Just as the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy wasn’t only about three schlubs who pleaded guilty, the state investigation into development projects in downtown Youngstown isn’t only about developer Dominic J. Marchionda.
And just as there was a mastermind in the Oak- hill Renaissance conspiracy, there undoubtedly is an individual in Youngstown city government whose fingerprints are all over the projects in the central business district made possible with public dollars.
Hence, the headline for this column about Thursday’s seizure of records at Marchionda’s NYO Property Group offices in downtown Youngstown and at his Poland home.
Agents from the offices of the Ohio auditor and the Ohio attorney general led the raids, which were conducted on the strength of search warrants signed by Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge John Durkin.
Also participating in the sweep were officials of the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office and the sheriff’s department.
The search warrants and supporting affidavits are sealed, which means the names of city officials who are possible targets of the state probe remain confidential.
Why should Youngstown residents and, indeed, residents of the Mahoning Valley believe that this investigation isn’t just about one individual, Marchionda?
For the very same reason that the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy wasn’t just about the three who were convicted: Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally, whose involvement occurred when he was a county commissioner; Michael Sciortino, former county auditor; and, Youngstown Atty. Martin Yavorcik.
They, along with other county officials, attempted to block county government’s purchase of Oak- hill Renaissance, the former Southside Medical Center. Two of McNally’s colleagues on the board of commissioners, Anthony Traficanti and David Ludt, were in favor of the transaction and ultimately prevailed.
The conspiracy was masterminded by Valley businessman Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., retired president of the Cafaro Co.
So, what happened to Cafaro? Nothing. Attorney General Mike DeWine let the wealthy, influential real-estate developer off the hook.
Thus the question: If the mastermind of the Oakhill conspiracy was able to get away scot-free, why would anyone believe that the Youngstown city official or officials who orchestrated the numerous projects will ultimately be caught up in the state dragnet?
The answer: Because Attorney General DeWine isn’t calling the shots on this operation.
Ohio Auditor David Yost, who has been unrelenting in his pursuit of misappropriation of taxpayer dollars by public officials and agencies, is leading the investigation.
Yost, a former county prosecutor, began his working life as a journalist, which has given him a perspective of government that not many officeholders possess.
It is also noteworthy that Yost’s communications director is Ben Marrison, the former editor of The Columbus Dispatch.
In other words, there is a certain purity in the Auditor’s Office because of the journalist roots of the state auditor and his chief spokesman.
That’s why residents of the city of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley should feel confident that the investigation into Marchionda’s dealings with the city will not be swept under the rug, and that any and all officials who accommodated him and other developers will be placed under the microscope.
At issue is the expenditure of water and wastewater money on development projects.
When word of Thursday morning’s raids got out, there were two Youngstown residents who had a difficult time tempering their excitement: Harry Meshel, former long-time state legislator and ex member of the Youngstown State University Board of Trustees; and, Maggie Lorenzi, a community activist who spends a lot of time monitoring the activities of city and county governments.
Meshel and Lorenzi have long questioned Youngstown City Hall’s practice of using water and wastewater funds for economic development projects.
They believe that if there is a surplus in the Water Department’s account, the money should be used to upgrade waterlines and other water infrastructure, or to lower user rates.
But the long-time finance director for the city, David Bozanich, sees things differently.
“If we don’t put the [water and wastewater] money into these downtown projects, they don’t happen,” Bozanich said in 2015. “If we’re not doing it this way, we can’t do it. The projects don’t make economic sense if we don’t contribute utility money.”
Mayor McNally and his predecessors have argued that legal opinions from city law directors and a law firm retained by City Hall have agreed state statutes and Ohio Supreme Court rulings give city councils broad legislative and administrative powers relating to the operation of public utilities.
They also have said that Youngstown City Council has broad discretion in determining how water and wastewater surplus revenues are used.
But given the amount of money that has been funneled into private development projects, the question that has loomed large may well be answered by the ongoing state investigation into Marchionda’s use of taxpayer dollars: Who in city government has been responsible for ensuring that the public dollars have been spent according to the terms of the grant or loan agreements?
There also is question of what happens when city government pumps public dollars into projects that fail.
Ohio Auditor Yost has the opportunity to answer those and all other questions that have been raised over the years about the Water Department’s operation and the use of its funds.
But in the end, Yost must know that he will be judged by how deeply he delves into the Marchionda case.
Both DeWine and Yost are looking to step up in next year’s statewide election.
The attorney general is seeking the Republican nomination for governor – Gov. John Kasich is term limited – while the state auditor is eyeing the attorney general’s post.
Each will be viewed by how dedicated he is to the proposition that public corruption must be rooted out at all levels of government. DeWine has made clear his stance by his mollycoddling of Anthony M. Cafaro Sr.
Ohio Auditor Yost is being watched closely.