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Dismissal of charges is another roadblock to public getting the whole story

Published: Tue, July 12, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

This newspaper has been follow- ing the drama behind the development of Mahoning County’s office complex, Oakhill Renaissance Place, for three years. And we’ve been battling for about nine months to report on what the government knows about the alleged corruption of county officials who took up the cause of the Cafaro Co. in opposing Oakhill.

If we had our way, the 2,000 hours of FBI tapes that were at the heart of Monday’s dismissal of the state case would be available for all to hear on Vindy.com. But that’s not the way federal prosecutors work. They play everything close to the vest, and so it is not surprising that they refused even the requests of state prosecutors for release of the tapes. The state is pursuing its case. The feds are pursuing theirs. And when push comes to shove, the federal prosecutors set the time line.

Some years ago, we watched with frustration when affidavits in one federal case provided clear evidence of the corruption of a Youngstown Municipal Court judge, but no words could persuade the Justice Department to move against that judge until it had all its ducks in a row.

Dismissal without prejudice

Visiting Judge William H. Wolff Jr. dismissed a 73-count indictment against three Cafaro companies, two former Cafaro company principals, four present or former county officials and a local lawyer Monday. He dismissed the charges without prejudice, meaning they could be re-filed if circumstance change. But here’s the takeaway from all that: It’s going to be a long time, if ever, before the public learns much more than it already knows about the Oakhill case.

As it is, no one outside Judge Wolff, the prosecutors and defense lawyers and the grand jury that returned the indictments even knows what the various characters were accused of doing. That‘s because defense lawyers convinced Wolff to seal most of the important filings in the case, including the bill of particulars that provides an outline of alleged wrongdoing.

At some point, presumably, federal prosecutors will have listened to and catalogued those tape recordings, they will have gone through bank records with a fine-tooth comb and they will have worked with their cooperating witness, former Mahoning County Treasurer Lisa Antonini, to determine what, if any, criminal charges they can bring.

Feds don’t name names

Federal investigators appear to be following threads in an elaborate tapestry of corruption of public officials by a businessman they have yet to specifically identify, but who appears to have a habit of making unsecured loans or unrecorded campaign donations to elected officials. Antonini, who is also a former chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, pleaded guilty in federal court to an information charging her with one count of honest-services mail fraud. Antonini was charged with taking and failing to report a $3,000 cash contribution to her primary campaign for county treasurer Jan. 16, 2008, from a local businessman, while reporting only a $200 contribution he gave by check on that day. While the businessman wasn’t named, board of elections records show only Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., former president of the Cafaro Co., as a contributor of $200 by check that day to her campaign.

She is awaiting sentencing; her cooperation with federal investigators is mandated in her plea agreement.

Those who had the state charges dropped against them by Judge Wolff on Monday now have bragging rights. They can claim, as one did, that there never was a case and that their prosecution was purely political. But that claim would have more gravitas if the defendants had refuted the charges, rather than fought to keep the specifics under seal.

Misconduct claim

And, too, they can claim that they never got to prove their accusation of prosecutorial misconduct in the state case because Monday’s dismissal of charges short-circuited the process. There’s nothing to stop the defendants from filing a complaint with the office of disciplinary counsel of the Ohio Supreme Court. We would applaud any effort to expose misconduct in the courts.

In the meantime, we’ll have to wait for federal prosecutors to make the next move. It wouldn’t make sense for prosecutors to make a deal with Antonini if they didn’t have reason to believe others were guilty of wrongdoing. And maybe we’ll find out someday if earlier guilty pleas of former Trumbull County Commissioner James Tsagaris and former Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge Maureen Cronin to federal charges were also part of a larger picture.

And perhaps when the federal prosecutions are complete, we’ll get to hear those tapes — and decide for ourselves whether they are incriminating or exculpatory.

And just maybe, when the federal cases are over, the state can pick up where it left off Monday. With, we can only hope, a judge who is less inclined to seal the records that would give the public an insight into whether justice is being served.

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