To understand why any lawyer in Mahoning County would continue to support Mark Belinky, who recently resigned as probate judge in the midst of a state criminal investigation of him, you need to travel back in time, to the late 1990s when the Valley was attracting national attention because of widespread government corruption. This is how the New York Times portrayed what was going on:
“The specter of corrupted officials perennially vowing to root out corruption in this Mahoning Valley city [Youngstown] prompted a bleak warning in 1997 from Thomas Moyer, the chief justice of the State Supreme Court: ‘The citizens of Mahoning County have reason to question whether the legal system is working for them.’”
The legal system wasn’t working for the people then, and, unfortunately, isn’t working for the people today.
The criminal justice system is so incestuous that a judge like Belinky who, at the very least, is a tax scofflaw, is given a pass by a vast majority of the members of the legal community. There was no demand by the bar association, other judges or lawyers that he step down when reports surfaced of his nonpayment of taxes. There was no roar of condemnation of the probate judge when state agents from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, with the assistance of the FBI and the sheriff’s department, raided his office in the courthouse and his home in Boardman and carted off boxes of documents, various other articles and computers.
Pattern of corrupt activity
Most telling, there was no demand for his resignation after court documents showed that he could be charged with engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, tampering with records, bribery, money laundering, theft and theft in office.
Belinky ultimately resigned — on his own terms. He insisted that he had done nothing wrong and was hanging up his robes for the good of the community. Baloney? Not if the Mahoning County Bar Association’s evaluation of judicial candidates in this year’s election is a reflection of the public’s attitude.
The judicial evaluation by members of the bar was conducted in late February — after the raid on Belinky’s office and home. The embattled judge received a “recommended” rating. Go figure. Or, better yet, go and read what FBI Special Agent Robert Kroner, the bane of organized crime’s existence in the Mahoning Valley, told New Republic magazine in 2000:
“We’re a part of this community like everyone else. We suffer the same problems if we live in a corrupt town.”
The writer, David Grann, then described what happened next in his interview with Kroner:
“He [Kroner] pauses for a moment, perhaps because he can’t think of anything to say or perhaps because he’s not able to talk about the expected Traficant indictment or perhaps because he realizes that, after 25 years in the Mahoning Valley, he’s done all he can do. ‘As long as they choose to put people in office who are corrupt,’ he says, ‘nothing will ever change.’”
Kroner has since retired. James A. Traficant Jr. spent about eight years in federal prison after being convicted of 10 criminal charges, including racketeering, bribery and tax evasion. The charges stemmed from his tenure as the 17th District congressman.
The New Republic article was headlined, “Crimetown USA.”
In the Mahoning Valley, political history repeats itself.
After Traficant, there was the conviction of Common Pleas Court Judge Maureen Cronin and county Treasurer Lisa Antonini. Now, there’s the saga of Belinky — and whoever else he implicates. There are rumblings that a whole bunch of lawyers and, perhaps, even a judge, could get caught in the government-corruption dragnet.
It has been said in this space many times that government corruption is in the Mahoning Valley’s DNA.
But if you’re still not convinced that our history will keep repeating itself, consider this entry in Friday’s Years Ago column:
“1964: Youngstown City Council President Joseph E. O’Neill and racketeer Joey Naples return from Washington, D.C., after O’Neill, a lawyer, helped Naples retain Washington legal counsel for Naples’ appeal of two felony convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
O’Neill was ultimately elected to serve on the 7th District Court of Appeals.
The late judge is Belinky’s father-in-law.