There’s a cautionary tale from Mark Belinky’s fall from judicial grace: a politician who has larceny in his heart shouldn’t present himself as a paragon of virtue.
Former Mahoning County Probate Judge Belinky, the self-aggrandizing slayer of corrupt officeholders and other public employees, is today a convict. His guilty plea for campaign-finance violations may not rise to the level of the crimes committed by the likes of former Congressman James A. Traficant Jr., but that’s not what this case is about.
There was a time when Belinky, whose father was coroner in Mahoning County, sought to save us from the region’s political miasma. He preached honesty, trust and fidelity, and insisted that we face our demons. He spoke, and people listened; he wrote (on the web), and people read. His quixotic campaign endeared him to many Mahoning County residents, especially those not directly involved in the Democratic Party.
But from the outset it was clear that Belinky had a blind spot. While he was making his political bones berating officeholders and others who violated the public’s trust, he reacted with vitriolic indignation when he was challenged by this writer to include his father, the late Dr. Nate Belinky, in his list of villains.
He took great exception to this writer’s even mentioning his dead father and sought to have the owners of the newspaper take action.
But the fact remained that Dr. Belinky, who had served for many years as county coroner, contributed to this region’s reputation as a haven of corruption through his criminal behavior.
But rather than calling Belinky, the lawyer, out for the double-standard, there were those in this community who rose to his defense. He was hailed as a loving son.
Heartened by this show of support, Belinky kept up his anti-corruption campaign through a political organization he formed to serve as the watchdog of politics and an antidote for the county Democratic Party. He made a bid for chairman of the county party and lost, and ran for county commissioner — and lost.
He then set his sights on the Mahoning County probate judgeship vacated by Judge Timothy Maloney, securing the appointment of then-Gov. Ted Strickland.
Belinky’s credentials to preside over the probate court were impeccable; his character — it turns out — not so.
A mistake in politics is when someone does something because he doesn’t know better; a crime in politics is when someone does something that he knows to be against the law. Mark Belinky committed a crime when he failed to report thousands of dollars in campaign contributions — as required by law.
So when he stood Wednesday before Visiting Judge Ronald Suster in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court and said he was “ashamed of what’s happened to me,” it wasn’t really a mea culpa. It was more a plea for sympathy.
The fact of the matter is that Belinky used his public office in much the same way as those he had been so quick to condemn when he was on his high horse.
If he said it once, in those heady days, he said it a thousand times: Public officials must be held to a higher standard than the man on the street.
Government corruption probe
Belinky has avoided prison time because he supposedly is cooperating with state investigators and the FBI in their ongoing probe of government corruption in Mahoning County.
Why supposedly? Because like other such cases, including that of Lisa Antonini, former chairwoman of the county Democratic Party who went to prison for five months after she pleaded guilty to taking a $3,000 bribe from prominent businessman Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., the public is kept in the dark as to what information is being shared.
We’re expected to trust that these crooked politicians are so important to the investigations that they’ve earned a tap on the wrist.
There’s talk that many of the roads in the probe lead to Cafaro and that Belinky, Antonini and others are featured in the 2,000 hours of FBI surveillance of the retired president of the Cafaro Co., a leading shopping center developer.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is said to have listened to the tapes and/or read the transcripts, which is why he reopened the so-called Oakhill Renaissance Place conspiracy case.