Tuesday, July 12, 2011
By Peter H. Milliken
Special prosecutors hoped the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy case would end in convictions of a powerful businessman and Mahoning County politicians.
Instead, the case, under investigation since 2007 and under indictment for nearly a year, ended abruptly in a 10-minute court hearing and a one-paragraph entry of dismissal.
Visiting Judge William H. Wolff Jr. of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court dismissed the 73-count indictment Monday without prejudice, meaning the charges could be refiled later.
Special prosecutors from the Ohio Ethics Commission and Lorain County said their inability to obtain tape recordings held by the FBI and provide them to the defense made it impossible to proceed.
Special Prosecutor David P. Muhek, an assistant Lorain County prosecutor, said there were about 2,000 hours of tapes that may be relevant to Oakhill in the FBI’s possession.
“The state requested all information from the [U.S.] Department of Justice relevant to the case and its discovery obligations. To date, all such information has not been provided,” Muhek told Judge Wolff. “For this case to continue with the unresolved issues that remain and the additional resources that would become necessary, we would be in much the same place a year from now as we are today.”
“The state is not satisfied with the position of the Department of Justice in the context of the state’s obligations,” Muhek added. The FBI is part of DOJ.
Prosecutors have a legal and ethical obligation to provide all relevant materials to the defense in the pretrial exchange of evidence, known as discovery, whether it is incriminating or favorable to the defense, said Paul M. Nick, special prosecutor and executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission.
“We cannot comply with discovery; therefore, we have no choice ethically, but to dismiss the case,” Nick said after court.
The FBI agreed to release some, but not all, of the tapes, he said. “Unless we have all of them and review all of them, it’s impossible for us to comply,” he explained.
When asked why the FBI won’t release all of the tapes, Nick said: “You’d have to ask them.”
FBI Agent Steve Jackson, an FBI spokesman in Cleveland, refused to comment on the matter.
Mike Tobin, a Cleveland-based spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, which is also part of the justice department, said he couldn’t comment because Oakhill is not a case being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney.
Nick declined to comment on the likelihood Oakhill-related charges would be re-filed by state prosecutors or filed by federal prosecutors.
In the Oakhill case, five people and three companies were charged with conspiring to impede the move of the Mahoning County Department of Job and Family Services from Cafaro Co.-owned rented quarters at Garland Plaza on the city’s East Side to the county-owned Oakhill Renaissance Place. Oakhill is the former Forum Health Southside Medical Center, to which JFS moved in 2007.
After all charges against all defendants were dismissed, Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., former president of the Cafaro Co., read a statement in front of the county courthouse, and his lawyers proclaimed his innocence.
“From the very beginning, this case has been politically motivated prosecution, and it has been a waste of taxpayer dollars. What a shame!” Cafaro said.
“We deny that it was political,” Nick said later. “What price do you put on ensuring that public officials abide by the law and are held accountable when they do not?”
Nick said those engaged in the Oakhill prosecution were paid their regular salaries by their regular employers while they worked on the case and that he could not estimate the cost of the Oakhill prosecution.
“He was not only presumed innocent; he was actually innocent,” said Martin G. Weinberg of Boston, one of Cafaro’s lawyers.
“We believe the prosecution resulted from his exercise of his constitutional rights to oppose the transfer of Oakhill,” Weinberg said. “That’s not right for someone who exercises his constitutional rights to end up in a criminal courtroom.”
“He believed then and he believes now that the county’s purchase of Oakhill was a terrible economic disaster and a mistake, and he was proven right. The county has spent over $15 million on that project,” said Cafaro’s other lawyer, George A. Stamboulidis of New York City.
“This case was never about whether or not staying at Garland or moving to Oakhill was in the county’s best interests,” Nick said. It was a joint federal, state and Mahoning County Sheriff Department’s investigation of alleged criminal and ethical violations by the defendants leading to a county grand jury indictment, he added.
An FBI agent and a Mahoning County sheriff’s detective were regularly seen accompanying the special prosecutors to and from numerous Oakhill grand jury sessions.
“Usually, the FBI brings its cases to the U.S. attorney’s office. ... There’s a good possibility the U.S. attorney’s office passed on this pathetic case,” Stamboulidis said. The U.S. Attorney is the federal prosecutor.
“You shouldn’t expect to see these charges in federal court or anywhere. This case is over,” Stamboulidis added.
Those charged with conspiracy and other charges were Cafaro; 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.
Two other defendants were charged only with money laundering and not with conspiracy. They are Flora Cafaro, part owner of the Cafaro Co. and Anthony M. Cafaro Sr.’s sister, and Atty. Martin Yavorcik.
The money-laundering charge pertained to a purportedly concealed $15,000 gift she made to Yavorcik’s unsuccessful 2008 campaign for county prosecutor.
‘HAVE FAITH IN JUSTICE DEPARTMENT’
“I think we just have to have faith in the justice department. The U.S. attorney, Steven Dettelbach, has already committed his office to cleaning up corruption in this Valley,” said Paul J. Gains, Mahoning County prosecutor, after the dismissal.
Although he sought and received special prosecutors he said would be independent of his office, Gains attended the dismissal hearing with Linette Stratford, chief of his civil division. Stratford was regularly seen with the special prosecutors as they entered and left grand-jury sessions leading to the Oakhill indictment.
McNally said his opposition to the county’s 2006 Oakhill purchase stemmed largely from what he called “the lack of planning into purchasing this property.”
McNally said developments since then have supported his opposition to the Oakhill purchase, “but, as a county commissioner, what I’m going to have to do is try to figure out the best way to spend money to bring that building up to a level that it should be. There’s a lot of areas in that building that still need to be renovated.”
Sciortino said, “I’m gratified. My family’s gratified. It’s been a rough couple of years, but, I’m glad this part’s over.
“We’ve never opposed leaving Garland Plaza. We opposed Oakhill because of the cost,” Sciortino said of himself and other county officials who opposed the Oakhill purchase.
“I did not commit the crimes that I was charged with, and it’s been a very challenging and difficult ordeal on my family, both emotionally and financially,” Reardon said of the Oakhill case.
“I opposed Oakhill because I thought it was a very bad idea to buy a 100-year-old hospital without any due diligence,” Reardon said.
“We continue to spend money that we don’t have just to make this building habitable,” including expenditures for roof replacement and heating, ventilating and air conditioning improvements, Reardon added.
Information supplied by Olsavsky-Jaminet architects to the county building commission, which oversees Oakhill renovations, says only the north wing of the Oakhill complex dates from 1910. The other wings of the former hospital date from 1937 to 1972.