By David Skolnick
Nearly a decade after the Oakhill Renaissance Place corruption investigation began, it is officially over – netting only a few convictions.
In a statement discussing the 56-count indictment against ex-Niles Mayor Ralph Infante, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said, “The Oakhill investigation has been completed, yielding significant successes.”
He added: “While some matters like Oak-hill are now done – and we anticipate no further indictments in Oakhill – we will continue to help local governments, when requested, investigate and prosecute wrongdoing.”
In response to DeWine’s statement, Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains, who initiated the investigation in 2007, said, “I have no comment. It’s out of my hands. I relinquished it way back. That’s why the attorney general’s office prosecuted the case. I’m glad they did what they did. We’ll see what happens up in Trumbull” County.
Prosecutors had contended there was a criminal enterprise created to illegally and unsuccessfully try to stop the purchase of Oak- hill, the former Forum Health Southside Medical Center, in 2006.
It was done, prosecutors alleged, to stop the county’s Department of Job and Family Services from relocating there from Garland Plaza, a building since demolished on Youngstown’s East Side, owned by a Cafaro Co. subsidiary.
The county was paying $449,000 annually in rent to Ohio Valley Mall, the Cafaro subsidiary, to house JFS.
Among the supposed big players in the Oakhill case, prosecutors alleged, were the Cafaro Co. and Anthony Cafaro Sr., its former president. Both were charged in a July 2010 case that was dismissed in July 2011.
Neither was charged in a second indictment unsealed in May 2014.
The Cafaro Co. is believed to be the unnamed “Business 2” in the Infante indictment, but won’t be charged with any wrongdoing.
“We were assured by the attorney general that we are not accused of any criminal activity,” said Joe Bell, Cafaro Co. spokesman. “We cooperated fully with the attorney general.”
The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation – which is run by the attorney general’s office – seized records from the Cafaro Co. on Dec. 4, 2015, in connection with the Infante investigation.
The records were related to Infante, who as chairman of Niles’ board of control, approved a waiver of at least $30,000 in fees for Cafaro Co. projects at its Eastwood Mall complex. Infante did so illegally as he didn’t have the authority to grant the waivers; that power rests with city council, according to Tuesday’s indictment.
But investigators couldn’t determine if the improper waivers were done with the knowledge of anyone at the Cafaro Co.
“They returned the records to us in the past day or so,” Bell said Tuesday.
Dan Tierney, an AG spokesman, said he couldn’t confirm the Cafaro Co. wouldn’t be indicted in the Infante case as the business isn’t named in the document.
“Generally, we wouldn’t rule out further charges of anyone while a case is ongoing,” he said.
But those with knowledge of the investigation say the company won’t face any charges.
As for Oakhill, three defendants indicted in the first case – Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally, a former Mahoning County commissioner; ex-Mahoning County Auditor Michael V. Sciortino; and Martin Yavorcik, a failed 2008 independent county prosecutor candidate – were indicted in May 2014 in Cuyahoga County.
McNally and Sciortino, both Democrats, took plea deals while a jury found Yavorcik guilty in March of eight felonies. A judge sentenced Yavorcik to five years’ probation with the first year on house arrest. He’s appealing the conviction.
Political consultant Harry Strabala, an FBI informant instrumental in the Oak-hill investigation, provided enough evidence to convict then-county Probate Court Judge Mark Belinky of tampering with records – sentenced to 60 days of house arrest – and then-state Rep. Ronald V. Gerberry of unlawful compensation of a public official – sentenced to a 180-day suspended jail sentence and three years of unsupervised probation.
“I can confirm our statement that we do not expect further people to be indicted” in the Oakhill case, Tierney said.
There is an outside chance, however, that a separate investigation started about 21/2 years ago in which Belinky admitted alleged other crimes could result in additional charges.
“We’re still looking into Belinky for the other matter,” Tierney said.
Belinky admitted in July 2014 he stole “money from people that he was a guardian over and further has admitted to altering probate court documents to further such theft and has further admitted to using a Mahoning County probate computer to create false probate court records,” according to a BCI investigator.