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Feds won’t get a pass on probe

Published: Sun, March 10, 2013 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)

In response to this writer’s December column urging the FBI and federal prosecutors to clean up the “cesspool” of government corruption in the Mahoning Valley, a member of the criminal justice community called with a reassuring comment: “Something is going to happen in March.”

The clock is ticking.

However, if there are no indictments in the next three weeks, and if former Mahoning County Treasurer Lisa Antonini gets a tap on the wrist from federal Judge Sara Lioi, the message will be clear: Crime pays in the Valley.

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland should know that honest residents aren’t going to settle for vague explanations or a refusal to release important documents that would shed light on the cesspool.

In a previous government corruption investigation, officeholders went to prison for accepting bribes. Unfortunately, nothing happened to the individuals who paid the bribes.

But that wasn’t all. The FBI and federal prosecutors refused to make public the names of the bribe-payers, many of whom are still among us.

Positions of power

As has been noted in this space on numerous occasions, the corruption of government officials does not occur in a vacuum. To be sure, this region has had more than its share of greedy, immoral officeholders, but it also has too many residents in positions of power and influence who believe government exists to satisfy their craven desires.

That’s why the current investigation of public corruption will not die — even if the feds call it quits.

For one thing, there’s the matter of Antonini, the former county treasurer and chairwoman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, who has pleaded guilty in federal court to taking money from a prominent businessman and not declaring it. The feds have not identified the businessman, but court documents show it is Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., retired president of the Cafaro Co.

Judge Lioi has put off sentencing Antonini and has indicated the former Democratic Party leader will be treated leniently if she cooperates fully with federal, state or local investigations or prosecutions.

That was a year and nine months ago. Antonini either has provided a boatload of information that will result in wholesale prosecutions, or she has been given a pass.

Let us not forget that the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Cleveland are sitting on 2,000 hours of wiretaps and other audio and visual surveillance of individuals in and out of county government. One of the targets of the surveillance is said to be Cafaro.

The feds have revealed that the information gleaned from their investigation has a bearing on the state of Ohio’s criminal case against Cafaro, Mahoning County Commissioner John A. McNally IV, county Auditor Michael Sciortino, former Treasurer John Reardon and former director of the county Job and Family Services, John Zachariah.

Because the federal government would not provide the information in its possession to the special prosecutors and defense lawyers, the state dropped the criminal charges against Cafaro et al. The charges can be refiled at a later date.

Political battle

The state’s case was triggered by the political battle over the relocation of the Job and Family Services offices from the Cafaro Co.-owned McGuffey Mall to the county-owned Oakhill Renaissance Place (the former South Side Medical Center.) Two of the three commissioners voted to move JFS, but McNally did not. Instead, he joined other county officials in opposition.

Unless the federal government files its own charges against Cafaro and the others, the special prosecutors in the state case would be well within their rights to demand the surveillance material.

As was noted recently, there are reports of a special federal grand jury in Cleveland looking into government corruption in Mahoning County.

Nonetheless, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine should make it clear to U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach that if the federal government does not bring charges against anyone, he would expect the transcripts and other documents relating to the 2,000 hours of surveillance to be turned over to him.

DeWine should use the information as the basis for refiling the charges in the JFS/Oakhill Renaissance case. That way, the public will have access to what the feds uncovered.

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