By the time Lisa Antonini, former Mahoning County treasurer and ex-county Democratic Party chairwoman, stands before U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi to receive her sentence, two years and five months will have passed since she pleaded guilty to taking money from a prominent Mahoning Valley businessman and not declaring it — a felony crime. Why wasn’t Antonini carted off to prison immediately after her conviction in June 2011? Because the mediocre county treasurer and inept party chairwoman suddenly became one of the most important players in the federal government’s investigation of public corruption in the Valley. At least that’s the impression left by the judge when she agreed to postpone sentencing. Lioi told Antonini that she would be treated leniently if she cooperated fully with federal, state and local investigations or prosecutions.
Twenty-nine months is a long time to avoid judgment day, which means Antonini has either been a more valuable government informant than even former Valley Mafia boss Lenine Strollo, who avoided life imprisonment by becoming a government snitch, or she has been party to one of the greatest criminal-justice scams perpetrated by the court and the U.S. attorney’s office in Cleveland.
The demeanor and attitude of Judge Lioi and federal prosecutors Nov. 13 in U.S. District Court in Akron will shed a lot of light on how seriously they’re taking this case or other cases of government corruption in the Valley.
If the judge decides that Antonini has earned her freedom, then she or the U.S. attorneys have a responsibility to the public to reveal the information provided by the defendant.
To be sure, federal judges, prosecutors and the FBI consider themselves more powerful than God and are, therefore, answerable to no one. That said, Judge Lioi and the others must know that their credibility is on the line.
There already are rumblings that the prominent businessman who gave Antonini $3,000 in cash — supposedly for her campaign for treasurer in 2008 — has friends in high places.
While the feds have not identified him, court documents show it’s Anthony Cafaro Sr., retired president of the Cafaro Co.
Indeed, 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 Mahoning County government. One target is said to be Cafaro.
It is instructive that FBI agents revealed that the information gleaned from their investigation has a bearing on Ohio’s criminal case against Cafaro; former Mahoning County Commissioner John A. McNally IV, Democratic nominee for Youngstown mayor; county Auditor Michael Sciortino; former Treasurer John Reardon; and former director of the county Job and Family Services agency John Zachariah.
Because the feds would not provide the information in their possession to the special state prosecutors and defense lawyers in the so-called Oakhill Renaissance Place case, the criminal charges against Cafaro et al were dropped. The charges can be refiled.
The state’s case was triggered by the political battle over the relocation of the JFS offices from the Cafaro-owned McGuffey Mall to the county-owned Oakhill Renaissance, the former South Side Medical Center. McNally voted against moving JFS, while the other two commissioners at the time, David Ludt and Anthony Traficanti, voted for the relocation.
The criminal charges filed against Cafaro and the others include racketeering.
So, when Antonini appears before Judge Lioi on Nov. 13, what transpires in the court will not only be about a grubby-fingered former public official. The public corruption culture of the Mahoning Valley will be in the spotlight.
Without the intervention of the federal and state criminal justice systems, this region’s politics will continue to be a “cesspool” — the word used in 1963 by the Saturday Evening Post to describe the Youngstown area’s politics.
And yet, a decade ago 70 individuals, including a sheriff, a prosecutor, judges, other officeholders and mobsters were nabbed in a federal crackdown.
The imprisonment of former Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. for using his public position for personal gain has come to define us.
Judge Lioi cannot be blind to this reality. She, along with federal prosecutors, must strike a blow for honest government in the Mahoning Valley.