Cash contribution of $4,000 puts Sammarone on hot seat; independent probe warranted

Although DeMaine Kitchen, who ran last year for mayor of Youngstown as an independent, filed a campaign finance report showing a $4,000 cash contri-bution from then Mayor Charles Sammarone, the filing was three months late.

And, although Sammarone, a veteran of Youngstown politics, says he doesn’t know why he gave Kitchen, his former chief of staff/secretary, cash instead of a check, the fact remains he broke the law.

Indeed, Kitchen also violated the state campaign finance law by accepting the $4,000 in cash. The most an individual can give and a candidate can take in cash is $100.

Thus, the question: In light of such a serious violation, is it enough to require Kitchen to refund $3,900 to Sammarone, as the Mahoning County Board of Elections has done?

We think not.

The board has given the unsuccessful candidate for mayor three weeks to return the money to the former mayor and currently president of Youngstown City Council — a position he held before becoming mayor.

State commission

If Kitchen ignores the board of election’s order, the matter will be referred to the Ohio Elections Commission.

But if the board’s handling of the case seems overly passive, consider what the commission’s executive director, Philip C. Richter, had to say: A candidate could be fined up to three times the amount that exceeds the maximum cash contribution limit, but if he’s a first-time offender, the fine — $11,700 in Kitchen’s case — isn’t likely to be imposed.

Richter also noted that the commission does not have the authority to compel a recipient to refund the money to the donor.

It’s obvious that the campaign-finance law has no teeth, which is why Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras is pushing for legislation that would dissuade individuals from giving cash to political candidates in Ohio.

Betras said in a letter to members of the area’s legislative delegation that the transfer of cash from donors to candidates carries with it the “stench of corruption, influence-peddling and back-room dealing that have plagued our community for far too long.”

The chairman wants to make the acceptance of cash contributions of more than $100 a first-degree misdemeanor.

That’s all well and good, but the case involving Sammarone and Kitchen justifies a fuller investigation.

Under oath

We believe the state elections commission should subpoena the former mayor and his former chief of staff and question them under oath about the financial transaction.

There are numerous questions that demand answers, among them:

Why did Sammarone choose to give such a large contribution in cash, and why did Kitchen accept it?

Where did the money come from? (Betras has made much of the fact that $4,000 in cash is a significant amount of money to give to a candidate for local office.)

Where did the transaction take place? (If it occurred in City Hall, there certainly would be other election-related issues that could come into play.)

What prompted Kitchen to ultimately decide to make the cash contribution public through his campaign finance report?

Why did the independent candidate for mayor not report the contribution by the statutory deadline?

Why is Kitchen not returning calls from this newspaper seeking comment? (He certainly wasn’t shy about talking to our reporters when he was running for mayor last fall.)

The Sammarone-Kitchen transaction isn’t simply a case of a first-time candidate accepting money from someone unfamiliar with the political process and election laws.

Kitchen had previously served as a member of council, while Sammarone has been a city councilman, council president, and mayor for two years and three months.

This newspaper has long supported Sammarone because of his straight talk and his refusal to win public office at any cost. We were impressed with the way he performed his duties as mayor and had hoped he would seek a full four-year term.

But his exemplary record in office does not negate the fact that Sammarone crossed the legal line when he gave cash to Kitchen. Thus, our call for an investigation by the state.

Over the years, we have urged the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland, the FBI, the Ohio attorney general and the Ohio secretary of state to investigate allegations of political corruption in the Mahoning Valley and to pursue criminal charges.

We did so in Oakhill Renaissance Place scandal that involved several county officeholders, and most recently in the drunken-driving traffic stop of county Auditor Michael Sciortino.

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