It was a shot in the dark that ended up hitting the bull’s-eye.
The question from this writer to Jerry Greene on the eve of his swearing in as sheriff of Mahoning County was not prompted by any insight or confidential information. Rather, it was based on a sense one gets after reporting on politics in the Mahoning Valley for over three decades.
The exchange took place on Friday, Jan. 4, on the Louie Free radio show broadcast from the newsroom of The Vindicator.
Q: “During the campaign were you ever approached by what I describe as unsavory characters in our community who would want to …”
Q: “You were? And how did you handle that?”
Free: “Tell me about the approach? Is it like you see …”
A: “Oh, there was an individual that tried, I’m not going to throw a name, there was an individual that tried giving me money, just cash, and I just told him ‘I can’t take that. It’s got to be a check, a personal check.’ Did I deep down want to, you know probably ...”
Free: “Was it a sizable amount?”
Free: “Looked like a lot of money?”
A: “Ya. But there was no quid pro quo. It wasn’t ‘I’m going to give you this …’”
This writer: “There never is. It’s an unspoken quid pro quo in the history of this community. The moment you take there’s an expectation that you will approached and be reminded, ‘By the way, remember when …’”
Greene, former director of support services and a former captain in the sheriff’s department, was sworn in Saturday, Jan. 6. He succeeds Sheriff Randall Wellington, who retired after replacing Mafia-owned Phil Chance in 1999. Chance ultimately served time in federal prison for doing the bidding of organized crime figures.
In a cruel twist of fate, Chance was fingered by Valley Mafia boss Lenine “Lenny” Strollo, the man who helped finance his campaign for sheriff.
Strollo started singing like a canary when the FBI nabbed him following a lengthy investigation, including audio and video surveillance of his Canfield home. Not only did the mobster offer chapter and verse about organized crime activities in the Valley, including the names of mob operatives and the politicians in their pockets, but he provided the U.S. Justice Department with insight into Mafia activities in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New York City.
For his cooperation — he was a witness in several government corruption trials — Strollo served 12 years of easy time.
He was released with his blood money intact and is now living out his life in the area.
Against that backdrop, Sheriff Greene’s admission that he was approached with a sizable amount of cash during the campaign cannot be shrugged off.
He acknowledged in the radio interview that the sheriff must set a higher standard than other politicians, but when he was asked if he would hold a press conference and identify any individuals who seek to bribe him or members of his staff, he said no.
Greene said a press conference would be viewed as a “political ploy,” but he did offer this observation:
“I would be so uncomfortable that someone would approach me with that I would become furious. I would probably take action.”
In talking about his plans for the sheriff’s department, Greene went to great lengths to sing the praises of his predecessor, Wellington, who had an unblemished record after more than a half-century in law enforcement. Before he became sheriff, Wellington was chief of police in Youngstown for 14 years.
But the one thing that set him apart from most high-ranking cops was his strong relationship with the FBI and the Justice Department.
Former FBI resident agents in charge of the Youngstown office and former agents assigned to the organized crime division told this writer over the years that Wellington’s reputation as an honest officer with unquestioned integrity made him an important asset in the federal government’s crackdown on organized crime and government corruption in the Mahoning Valley.
Greene should follow in Wellington’s footsteps and establish a close working relationship with the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Cleveland.
He can start by giving them name of the person who tried to buy him.