Is fed probe cause for concern?

Now that the Mahoning County government corruption ball is in the U.S. Justice Department’s court, there are rumblings about U.S. Attorney Steven M. Dettelbach in Cleveland having worked for the Cleveland law firm of Baker & Hostetler — the very same firm that represents Youngstown developer Anthony M. Cafaro.

Is there reason to worry that Cafaro will be treated with kid gloves by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Ohio?

The answer, based on information provided by the federal prosecutor’s office, is no.

A spokesman noted that Dettelbach and the first assistant U.S. attorney, Carole Rendon, had recused themselves from the federal criminal case involving former Mahoning County Treasurer Lisa Antonini.

Cash from businessman

Although the feds have not publicly tied Cafaro to Antonini — she has pleaded guilty to receiving $3,000 in cash from a local businessman and not reporting the money as a campaign contribution — all signs point to the now retired president of the Cafaro Co.

In addition to the $3,000, Antonini admitted she received a $200 check for her campaign for treasurer from the businessman. The Vindicator’s search of the campaign finance reports for the year in question shows that the only check in the amount of $200 was from Anthony M. Cafaro Sr.

There could be any number of reasons for Dettelbach and Rendon recusing themselves from the Antonini case, but the fact remains that they are staying as far away as possible from the Mahoning County government corruption investigation.

Indeed, the U.S. attorney has been extremely sensitive to any appearance of a conflict of interest in such cases.

As his spokesman pointed out, he and Atty. Rendon have steered clear of the ongoing investigation of public corruption in Cuyahoga County. His former law firm, Baker & Hostetler, represented parties involved in the investigation, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Rendon worked for a law firm that represented targets of the federal probe.

“In the Cuyahoga County case, if someone wants to talk about something, they (Dettelbach and Rendon) leave the room,” the spokesman, Mike Tobin, said.

There’s a reason the top federal prosecutor in this part of Ohio is committed to protecting the office’s credibility: When he was sworn in October 2009, he made it clear that fighting public corruption would be a priority.

It’s a fight that the people of the Mahoning Valley know all too well. Antonini is just the latest in a long line of public officials who have contributed to this region’s reputation as a cesspool of government corruption.

In the late 1990s, the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office under Greg White convicted about 70 officeholders, including judges, a prosecutor and a sheriff, lawyers, mobsters and others in a crackdown of government corruption.

Then came the conviction of Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. on 10 criminal counts and an eight-year prison sentence.

He was followed by the conviction of Trumbull County Commissioner James Tsagaris, mall developer J.J. Cafaro, brother of Anthony Cafaro, and Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge Maureen Cronin.

Now, with Antonini’s guilty plea and her cooperating with the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office, residents of Mahoning County are expecting other indictments and convictions.

Anthony Cafaro Sr. is in the feds’ cross-hairs and there’s every indication that he isn’t the only one. That’s because the public now knows the federal government has 2,000 hours of recordings from wiretaps and other surveillance that suggest a wide investigative net.

State charges dismissed

Indeed, the refusal by the FBI and federal prosecutors to hand over the tapes or transcripts to the special state prosecutors in the Oakhill Renaissance Place conspiracy trial resulted in criminal charges being dismissed against the defendants, including Cafaro Sr.

Although the charges can be refiled at a later date, the Justice Department’s refusal to share its information indicates it wasn’t willing to undermine its government corruption probe.

Dismissal of the charges in the state case was hailed by the defendants, including county Commissioner John A. McNally IV and Auditor Michael Sciortino, as a victory.

There’s such a thing as premature elation.

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