Judge Mark Belinky said he was disappointed he had to resign his Mahoning County Probate Court judgeship.
Late Friday afternoon, the judge sent letters to both Gov. John Kasich and Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court announcing his resignation.
Speculation about Belinky’s seat and his possible resignation began circulating earlier this week, and he has been under a cloud since Feb. 7, when agents from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation served warrants at his court office in Youngstown and his Boardman home with the assistance of the FBI and the county sheriff’s office.
Charges could include engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, tampering with records, bribery, money laundering, theft and theft in office, according to two search warrants.
No charges have been filed against Belinky.
When reached Friday night, Belinky said, “It’s disappointing, what I had to do,” but added he did “what I think is in the best interests of my family and myself.”
He added, “I was honored to help the thousands of people I helped at the probate court. I supervised over 25,000 cases.”
Belinky said that he had a “different style” from most judges in that he would sometimes work at the front counter, talking to average people coming into the office, not just attorneys.
“I tried to be as helpful as I could.”
To resign from the bench, Ohio law requires a judge to send letter to both the governor and the chief justice.
It’s been Kasich’s policy to ask county Republican parties for a list of three finalists when filling judicial vacancies after vetting candidates, and then almost always selecting a replacement from the recommendations, Rob Nichols, his spokesman, said earlier this week. Kasich is a Republican.
The term expires in January 2015.
Mark Munroe, county Republican Party chairman, said he talked with officials at the governor’s office Friday who confirmed that this is the process that will be followed to fill the probate vacancy.
“I hope we’ll get a good crop of attorneys who are interested in the appointment,” he said. He said he expected the two Democrats in the primary, attorneys Susan Maruca and Chris Sammarone, to apply, as well as others.
Dave Betras, county Democratic Party chairman, said in a brief statement that he was shocked to learn of Belinky’s resignation.
“As I said when news about the investigation broke, I have faith in the BCI, the FBI and the judicial system, which has clearly worked its course,” the statement says.
In a later interview, Betras said, “Something must have come up to give him great pause. One can only venture a guess.”
Betras said the focus now should be on making sure the court operates to the benefit of the county’s citizens. “There are people who rely on this court,” he said.
Munroe said the resignation is “another black eye for the Mahoning Valley.”
“It seems like there’s been nearly an endless list of officials who have gotten into difficulty over the past 30 years,” including other judges, Munroe said.
“It contributes to public cynicism about public service,” he added. One thing that would reduce the problem would be for the dominance of the Democratic party to give way to a true two-party system, Munroe said.
Belinky spent a final, quiet day in his role as probate judge and met with his staff.
He was pensive and introspective when he met with a Vindicator reporter, saying he had “a tough decision to make.”
The resignation letter reads: “Dear Governor Kasich: Please be advised that the undersigned is the Judge of the Mahoning County Probate Court. I hereby submit my resignation as Judge of the court effective this date.”
Munroe said earlier this week if Belinky, a Democrat, resigned the GOP would create a screening committee to vet candidates seeking to replace him and give Kasich a list of finalists. Under state law, the governor is responsible for filling judicial vacancies.
Belinky had been seeking re-election in the Democratic primary in May, facing Maruca and Sammarone. To decline to run for re-election, he must formally withdraw with the county board of elections as a candidate.
The judge lost the county Democratic Party endorsement Feb. 22 to Maruca. She garnered 110 votes to Sammarone’s 50 and 40 for Belinky.
Maruca said she was caught off guard by Belinky’s resignation.
“To me, it’s a very sad day,” she said. “I grew up in this county and we just had a judge resign suddenly. Nobody wins today. Everybody loses, and most of all the county loses today, truly.”
Sammarone said he was “somewhat surprised” at the news of his opponent’s resignation. Considering the recent news of search warrants issued for Belinky’s office and home, “you have to figure something was brewing.”
He said the resignation will help his campaign, since beating an incumbent is typically difficult. “I feel for Judge Belinky and his family,” Sammarone said. “It’s time to move on and [for me] to focus on my campaign.”
There is no Republican candidate for the seat, and it’s past the deadline for the party to have someone seek that position.
But, Munroe said earlier this week that there are some attorneys who might consider a run as an independent.
The filing deadline for independent candidates is May 5, the day before the primary.
According to paperwork filed with the court when the search warrants were returned, agents seized bank records, campaign finance reports, lists of campaign donors, computers and electronic media from Belinky’s probate court office.
During a search of his home, agents seized two computer towers, 39 CDs and DVDs, financial documents, campaign materials and an airline boarding pass, the documents said.
Belinky has denied any wrongdoing and vowed Feb. 22 that he would win the probate court race, acknowledging the investigation would make it a tough election. He was appointed to the bench in 2007 by then-Gov. Ted Strickland to finish out the term of his predecessor, Judge Timothy Maloney, who retired. He was elected to a full six-year term the following year.
Belinky has battled tax problems in the past. In 2011, the IRS placed a lien on his home for owing $32,000 in income taxes from 2008 and 2009.
The judge and his wife were put on a payment plan to pay the taxes. He said then that the tax problems were caused because of income he earned when he closed out his private law practice, where he was self-employed at the same time he began his career on the bench.
Belinky also had his paycheck garnished last year because of $20,000 he owed on a loan from 2008 plus more than $7,000 interest.
As probate judge, he made about $105,000 annually.
Contributors: Staff writers Denise Dick, Dave Skolnick, Joe Gorman, Kalea Hall and Ed Runyan.