Mahoning Dem chairman wants a state investigation into an improper cash contribution

By David Skolnick


David Betras, Mahoning County Board of Elections vice chairman and head of the county’s Democratic Party, is asking the Ohio Elections Commission to investigate an improper cash campaign contribution from former Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone to failed candidate DeMaine Kitchen.

“In light of both the serious nature of these violations and Mahoning County’s well- documented reputation for public corruption — a reputation that honest officeholders and law-enforcement officials have worked hard to erase — I am writing to you today to respectfully request that the OEC give this matter its full attention and undertake an investigation that will bring to light all the facts surrounding this deeply troubling situation,” Betras wrote in a letter to Philip C. Richter, OEC executive director.

Betras first said on April 8 he would write a letter to the commission about the contribution.

The commission is expected to have a hearing June 26 to discuss a complaint filed by the county elections board about the contribution from Sammarone and why Kitchen, who served as Sammarone’s chief of staff/secretary, filed his report almost three months past the deadline.

Kitchen’s post-general-election campaign-finance report listed a $4,000 cash contribution from Sammarone. State law doesn’t permit cash contributions to exceed $100.

Kitchen, who ran in November as an independent candidate for Youngstown mayor, filed the report March 4 when it was due no later than Dec. 13, 2013. The report shows the $4,000 contribution from Sammarone, a Democrat who is now city council president, was given Oct. 27, about a week before the election.

The day after the board of elections filed a complaint with the OEC, Kitchen amended the report April 1. It showed he lent $1,500 to his campaign and used $1,000 left in his account to refund $2,500 of the improper $3,900 cash contribution to Sammarone. He listed the remaining $1,400 as outstanding debt to Sammarone and wrote in a statement that he intends to pay the rest “as soon as he can afford it.”

Kitchen also wrote the amended report “should put an end to the issue.”

But there’s still the OEC hearing.

Sammarone repeatedly has said he should have known the law on cash contributions better and will do whatever is necessary to rectify the situation.

Bryan Ridder, an attorney representing Sammarone and the former mayor’s son, Christopher, a county probate court judicial candidate, has called Betras’ complaints about the contribution “another nefarious attack to sully the Sammarone name.”

Christopher Sammarone, who is running for the seat against Susan Maruca, the party’s endorsed candidate, has said the contribution was inappropriate, but “the purpose [of the complaint] is to gain some advantage in this [probate] race.”

Betras has denied that.

In the letter to Richter, Betras wrote: “This is an extremely serious matter that undoubtedly undermines the public’s faith in our electoral and political systems.” He urged Richter to subpoena Sammarone and Kitchen, put them under oath, and ask them to explain their actions.

Attached to Betras’ letter is a March 16 editorial from The Vindicator that questions the contribution.

The commission could fine a candidate up to three times the amount that exceeds the maximum cash-contribution limit, but that isn’t likely for a first-time offender, Richter has said.

The commission doesn’t have the authority to compel a candidate to refund the money to the donor. But if it believes there was criminal wrongdoing, it can turn the matter over to a county prosecutor.

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