By Peter H. Milliken
A Cafaro Co. attorney has alleged an improper working relationship between the staff of Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains and special prosecutors in the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy case.
This relationship developed despite Gains’ having asked judges to appoint special prosecutors who would be independent of his office to “avoid any appearance of impropriety.”
Mahoning County Common Pleas Court judges appointed Paul M. Nick, chief investigative counsel for the Ohio Ethics Commission, and Dennis P. Will, Lorain County prosecutor, and two Lorain County assistant prosecutors as special prosecutors.
“A shadow team of at least four members of the Mahoning County prosecutor’s office were involved in the grand jury investigation and ongoing prosecution,” wrote John F. McCaffrey of Cleveland, a lawyer for the Cafaro interests in the criminal case.
In a filing Thursday in his public-records complaint at the Ohio Supreme Court, McCaffrey supported his assertion by citing depositions of assistant prosecutors Gina Bricker and Linette M. Stratford.
In her deposition in the records case, Bricker described Stratford, who is Gains’ civil-division chief, as “a law-enforcement investigator” in the Oakhill criminal case.
Gains and Stratford have acknowledged in court documents that they are witnesses in the Oakhill criminal case.
In an affidavit attached to a court filing by Gains in the records case, Stratford said she reviewed and prepared confidential investigative and trial preparation records for the special prosecutors in the criminal case and that the special prosecutors told her not to let anybody see those records unless she’s specifically instructed to do so.
Stratford, who successfully defended the county from a Cafaro lawsuit to rescind the county’s purchase of Oakhill, said she acted under the direction of Nick and the other special prosecutors because of her “particularized knowledge of the underlying events leading up to the ethics investigation.”
In his filing in the records case, Gains noted that McCaffrey acknowledged in a deposition that his purpose in requesting the Oakhill-related records from Gains was to help defend his clients in the Oak-hill criminal case.
Gains has said he gave McCaffrey more than 8,000 pages, consisting of everything Gains believes is subject to Ohio’s open-records law, but McCaffrey contends Gains hasn’t fulfilled his request in accordance with that law.
Gains told the top court McCaffrey is improperly trying to use a public- records request to get information he’s not entitled to under the rules of criminal procedure.
McCaffrey is one of the lawyers defending the Ohio Valley Mall Co. and the Marion Plaza Inc., both affiliates of the Cafaro Co., in the criminal case.
In the criminal matter, those three companies; Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., former president of the Cafaro Co.; and two current and two former county officials are charged with conspiring to impede the move of the county’s Department of Job and Family Services from Cafaro Co.-owned rented quarters to the county-owned Oakhill building.
In last week’s filing, Gains asked the top court for 60 days to prepare the documents he’s refusing to give McCaffrey, so he can identify, classify and index them and file them under seal for the justices’ private inspection.
Gains wants the top court to review in private his civil-division logs; the personal calendars of Bricker, Stratford and himself; and items Gains says are either confidential attorney-client communications or confidential investigative and trial preparation documents in the criminal case.
McCaffrey asked the top court last week to compel Gains and his assistant prosecutors to answer his written questions fully and submit to a second deposition to answer some of the questions they declined to answer in depositions earlier this month.
Gains, Stratford and Bricker “repeatedly refused to answer questions that sought relevant, discoverable information,” McCaffrey complained. Stratford refused to answer some 150 questions, including those related to the criminal probe, McCaffrey said.
“Respondents must not be permitted to continue to hide the ball,” McCaffrey concluded.