It’s been 10 months since two elect- ed Mahoning County officials, two former officials, three companies and one of the most prominent businessmen in town were indicted on multiple counts of criminal conspiracy, and yet the public still knows virtually none of the details of what the state alleges the conspiracy to have involved.
Depending on how quickly the Ohio Supreme Court proceeds now that the advocates of opening the court records and keeping them sealed have filed their written arguments, the public may finally get a better insight into what’s come to be known as the Oakhill Renaissance case. Clearly The Vindicator hopes the court rules in the public’s favor; otherwise corners of this case may never be illuminated by the light of day.
The defendants who sought to have records in the case sealed, and the judge who ordered the sealing are of a mind that the public should only know that which is eventually ruled admissible in court. Jurors are bound to consider only what’s admissible in reaching a verdict; the public, however, should have broader access to information on which it can make decisions about whether government is serving the people or narrow special interests.
The Vindicator and 21 WFMJ-TV have asked the Supreme Court to order the unsealing of all documents and proceedings in the Oakhill case. Visiting Judge William H. Wolff Jr., who is hearing the case in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, has opened some records in the case but has ordered others sealed, most notably the bills of particulars. Those are the documents that are prepared by the prosecution and give insight into what the defendants have allegedly done to warrant indictment.
They are routinely made public in Mahoning County, and in Montgomery County, where Judge Wolff sat before his retirement.
The basic case
This case involves a battle over moving the Mahoning County Department of Job and Family Services from rented space on the city’s East Side to the former South Side Medical Center, which had been acquired by the county. The Cafaro Co., the area’s largest locally owned development company, resisted the JFS move from a former shopping plaza it owned. And the company found support in its battle from some county officials. The purity of that support is what’s at question.
A grand jury returned indictments against Mahoning County Commissioner John A. McNally IV; Auditor Michael V. Sciortino; former Treasurer John B. Reardon, and ex-county JFS director John Zachariah. Also indicted were Anthony Cafaro Sr., the retired president of the Cafaro Co., and his sister, Flora Cafaro, part-owner of the company, and an attorney, Martin Yavorcik, who ran unsuccessfully against County Prosecutor Paul Gains.
It was after the release of the bills of particulars in the charges against Flora Cafaro that the other defendants’ lawyers sought to have the court record sealed.
At first glance, this is not an easy case because it pits the competing constitutional interests of the public’s right to know against the defendants’ right to a fair trial. But the judge has a clear avenue toward providing a fair trial, even if there has been so much pre-trial publicity that the jury pool has been compromised. The trial can be moved a county or two away, where potential jurors will not have been exposed to pretrial publicity.
And that becomes a necessary remedy only if it becomes clear during jury selection that pretrial publicity has affected the ability of potential jurors to listen to the evidence submitted to them in court and to deliberate based on that evidence.
The defendants’ fair trial will not be compromised in any event; the public’s right to know should be honored.