It has been a year since Lisa Antonini, former treasurer of Mahoning County and former Democratic Party chairwoman, pleaded guilty to taking money from a businessman and not declaring it.
There are persistent reports that a special federal grand jury in Cleveland has been reviewing evidence of government corruption in Mahoning County presented by prosecutors.
Antonini is supposedly one of the key witnesses because she is to receive a reduced sentence if she fully cooperates with any federal, state or local investigations and prosecutions.
She resigned her $86,275-a-year job as county treasurer after federal prosecutors filed an information in federal court charging her with one count of honest services mail fraud.
In June 2011, she pleaded guilty in a hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Sara Lioi.
Although the name of the businessman who gave Antonini $3,000 in cash has not been made public by prosecutors, all signs point to Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., retired president of Youngstown-based Cafaro Co., one of the leading shopping center developers in the country.
In its information, federal prosecutors say that the same day Antonini received the $3,000 from the businessman, she also got a $200 check from him, which the then treasurer declared on her campaign finance reports. The Vindicator revealed that the only $200 check in her campaign reports was from Cafaro Sr.
At the time of Antonini’s court appearance, Cafaro was facing criminal charges in state court for engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, conspiracy, perjury, bribery and money laundering for his role in the Oakhill Renaissance Place controversy. The other defendants were: Commissioner John A. McNally IV; Auditor Michael Sciortino; former Treasurer John Reardon; former Job and Family Services Director John Zachariah; the Cafaro Co. and two of its affiliates.
But the charges against Cafaro et al were dismissed after the FBI and federal prosecutors refused to hand over the tapes or transcripts of 2,000 hours of recordings from wiretaps and other surveillance pertaining to government corruption in Mahoning County.
The state charges can be refiled at a later date, but if the federal government goes forward with its investigation, the state will undoubtedly bow out. That’s because the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland has a strong track record of bringing corrupt government officials and those who corrupt them to justice.
But the tendency of federal prosecutors to go after the big fish means the guppies get a break.
Antonini’s guilty plea and her agreement to cooperate with any federal, state or local investigation and prosecution is significant. Not only was she in the county courthouse when the Oakhill Renaissance controversy was developing, but as the chairwoman of the county Democratic Party she had access to the major contributors who gave to candidates and political campaigns — not for the sake of good government, but to buy influence.
This corruption of the public sector in the Mahoning Valley has gone on for too long.
Despite the convictions of a congressman, James A. Traficant Jr., a prosecutor, the late James Philomena, a sheriff, Phil Chance, judges, including Maureen Cronin of the Common Pleas Court and Patrick Kerrigan of the Youngstown Municipal Court, businessmen, including J.J. Cafaro, former vice president of the Cafaro Co., a commissioner from Trumbull County, James Tsagaris, and mobsters and others, there still are government officials willing to be bribed, and individuals with personal agendas willing to bribe them.
The dismissal of the state charges against Anthony Cafaro Sr. et al was a blow to this region — which has to live with the national reputation of first being a haven for organized crime and now a center of government corruption.
Lisa Antonini’s conviction and the requirement that she cooperate with federal prosecutors as a condition of her sentence were viewed as a step in the right direction. But that was a year ago.
Today, as the case drags on, there is reason to wonder if the federal government has decided to give the businessman who corrupted her a pass.
That would unfortunate, considering the tainted history of this region.