There’s more investigating to do in the Sciortino arrest

The initial investigation into the apparent OVI traffic stop of Mahoning County Auditor Michael V. Sciortino was sufficient for purposes of the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department’s internal investigation. Acting at the request of Mahoning County Sheriff Jerry Greene, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office conducted an investigation, and Greene took internal action against deputies and officers involved in the traffic stop and its aftermath.

That’s fine as far as it went. Now it’s time for the office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and the Ohio Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Counsel to become involved.

As has been well reported, Sciortino was stopped May 26 by Sgt. James Touville on Route 224 after employees at a restaurant became alarmed when a drive-through customer showed signs of obvious intoxication behind the wheel. Touville pulled Sciortino over, administered field sobriety tests, which Sciortino failed. Touville handcuffed Sciortino, told him he was under arrest for suspicion of drunken driving, placed him in the back seat of his cruiser and made arrangement for Sciortino to take a Breathalyzer test at the Canfield police station.

Touville did one thing that was out of the ordinary. He informed a supervisor who it was that he was arresting, and that set into motion some extraordinary events. According to the Summit County report, Touville was told to await the arrival of Cmdr. Thomas J. Assion. The Summit County interview of Assion hasn’t yet been released, but according to the accounts of others on the scene, Assion arrived in a car with his girlfriend. Assion had Sciortino removed from the cruiser, uncuffed and placed in Sciortino’s car, which Assion drove away. Assion’s girlfriend followed in his car.

Obstruction of justice?

Greene says he sees no obstruction of justice. We would not be so quick in drawing that conclusion.

To recount some salient points: Sciortino had been handcuffed, told he was under arrest and placed in the back of the cruiser by Touville before Assion arrived. Arrangements had already been made for Sciortino to be administered a Breathalyzer. All that changed after Assion and his girlfriend arrived.

Under Ohio’s obstruction statute, no person, with purpose to hinder the prosecution, conviction, or punishment of another for crime shall do any of the following:

Provide the other person with transportation or other means of avoiding discovery or apprehension.

Destroy or conceal physical evidence of the crime or act, or induce any person to withhold testimony or information or to elude legal process summoning the person to testify or supply evidence.

Prevent or obstruct any person, by means of force, intimidation, or deception, from performing any act to aid in the discovery, apprehension, or prosecution of the other person.

This may not be an open and shut case of obstruction of justice, but the circumstances warrant Attorney General DeWine assigning a prosecutor to investigate and present the case to a grand jury.

As to Sciortino, no evidence has been presented that he asked for preferential treatment, but there is evidence that he recognized after the fact that he had received it. He called an old friend at the sheriff’s office a few days later to express his gratitude.

Officer of the court

And that’s where the Disciplinary Counsel comes in. Sciortino is a lawyer and an officer of the court. As such, he is held to a higher standard than the average person. One could argue that as an elected official he is also subject to a higher standard, but voters can be notoriously lax in enforcing standards on the people they elect.

It is the job of the Supreme Court to hold members of the Ohio Bar to scrupulous standards of conduct, and the Disciplinary Counsel should investigate whether Sciortino’s actions of that night and subsequent days rise to the acceptable standard.

This incident has put an ugly spotlight on Mahoning County as the land that time has forgotten. It seems that the rest of the United States has gotten the word. Drunken driving is not an offense that can be swept under the rug as it may have been in many places 30 or 40 years ago. Legislators, judges, police officers and celebrities in other jurisdictions are routinely charged with drunken driving when circumstances warrant and take their chances in court. A Mercer County, Pa., commissioner was arrested on a drunken-driving charge just the other day.

Twenty years ago, people bought their way out of drunken-driving convictions in Mahoning County, and a former prosecutor went to jail for that. It is a sign of some small progress that now no money changes hands; it’s only a matter of political favoritism. But such small progress does not mean that crimes may not have been committed or professional ethics violated.

Greene was right to go outside his department for the initial investigation and has taken disciplinary action against his officers based on his reading of the report.

The next move is up to DeWine and the Disciplinary Counsel.

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