It wasn’t happenstance that the first person charged in the state’s investigation of several downtown Youngstown development projects was a prominent businessman.
Ohio Auditor David Yost, whose office is leading the probe into the use of public dollars, wanted to deliver an unequivocal message to honest taxpayers who justifiably think that the rich and politically influential in this region are untouchable when it comes to public corruption.
During a recent meeting with The Vindicator Editorial Board, Yost, who is running for Ohio attorney general next year, was asked if he believes tainted government officials and those who taint them are equally guilty.
“The question answers itself based on the facts” of the downtown investigation, the former county prosecutor and journalist replied.
“We started with the guy who had the cash. We did not start with the corrupt public official. … The first indictment was a private businessman.”
And not just any private businessman.
Prominent developer Dominic Marchionda was indicted in October by a Mahoning County grand jury on 105 criminal counts relating to development projects he has launched in downtown Youngstown.
The Poland resident, who owns NYO Property Group, is alleged in the indictment to have given a $25,000 bribe to city Finance Director David Bozanich to secure government financing,
Bozanich has not been charged, but an indictment is imminent. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Lawyers from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office are prosecuting the case, but it’s Yost who’s calling the shots.
The state auditor’s decision to go after Marchionda first is important for several reasons, foremost of which is his deep-seated belief that there are no sacred cows when it comes to public corruption.
“What ordinary people can expect is that everyone is treated the same,” the Republican officeholder told The Vindicator’s writers. “When they don’t believe that, everything else in their lives starts to degrade.”
Yost also offered some insight for why he’s so committed to reassuring skeptical Mahoning Valley residents.
“How do we live together?” he asked rhetorically. “Is the guy with the biggest checkbook and the biggest club in charge, or are we in charge of our own communities?”
The obvious answer is that we, the people, should be in charge of our communities. Unfortunately, we are not – as the history of government corruption in this region shows.
The roll call of elected officials and other public employees in the Valley who have sold their souls to the devil is long – and continues to grow.
On the other hand, the devilish corrupters of government, those financially and politically influential individuals, have generally walked away unscathed.
Why? Ask Attorney General DeWine, who handled the highly publicized Oak- hill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy case that resulted in the conviction of Youngstown Mayor and former Mahoning County Commissioner John A. McNally, former county Auditor Michael Sciortino and former Youngstown Atty. Martin Yavorcik.
The fact that the mastermind of the conspiracy, Youngstown shopping center developer Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., was not held to account in a court of law remains a major blot on the attorney general’s record.
DeWine was asked by this writer why Cafaro – he was labeled in court documents as “Mr. Big” – was given a pass by him.
The attorney general, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor next year, told members of The Vindicator Editorial Board that the goal was to get corrupt government officials out of office.
DeWine seemed taken aback when this writer pointed out there would be no corruption if well-heeled individuals in the community weren’t willing to buy the services of morally challenged officeholders.
Cafaro, the retired president of the Cafaro Co., is recognized as one of the Valley’s leading financial backers of political campaigns locally and statewide.
So when DeWine announced that the Oakhill Renaissance case was closed with the conviction of McNally (who was allowed to stay on as mayor), Sciortino and Yavorcik, he gave cynics another reason to be cynical about government.
Has DeWine endeared himself to the very wealthy businessman and his very wealthy friends? Time will tell.
Next year’s election is going to be extremely expensive, and it doesn’t hurt to have the names of the rich and famous on speed dial.
The contrast between DeWine’s giving Cafaro a free ride and Yost’s nabbing prominent developer Marchionda is palpable.
It should reassure the honest residents of Niles who are wondering if the criminal case against Ralph Infante will result in the indictment of the unidentified individual accused of giving the then-mayor thousands of dollars in bribes.
Infante has pleaded not guilty to several charges related to his alleged taking of bribes in exchange for handing out city jobs.
The long-time mayor, who was kicked out of office in 2015, originally was indicted last November. Since then, investigators from Auditor Yost’s office have uncovered other instances of the former government official using his public position for personal gain.
But it is the alleged payments of thousands of dollars from unidentified individuals to the then-mayor that has struck a chord with this writer.
In all the years of federal and state investigations and subsequent convictions of public officials in the Valley, very few corrupters of government have been led away in chains.
But hope springs eternal. Ohio Auditor Yost has not only said all the right things with regard to public corruption, but has done the right thing with the charges filed against Marchionda.
DeWine is fortunate that Yost isn’t running for governor.