In his five years as chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, David Betras has mastered the art of the political dodge — in dealing with the unending scandals involving members of his party. Betras has learned to weigh his words carefully, as he did when former county Treasurer Lisa Antonini, who had also served as party chair, pleaded guilty to accepting a $3,000 bribe.
Not only was Antonini considered a good and faithful Democrat, but the individual who bribed her has been a long-time good and faithful financial supporter of the Democratic Party. And, Anthony M. Cafaro Sr. is a prominent businessman in the Mahoning Valley.
So, when Antonini went off to federal prison for two months after her conviction in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, Betras was anything but judgmental. In fact, he expressed sympathy for the former chairwoman.
As for Cafaro, his name barely passed Betras’ lips insofar as his corruption of government was concerned.
Likewise, the party chairman rose up in support of county Auditor Michael Sciortino, another good and faithful Democrat, whose brush with the law prompted an independent investigation.
Sciortino had been arrested and then unarrested on a potential drunken-driving charge but rather than condemn the officeholder and drum him out of the party, Betras contended that the intervention of a sheriff’s office commander, Thomas Assion, on behalf of Sciortino was just a show of friendship.
It should be noted that the party chairman is a criminal lawyer.
At the scene of the DUI stop, Assion suggested to the arresting officer, Sgt. James Touville, that he not arrest Sciortino for drunken driving, and instead cite him for a lane violation. The commander drove Sciortino home in the auditor’s car, thus saving his friend from what could have been a DUI conviction. Sciortino had failed the initial field-sobriety test.
The county auditor is a lawyer, and Betras was asked whether, as an officer of the court, Sciortino had a responsibility to reject Assion’s intervention and insist that the arrest be completed.
The Democratic Party chairman dismissed the question as ridiculous.
But last week, lo and behold, Betras had a “Come To Jesus” (CTJ) moment. The reason for his rhetorical indignation was former Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone’s $4,000 campaign contribution — in cash — to DeMaine Kitchen, an independent candidate for mayor in last November’s general election.
Kitchen, a Democrat, had the temerity to run against the Democratic Party’s nominee for mayor, John A. McNally.
“It is quite simply undeniable that the transfer of cash from donors to candidates carries with it the stench of corruption, influence-peddling and back-room dealing that has plagued our community for far too long,” Betras said of the Sammarone- Kitchen cash transaction.
But the chairman didn’t stop there. He called on members of the Valley’s state legislative delegation to amend current law to make cash contributions of more than $100 a first-degree misdemeanor.
Those found guilty would be fined up to $10,000 and be required to forfeit the nomination or the office to which the offender was elected, or both.
But as Betras was pontificating about the series of campaign-finance violations involving cash that undermine the “public’s trust in both our electoral system and local government,” this question came to mind: Would the chairman have been as put out had Sammarone given the $4,000 in cash to McNally, the Democratic nominee?
The contribution would have made the former mayor a good and faithful Democrat, right?
The problem Betras has is one of perception. Will he dump his new-found religion the next time a Democrat in good standing ends up in trouble with the law.
Betras knows that government corruption does not occur in a vacuum. To be sure, there are officeholders and other public employees who are willing to sell their souls for so many nickles (they do come cheap in the Valley.) But, the buyers of those souls are just as guilty. Whither Chairman Betras?
*Come To Jesus