Cafaro on FBI radar

It was a revelation heard round the world. OK, maybe not the world, but certainly heard round the Mahoning Valley – and perhaps even the state of Ohio.

But more than that, the revelation had the effect of warming the cockles of this writer’s despairing heart.

Why the despair? Because it appeared that the mastermind of the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal enterprise was getting away scot-free.

To be sure, some of the participants in the conspiracy, most notably Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally and former Mahoning County Auditor Michael Sciortino, have been convicted. They will be sentenced Monday.

But it seemed that Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., the retired president of the Cafaro Co., was prescient when he told anyone who would listen that he was not in legal jeopardy.

Cafaro insists that he had nothing but altruism in his heart when he rounded up a bunch of county government officials to help him block the purchase of Oak-hill Renaissance Place – the former Southside Medical Center – by the county. McNally was a county commissioner at the time and opposed his colleagues, Anthony Traficanti and David Ludt, in the purchase.

The transaction occurred, and the complex became the home of the county Job and Family Services agency and other government operations. JFS had been renting space from the Cafaro Co.-owned Garland Plaza for many, many years.

That’s why “Mr. Big” – as Cafaro was labeled by a prosecutor in the just-concluded Oakhill-related trial of Youngstown Atty. Martin Yavorcik – wanted to kill the deal.

While he didn’t succeed, it appeared that he was Teflon when it came to being brought to justice.

The revelation

But last week, during court action in the case against Yavorcik, who received money from members of the Cafaro family to run for county prosecutor against incumbent Paul Gains, it was revealed that Anthony M. Cafaro Sr. remains a target of the investigation. Cafaro blames Gains for the Oakhill probe that was undertaken by the state and the FBI.

Yarvorcik, who was found guilty on eight counts, had this exchange with veteran FBI Special Agent Deane Hassman during Hassman’s testimony.

Yavorcik: “It’s 2016, and you’re still investigating Anthony Cafaro?”

Hassman: “Indeed, I am. I’m seeking people’s cooperation in that investigation.”

The federal agent, who has been involved in numerous probes of government corruption in the Mahoning Valley during his long tenure in the Youngstown office, testified that he is a member of “Operation Restore Faith.” It’s a law-enforcement program that investigates public corruption in Mahoning, Trumbull, Cuyahoga and Franklin counties. His focus is on Mahoning and Trumbull counties, which have produced an extensive list of corrupt public officials.

There also is a list of unindicted co-conspirators in the Oakhill Renaissance enterprise. They would be well advised to reach out to the federal government and offer their cooperation in the ongoing investigation.

After all, we now know the FBI’s ultimate target is “Mr. Big.” Cafaro also was described as a “puppet master,” a characterization this writer has used to refer to the mastermind of the conspiracy.

But it isn’t just the man pulling the strings who should be forced to answer for the corruption that has permeated the region for generations.

The FBI and state law- enforcement agencies have spent an inordinate amount to time trying to rid the Valley of the scourge of public corruption.

While the late Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. tops the list, we should not forget that between the late 1990s and early 2000, there were 70 Mahoning Valley residents who were convicted of involvement in government corruption and organized crime.

Among them, Mafia boss Lenine “Lenny” Strollo, other mobsters, the late Mahoning County Prosecutor James Philomena, former county Sheriff Phil Chance and judges.

More recently, former Judge Maureen Cronin and ex-Trumbull County Commissioner James Tsagaris went to prison for misusing their public positions. J.J. Cafaro, the retired executive vice president of the Cafaro Co. and Anthony’s brother, was convicted of corrupting government but avoided time behind bars.

But the conviction of Mafia boss Strollo was truly revealing. He pleaded guilty to heading the most successful organized-crime syndicate in the history of the Mahoning Valley. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, rather than life, because he agreed to become a government witness.

Strollo was indicted in 1997 of RICO violations of aggravated murder, casino-style gambling and numbers lottery.

The murder charge stemmed from his ordering a hit on mob rival Ernie Biondillo Jr. in June 1996. Strollo also was charged in state court for the attempted murder of then Prosecutor-elect Gains, who had defeated Philomena in the Democratic primary.

The Mafia believed that with Gains out of the way, Philomena would be appointed to his old job and thus would protect organized crime’s interests.

There a reason we should not ignore that history: It shows just how deeply rooted public corruption has been in the Mahoning Valley.

The Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy is just the latest manifestation.

So, when FBI Special Agent Hassman says he needs “people’s cooperation” in his investigation of Cafaro, the underlying message is this: Don’t let a rich, politically powerful individual intimidate you. Being silent simply emboldens those who have no qualms about corrupting government officials.

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