By Justin Wier
Two of the Mahoning Valley’s highest-profile public corruption cases originated with a relatively new investigative team in the state auditor’s office.
Investigations by the auditor’s public integrity assurance team, formed in early 2015, led to the indictments of Youngstown developer Dominic J. Marchionda and former Niles Mayor Ralph Infante.
Auditor Dave Yost said the 26-member team – which consists of auditors, investigators and attorneys – provides a unified approach to the office’s criminal investigations.
Previously the legal, forensic audit and investigation units had operated separately, but Yost said auditors and investigators have different skill sets.
Bob Smith, deputy legal council for the auditor’s office, said the office recognized a need to have both an auditor and investigator on every case.
It has increased the efficiency of its investigations and improved the state’s ability to hold public officials accountable, he said.
“If you don’t have these resources, you may speculate and guess as to whether there is wrongdoing by a public official,” Smith said. “You’re not going to know for sure until you do the investigation – we’ve got that capability.”
Rooting out public corruption is necessary, Yost said, because it has a trickle-down effect. Government provides the framework of a community, and if people can’t trust that, what can they trust?
“When ordinary people can’t expect that everyone is treated the same, ... everything else in their lives starts to degrade,” he said.
The team’s work has resulted in 46 convictions, not including the Valley cases that have yet to go to trial.
Mark Porter, who has led the unit since April, said the 56-count indictment against Infante and the 101-count indictment against Marchionda are among the team’s biggest cases of the year.
A case in Mount Sterling, a small village of about 1,800 people outside of Columbus, rounds out Porter’s list.
The former village administrator received a 10-year prison sentence for improperly spending or stealing more than $724,000 while in office. The former mayor and others also received convictions.
The Madison County prosecutor and sheriff brought that case to the auditor’s team, Smith said.
The team fields tips from the public, who can submit them online, through a hot line or by mail. It also receives tips from local law enforcement.
The public is buying into it, Yost said, with the unit receiving an increasing number of tips.
A special audit task force, including the auditor, decides how to proceed.
After an investigation, the team takes its case to a county prosecutor, who decides whether to prosecute the case internally or appoint a special prosecutor from the auditor’s office.
It’s a model other states hope to follow. West Virginia auditors recently contacted the team to ask about its approach, Porter said, and states including Michigan and Montana have made inquiries in the past.
“We’re blazing a trail,” Smith said. “A lot of states don’t have this type of unit or this robust a unit in terms of doing not just audits, but forensic audits.”
In a news release announcing the Marchionda indictment, Yost said the results of the investigation were “deeply disturbing” and suggested that more indictments will follow.