The Vindicator and 21 WFMJ-TV have asked the Ohio Supreme Court to order a visiting judge to make public all documents and proceedings in the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal-conspiracy case.
The order, known as a writ of prohibition, would bar Judge William H. Wolff Jr. from keeping pretrial documents sealed from public view or from closing any court hearings.
The writ is needed “to remedy the unconstitutional infringement by respondent of the public’s rights of access to ongoing judicial proceedings,” wrote Marion H. Little Jr., lawyer for the newspaper and TV station, in the complaint seeking the writ. The complaint was filed Monday.
If the writ isn’t granted, defendants in the criminal case “will have succeeded in effectively turning a presumptively public criminal process into a virtually private proceeding,” he argued.
“We want to ensure that defendants’ efforts for a trial cloaked in secrecy fail,” Little said in an interview.
Joe Bell, director of corporate communications for the Cafaro Co., which is one of the defendants in the case, declined to comment on The Vindicator’s filing, other than to say: “We’ll see how it plays out in the court.”
The special prosecutors have filed bills of particulars detailing the charges against all defendants in the case, which is set for trial June 6 in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.
All of the bills remain under seal, except for the one detailing the money-laundering charge against Flora Cafaro, part-owner of the Cafaro Co., and Atty. Martin Yavorcik, which was filed before Judge Wolff began sealing documents in the case.
The money-laundering charge pertains to an allegedly concealed $15,000 gift Flora Cafaro gave to Yavorcik’s unsuccessful 2008 campaign for county prosecutor. Yavorcik and Flora Cafaro are not charged with conspiracy.
Although Judge Wolff has unsealed other documents in the Oakhill case at the request of the newspaper and TV station, he has kept the rest of the bills of particulars away from public view.
Five people and three companies are charged with conspiracy and other charges in an alleged effort to impede the move of the county’s Department of Job and Family Services from Cafaro Co.-owned rented quarters to Oakhill Renaissance Place.
The county bought Oakhill in 2006 and moved JFS there a year later. Oakhill is the former Forum Health Southside Medical Center.
Those charged in the July 28, 2010, indictment with conspiracy and other charges are Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., former president of the Cafaro Co.; the Cafaro Co., and two of its affiliates, the Ohio Valley Mall Co. and The Marion Plaza Inc.; County Commissioner John A. McNally IV, county Auditor Michael V. Sciortino; former county Treasurer John B. Reardon; and former county JFS Director John Zachariah.
Individual bills of particulars were filed under seal late last year for Sciortino, Reardon and Zachariah; and the final combined bill was filed Jan. 3 for Anthony Cafaro, the corporate defendants and McNally.
In a Nov. 10 motion, defense lawyers asked that all remaining bills stay sealed until after the trial.
In ordering that those bills of particulars stay sealed, Judge Wolff said they contain information that may not be admissible in the trial; their release would make selection of an impartial jury here unlikely; and the effort to seat an impartial jury should begin here.
If the judge is correctly concerned about prejudice, the remedy is to move the trial to another Ohio county, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled as recently as April, Little observed.
In Monday’s filing, Little complained that the Cafaro defendants initially sent a letter to the judge Sept. 2, in which they asked that the bills of particulars be sealed, rather than submitting that request then in the form of a legal motion or filing it as a matter of public record.
In last month’s order keeping the bills sealed, Judge Wolff said he found credible an Ohio University faculty member’s testimony that The Vindicator dominates the Youngstown-area media scene.
Judge Wolff found that the newspaper, which has given the case “intense, tough coverage,” and its website, Vindy.com, “have a virtual monopoly on the dissemination of local news in Mahoning County.”
When asked during a hearing concerning document-sealing about the likelihood that media coverage would taint the jury pool or deny the defendants a fair trial, Hugh Martin, associate professor of journalism at OU, said that matter was outside his expertise, Little wrote in Monday’s filing at the state’s top court.
Martin, a witness for the Cafaro defendants, was the sole witness at that hearing last month.