By Ed Runyan
Former Niles auditor Charles Nader testified that Ralph Infante allowed his brother, Niles employee Joe Infante, to earn more than other employees for his overtime in 2013 when Ralph Infante was the city’s mayor.
“I didn’t think one person should be paid at a rate of pay different from other people,” Nader said during testimony Thursday in the Ralph Infante corruption trial.
Nader said he didn’t understand what was going on when he saw Joe Infante’s overtime pay rate because he’d never seen anyone get a higher overtime rate than other people.
“I started asking questions,” said Nader, who worked for the city for more than 30 years until he retired early from his last four-year term as auditor in September 2015. Nader pleaded guilty earlier to reduced charges related to using city equipment for personal use in exchange for his testimony.
Ralph Infante, 63, who was Niles mayor from 1992 to the end of 2015, is charged with 41 criminal counts alleging engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, numerous counts of bribery and tampering with records and fewer counts of gambling, falsification and theft. If convicted on all counts, he could face up to about 90 years in prison.
Nader went to see Ralph Infante about Joe Infante’s salary. Ralph Infante told Nader: “We have a letter. That’s the rate of pay,” Nader testified.
Ralph Infante showed Nader a letter signed by the mayor and then-service director Neil Buccino approving Joe Infante’s retire-rehire agreement and pay rates.
Nader said he didn’t do anything about the pay rate; he went to see the mayor because the auditor’s office has to have a document on file to explain pay rates, Nader said.
Joe Infante testified Wednesday that when he retired-rehired, his regular hourly wage dropped to $15.40 per hour, but he was allowed to get an overtime pay rate of $25.40 per hour, which exceeds time and a half.
Joe Infante was one of several Niles employees who retired and was rehired at about that time because of statewide changes involving public employee retirement.
Under cross examination by Ralph Infante’s attorney, John Juhasz, Nader said the state auditor’s office never issued a finding in an audit report to indicate that giving Joe Infante the higher pay rate was improper.
The testimony apparently is related to one of the criminal charges Ralph Infante is facing called having an unlawful interest in a public contract, which tries to prevent public employees from making decisions that involve family members.
According to Vindicator files, former Niles Councilman Steve Papalas also complained in January 2017 that Ralph Infante also enacted a retire-rehire policy without getting authorization from Niles City Council.
“We never voted on this policy,” Papalas said. “He never presented any legislation to us.”
Former Niles Parks and Recreation Director Anthony Vivolo testified Thursday about retire-rehire in early 2013.
Vivolo said his salary dropped by $20,000 per year when he was rehired, but he was told that was to continue to provide him with health care.
He said the process involved speaking very briefly to Infante and being told he would be allowed to rehire as long as he accepted the pay cut.
“I was very comfortable with it,” Vivolo said.
Another witness Thursday was April Strickland, forensic audit manager for the Ohio Auditor’s Office in Youngstown, who investigates fraud.
She testified as to how she arrived at the figure of $103,605 as being the amount of “unaccounted for” cash deposits that went into the personal bank accounts of Ralph and his wife, Judy Infante.
State auditors used subpoenas to obtain the records, she testified.
Under cross examination, she said the figure includes any “cash deposit that doesn’t have an explanation for what it is” or what employment or other source provided the money that the Infantes deposited.
Other testimony Thursday involved a contract the Niles Board of Control entered into with Pegasus Print to provide bills for Niles utilities starting in 2012. Prosecutors say Pegasus was partially owned by Tom Harwood, a friend of Ralph Infante.
Former Niles Law Director J. Terrence Dull testified that he is typically asked to look at contracts with the city before they are finalized to ensure that a bidder meets all of the requirements, but that didn’t happen in the Pegasus contract.