From the time he was chosen to lead the Mahoning County Democratic Party four years ago, David Betras has delivered numerous speeches and made countless public statements that could be summed up thusly: “This is not your grandfather’s party.”
The long-time politico and well-known criminal lawyer contends that Mahoning County politics dominated by Democrats has entered a new era, one in which officeholders are committed, first and foremost, to public service.
In other words, gone are the days when the chairman and other party and elected officials paid homage to special interests, including the Mafia, and when government could be bought for so many pieces of gold.
The conviction several years ago of 70 individuals in a government corruption investigation led by the FBI was the turning point in county politics. With a prosecutor, sheriff, judges, others in and out of government and mobsters carted off to prison, Democrats were forced to come to terms with the corrupt nature of county politics.
Betras keeps insisting that today’s officeholders are nothing like their predecessors and that any untoward activity is the exception rather than the rule.
The Democratic Party chairman has so convinced himself that things have changed for the better, he is unable to face reality.
Thus, his absence in two high-profile cases that are a throwback to the bad old days.
The first is the so-called Oakhill Renaissance Place controversy in which current or former county government officials and a prominent Mahoning Valley businessman faced state criminal charges stemming from the relocation of the Job and Family Services agency from the Cafaro-Co.-owned Garland Plaza to the county-owned Oakhill Renaissance Place, the former South Side Medical Center.
The charges were ultimately dropped but not because the special prosecutors concluded they did not have a strong case.
The charges can be filed again, but Betras has been quick to denigrate the entire investigation and to suggest the state had overreached.
Likewise, his reaction — or lack thereof — to the arrest/unarrest of county Auditor Michael Sciortino on a potential drunken-driving charge has taken on a “see-no-evil” appearance. It is noteworthy that Sciortino was one of the defendants in the Oakhill Renaissance case.
The chairman insists that the intervention of a sheriff’s office commander, Thomas Assion, on behalf of Sciortino was a one-off and does not reflect standard operating procedure under Sheriff Jerry Greene.
Assion, who admitted that he intervened in the arrest because Sciortino is his friend, has been demoted to his previous rank of sergeant. It represents a $19,000 cut in salary.
Assion, who suggested to the arresting officer, Sgt. James Touville, that he not arrest Sciortino for drunken driving and instead cite him for a lane violation, is being investigated by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
The commander drove Sciortino home in the auditor’s car, thus saving his friend from what could have been a DUI conviction. Sciortino had failed the initial field-sobriety test.
Officer of the court
The county auditor is a lawyer, and Betras was asked whether, as an officer of the court, Sciortino had a responsibility to reject Assion’s intervention and insist that the arrest be completed.
The Democratic Party chairman dismissed the question as ridiculous.
In Betras’ world, doing a special favor for a friend who also is an elected official does not rise to the level of political misconduct.
That’s the same attitude evident in the Oakhill Renaissance Place case, with public officials going beyond the call of duty for Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., who was president of the Cafaro Co. at the time of the JFS relocation.
Cafaro sought to stop county commissioners from buying the former South Side hospital.
Betras’ cavalier attitude toward Oakhill Renaissance and the Sciortino scandals does not bode well for the party.
If the chairman isn’t willing to come down hard on individuals who aren’t playing by the rules, it won’t be long before the Democratic Party returns to its corrupt roots.