By PETER H. MILLIKEN
Investigation performed by the Summit County Sheriff's Office regarding a traffic stop involving Mahoning County Auditor, Michael Sciortino and Mahoning County Sheriff's Office personnel.
Mahoning County Auditor Michael V. Sciortino “certainly appeared” to have operated a vehicle while impaired when he was stopped May 26 by a county sheriff’s sergeant, outside investigators have concluded.
Sgt. James Touville and Cmdr. Thomas J. Assion of the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office agreed to abort Touville’s arrest of Sciortino on suspicion of drunken driving and to release Sciortino, because they decided the auditor had a medical problem and that Assion would drive Sciortino home, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office concluded in the report it released Tuesday. That decision led to Assion’s demotion from commander to sergeant.
Sciortino, however, never requested medical care — nor did Touville or Assion seek it for him, the investigators said.
The outside investigators said they based their conclusions on witness statements, on Sciortino’s failure of the field sobriety test Touville gave him, and Sciortino’s admission that he had consumed one or two alcoholic drinks.
The 11:35 p.m. traffic stop was at U.S. Route 224 near Raccoon Road in Canfield Township after Sciortino apparently fell asleep after receiving food at a nearby Wendy’s drive-through, and Wendy’s employees called 911 to report their concerns about his possible impairment.
Sciortino was charged only with failure to drive within marked lanes and has paid a $50 fine and $80 in court costs to Mahoning County Area Court in Canfield.
“Sciortino was, by all appearances, appropriately arrested for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated,” the investigators concluded.
Touville told investigators Sciortino “failed miserably” on the field sobriety test, the investigators reported.
Touville told investigators he didn’t smell alcohol on Sciortino, but that he did observe that Sciortino had “a slurred to mush mouth speech” and that Sciortino, 42, of Austintown, fumbled for his driver’s license.
Interviews by investigators showed that, after arresting Sciortino on a drunken-driving charge, Touville called to inform Lt. Stephen McGeary, who called Maj. Jeffrey Allen. The major told investigators he declined to intervene in the arrest, but called Assion to inform him of what was happening. Assion then called Touville to say he’d be on the scene in 20 minutes.
The report states Touville feared he’d suffer backlash from the department the next day for arresting a county official or having that official possibly test below the legal limit on the blood-alcohol test, so he “took the option” of turning Sciortino over to Assion. Sciortino was “un-arrested” by Touville, a marked lane violation citation was issued, and Assion took Sciortino home in the auditor’s car.
Sheriff Jerry Greene announced late Tuesday that he had demoted Assion, effective immediately, from commander to his previous rank of sergeant, which amounted to a $19,000 annual pay cut; and suspended Allen for 10 days for failing to immediately inform the sheriff of what happened.
As a commander, Assion earned about $70,000 a year.
Greene said Touville would go through the disciplinary hearing process prescribed by the labor contract of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 141, of which Touville is a bargaining-unit member.
Greene said he doesn’t think Touville can escape responsibility for his actions by contending he was simply following Assion’s orders to abort Sciortino’s arrest. He added that Touville should have insisted to Assion that Touville would continue the post-arrest procedure by taking Sciortino to the Canfield Police Department for a blood-alcohol test.
Asked whether Assion’s conduct rises to the level of obstruction of justice, the sheriff said: “I don’t believe that it’s obstructing justice.”
Allen told investigators Sciortino called to thank him a day or two after the traffic stop, and that Allen told Sciortino during that 20-second call that he should take the incident “as a learning experience.”
Allen, who has known Sciortino since high school, said he assumed Sciortino was thanking him because the traffic stop resulted only in a minor traffic citation, instead of a drunken-driving arrest.
Sciortino, Assion, Allen and Touville could not be reached to comment for this story.
Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains said there can be no drunken-driving prosecution of Sciortino unless the sheriff’s office issues a citation against Sciortino alleging that offense. Gains declined to speculate on the probability of success of a drunken-driving prosecution of Sciortino at this point.
“I would guess that it would be awful difficult to prove whether Auditor Sciortino was drunk. I can certainly say that there was a degree of impairment, but based on the inappropriate intervention of my commander, we’ll never know that because there was never a Breathalyzer test given,” the sheriff said.
Greene added that, to his knowledge, Sciortino did not ask for any favors from the deputies during the traffic stop.
The investigators say FBI Agents Deane Hassman and Thomas A. Donnelly interviewed Sciortino on May 31 concerning the traffic stop and that the FBI interview report is attached to what the investigators provided Greene.
However, Greene declined to provide the FBI report to the media.
Under FBI policy, Gains said he doesn’t believe the sheriff is authorized to disclose the contents of the FBI report to the media.
Neither Greene nor Gains said they knew of any federal law issue concerning the traffic stop that would generate FBI interest in the matter.
FBI Agent Vicki Anderson in Cleveland could not be reached to comment on the reason for the FBI’s interest in the matter.
Greene said he called for an outside investigation of his staff’s handling of the Sciortino stop to avoid any appearance of bias.
“When I first found out that this happened, I was furious. I couldn’t believe the actions of my men,” Greene said. “Later, after it set in, obviously, I was embarrassed. This isn’t the message — this isn’t the representation of this office that I want to have,” he added.
“I don’t want it to ever happen again,” he said. Greene said he wants to “set the bar higher that this sort of thing isn’t going to be tolerated.”
As for Assion, “He was forthright and honest with what he did,” the sheriff said. Greene said Assion has apologized and acknowledged responsibility for his actions and “knows he’s let the agency down.” The sheriff concluded: “Hopefully, one day, he can earn the trust back.”
County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras said this incident “is not indicative of anything, but a lack of judgment by the deputies involved in this. It’s not a systemic problem. People are going to make mistakes, and T.J. is obviously suffering the consequences.”
What would have been a problem is if Sciortino “threw his weight around,” trying to get out of an arrest by saying he’s a county official, Betras said.
“That didn’t happen,” said Betras, an attorney.