Is there another “Mr. Big” lurking in the dank confines of government corruption in the Mahoning Valley? It sure sounds like it from a recent front-page story in The Vindicator.
The story provided important details of the criminal indictments against Ralph Infante, who is accused of taking bribes while he was mayor of Niles.
The newest indictment handed up in August accuses Infante of pocketing thousands of dollars from an unidentified individual in return for giving someone a full-time job with the city.
It is one of several charges brought against Infante for taking bribes in exchange for handing out city jobs.
The long-time mayor, who was booted out of office in 2015, originally was indicted last November. Since then, investigators 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. The case is a reminder of the Oak- hill Renaissance Place grand conspiracy in Mahoning County that dominated the front page of The Vindicator for many months.
The Oakhill Renaissance criminal enterprise epitomized government corruption in the Mahoning Valley. A very rich and politically powerful businessman, Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., masterminded the conspiracy that involved several Mahoning County government officials and a Youngstown lawyer.
A prosecutor in the case described Cafaro as “Mr. Big,” a reference to his influence and reputation in the Valley.
In the end, however, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who unveiled the Oakhill Renaissance government corruption case with a great deal of fanfare, let Cafaro, the retired president of the Cafaro Co., off the hook.
Only three individuals were convicted in what was billed as a major crackdown on government corruption in this region: Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally, whose involvement in the criminal enterprise occurred during his tenure as a county commissioner; former county Auditor Michael Sciortino; and Atty. Martin Yavorcik.
McNally, whose re-election bid ended in the May Democratic primary, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of falsification and one count each of unlawful use of a communication device and attempted disclosure of confidential information.
As commissioner, he was a key player in Cafaro’s effort to block the county’s purchase of Oakhill Renaissance, the former Southside Medical Center.
Cafaro did not want the purchase to go through because the two other commissioners, Anthony Traficanti and David Ludt, had publicly announced the county’s Job and Family Services agency would be relocated from the Cafaro-owned Garland Plaza on Youngstown’s East Side.
The deal went through, and JFS is now housed in Oakhill Renaissance.
Former Auditor Sciortino pleaded guilty to a felony count of having an unlawful interest in a public contract and one misdemeanor count each of falsification and receiving or soliciting improper compensation.
McNally and Sciortino reached plea agreements in the Oakhill case with the prosecutors, two from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and one from the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.
Both McNally and Sciortino were given taps on the wrist by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Janet Burnside.
Yavorcik, a failed 2008 independent candidate for Mahoning County prosecutor, was found guilty of eight felonies: one count each of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, conspiracy and tampering with records, two counts of money laundering and three counts of bribery.
But Cafaro, mastermind of the criminal enterprise, was given a pass by Attorney General DeWine, candidate for governor in 2018.
It may well be wishful thinking that the Ralph Infante bribery case in Niles will have a different outcome.
But there is reason for some optimism. That’s because the investigation is being led by the Ohio Auditor’s Office and prosecuted by the state.
Prosecutors have said the general purpose of the enterprise that Infante ran while mayor was to “create sources of money and power” for him. Hundreds of thousands of dollars changed hands, and more than a dozen other people and multiple companies were involved.
The former mayor’s most serious charge is engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, also referred to as racketeering. It carries a possible 10-year prison term if he is convicted.
Infante’s wife, Judy, and former Niles Auditor Charles Nader have also been indicted for their participation in the enterprise.
It is noteworthy that this case has its origins in the declaration of fiscal emergency by the auditor’s office. Investigators had gone to Infante’s offices in City Hall to secure records as part of the state audit of the city’s books.
That’s when the mayor’s purported scheme began to unravel.
Indeed, if the case goes to trial, the public will have a front-row seat to how government corruption in the Mahoning Valley is almost a cottage industry.
There’s a reason bribery of public officials continues to grab headlines: Individuals who pay the bribes have no fear of being nabbed.
Indeed, Attorney General DeWine contended that his aim was to get rid of corrupt officeholders and other public employees.
But hope springs eternal.
Ohio Auditor David Yost, who is running for attorney general in 2018, is a former journalist with a different perspective of government.
Yost understands the need to clean up politics in the Mahoning Valley and can be expected to use the Infante case to burnish his law-and-order credentials.
It would be refreshing to have a “Mr. Big” hauled away in handcuffs.