If you’re an officeholder whose lips are firmly planted on the derriere of someone with the means — and the desire — to buy your loyalty, you had better extricate yourself post-haste. Otherwise, you could get caught in the federal dragnet.
Public corruption in the Mahoning Valley is once again on the radar screens of the FBI and U.S. Attorneys Office — just as it was 15 years ago when 70 of the Mahoning Valley’s “movers and shakers,” including mobsters, judges, a prosecutor, a sheriff and other politicians were convicted.
The convictions came on the heels of the federal government’s crackdown on government corruption and organized crime in the Valley. At the top of the list was Mafia boss Lenine “Lenny” Strollo, who got a break on his sentence after he agreed to assist the feds in their national probe of La Cosa Nostra. He also agreed to cooperate in any federal, state and local investigations and prosecutions.
The list included Phil Chance, the former sheriff of Mahoning County; the late James Philomena, former county prosecutor; and Patrick Kerrigan, former Youngstown Municipal Court judge.
If the deal struck by mob boss Strollo sounds familiar, it’s because Lisa Antonini, former Mahoning County treasurer and ex-county Democratic Party chairwoman, has made a similar arrangement with the U.S. Attorneys Office in Cleveland. In return, Antonini will spend five months in prison for taking a $3,000 bribe from Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., retired president of the Cafaro Co.
Quid pro quo
As county treasurer, she had promised to support Cafaro’s interests and take action on his behalf.
So, how do we know that the former party chairwoman is providing a road map of government corruption to the federal government?
Because the assistant U.S. attorney in her case told U.S. District Court Judge Sara Lioi that Antonini had been extremely cooperative over the two years since she pleaded guilty to one felony count of honest-services mail fraud — bribery in everyday lingo.
And, because Antonini confirmed that cooperation when she addressed Judge Lioi prior to her sentencing.
“I let myself, my family and the community down. I was afforded a great opportunity, and I blew it. I am sorry, and hope in some way, standing here and trying to cooperate makes amends for wrongs I have done.”
Yes, Antonini, who during her tenure as head of the county Democratic Party hobnobbed with the rich, the famous and the slimy, is singing like a canary.
She not only has inside information of how money, the root of all political evil in the Mahoning Valley, flows to candidates and officeholders, but also has had a front-row seat to the operation of county government.
The information she provided to the feds must be of great importance to the FBI’s continuing investigation of government corruption in the Valley, or else she would be heading off to prison for much longer than five months.
But while the hearing last week has put the sources of corruption on notice that the noose is being tightened, law-abiding residents are understandably cynical about those who have wielded power for so long in the region ever being brought to justice.
Judge Lioi, in comments not only in the Antonini case, but in other cases, including that of former Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge Maureen Cronin, has made it clear that the public trust is sacred. She has little patience with officeholders and other officials who have broken that trust.
She now needs to demonstrate that individuals who have no qualms about using their power and wealth to buy influence in government are treated just as harshly.
For too long, the region has seen corrupt public officials being carted off to prison or jail but nothing being done to those who have been the corrupters of government.
As long as there isn’t a price to pay for bribing an elected official, bribery will continue to be a part of the Valley’s political landscape.
Last week’s sentencing of Antonini should open the door to an all-out campaign by the feds to rid the region of the corrupters of government.
Thus, a word of advice to officeholders whose lips are firmly planted on the backsides of the men of power and might: Stop kissing and start talking — to the FBI. It’s your only hope.