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By David Skolnick
While endorsing his longtime friend Anthony Donofrio for the 7th District Court of Appeals, Mahoning County Sheriff Jerry Greene sharply criticized David Engler, the other candidate in the race, saying he appears to be using the tragic death of a boy for political gain.
Engler, a member of the county educational service center board and former county commissioner, fired back — calling Greene’s comments “reprehensible, tasteless and an unnecessary personal attack.”
It’s the latest flare-up in what’s been an aggressive campaign run by Engler, who’s questioned the qualifications of Donofrio to serve as an appeals judge while having to defend some of his actions.
The Democratic primary isn’t until May 6, but Engler and Donofrio are seeking the important endorsement of the county Democratic Party’s central and executive committees today at St. Luke Parish Hall in Boardman. The endorsement meeting starts at 11 a.m.
“Outside of one race, every endorsed candidate has won the primary,” said county Democratic Chairman David Betras. “Getting the endorsement is very important, and it allows those receiving it to get reduced mailing [costs] and the infrastructure of the party. That includes a headquarters, phones, computers and access to voter technology.”
Engler and Donofrio, Youngstown deputy law director, are vying for an open seat on the court currently held by Judge Joseph J. Vukovich, who isn’t seeking re-election. The primary winner faces Judge Carol Ann Robb of Columbiana County Municipal Court, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary.
Greene and county Engineer Patrick T. Ginnetti, both in office for a little over a year and whose campaigns were greatly helped by the party’s endorsement, sent letters to members of the two county Democratic committees urging they vote for Donofrio.
Greene called Donofrio “a man of honesty and integrity.” Ginnetti wrote that in recent years he’s gotten to know Donofrio “very well and [has] gained a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
Donofrio said he was pleased to get the support of the two officeholders.
Although Ginnetti said he doesn’t know Engler and has never spoken with him, Greene had a lot to say about the candidate.
“I think Engler’s style of running for office is inappropriate,” Greene said. “It certainly looks awfully questionable how he used that boy as a political platform. He should be ashamed of himself for using that young boy’s death for politics.”
Greene is referring to a Wednesday news conference Engler had with Shawn Tedesco to talk about a lawsuit the Sharon, Pa., man filed against the Mahoning County Children Services Board over the death of his 14-year-old son, Teddy Foltz, in Struthers on Jan. 26, 2013. Teddy was beaten to death by Zaryl Bush, his mother’s ex-boyfriend. Teddy’s mother, Shain Widdersheim, was convicted in connection with the death of her son, as was Bush.
Engler said Greene’s comments are “shameless and so distasteful to me.” Engler said he’s “an advocate for victims. The most important thing to me is justice for my clients. I have a long history of defending innocent children.”
Engler said the court filings weren’t political, but added that Tedesco would be at today’s endorsement meeting.
When asked how that isn’t political, Engler only said, “You’ll have to see” at the meeting.
Engler acknowledges mistakes were made, of which he took responsibility, in the $3 million lawsuit he filed on behalf of Teddy against the county children services board contending the agency failed to properly investigate the ongoing abuse that led to the boy’s death.
Engler said his office filed the lawsuit in October 2013 but failed to pay the full filing fee. The court rejected the case because of the money shortfall, and Engler said someone in his office, who was terminated for different issues, didn’t tell him about the problem.
Engler said he only realized it Wednesday after members of the media couldn’t find the lawsuit. He then filed the lawsuit as well as applications for authority to administer Teddy’s estate — which has no value but allows a suit to proceed — on behalf of Tedesco and a short time later for himself.
Probate Court Judge Mark Belinky cited state law in not permitting Tedesco to serve as the estate’s administrator because only in-state residents can have that responsibility. In the same decision, the judge permitted Engler to handle the estate.
Children services officials have declined to comment on the litigation.
Engler has questioned Donofrio’s objectivity because his opponent’s brother, Gene, already serves on the court. Donofrio said there’s nothing inappropriate about that.
Engler also has tax problems, with $161,616 in liens filed by the IRS on his property. Engler has said the figure is closer to $50,000 to $60,000. Ginnetti, who supports Donofrio, has a $27,687 federal tax lien on his home since 2010 for unpaid taxes in 2005.
While this race is drawing the most interest, the party also will vote on endorsements in the other 7th District Court of Appeals primary as well as for county commissioner, probate court judge and the 58th Ohio House District representative.
John Stephen Luchansky isn’t seeking the party’s endorsement in his bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan in the 13th Congressional District primary, so the incumbent will get the endorsement.
Also, Gregory D. Howard, who is running against former state Rep. Jennifer Garrison in the 6th Congressional District, failed to submit a letter of interest by the deadline and Garrison will get the party’s endorsement, Betras said.
Democrats running unopposed for other positions will be endorsed by acclimation by the party, Betras said.
Sharen Neuhardt, the lieutenant governor running mate of Democrat Ed FitzGerald, also will speak at today’s meeting.