More of the same in 2019

And so the Mahoning Valley bids farewell to 2018 in the same way it began the year – deeply mired in public corruption.

Thus, 2019 promises more of the same.

But it’s noteworthy that the Valley entered 2018 with an uplifting crime story: the return to Trumbull County of accused murderess Claudia Hoerig, who had been on the lam in Brazil for more than a decade.

Hoerig has pleaded not guilty to the 2007 slaying of her husband, Air Force Reserve Maj. Karl Hoerig, in their home in Newton Falls. She was already on her way to Brazil when his body was discovered.

Claudia Hoerig fought extradition to the U.S. for years after she was indicted for murder by a grand jury in Trumbull County.

However, the dogged determination of veteran county Prosecutor Dennis Watkins and the unyielding political pressure on the White House, the State Department and the government of Brazil from Valley Congressman Tim Ryan, D-Howland, and Ohio’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman, forced the Brazilians to send the accused killer back to the Valley.

Her trial on a charge of aggravated murder with a gun specification is scheduled to start in mid-January.

But that positive news was quickly overshadowed by another headline-grabbing case in the ongoing war on public corruption waged by the state of Ohio.

In May, former Niles Mayor Ralph Infante was slapped with a 10-year sentence in state prison after a jury found him guilty of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity and 21 other criminal counts. All the charges were related to Infante’s 24-year tenure as mayor.

The guilty verdict after an 11-day trial in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court sent shockwaves through the bowels of the Valley where corrupt politicians and crooked movers and shakers conspire to make government their personal fiefdoms.

Infante was long considered the wizard of Trumbull County politics and accumulated a lot of IOUs from the rich and famous who sought favors from him.

His 10-year prison sentence may be reviewed in five years, but he’s going to have to do a lot of talking (and fingering, in Mafia parlance) to state prosecutors before Judge Patricia Cosgrove would agree to any reduction.

Judge Cosgrove was unsparing in her condemnation and criticism of Infante during sentencing.

When the trial began, the former mayor faced five counts of bribery, but the jury found him not guilty of them. However, there was sworn testimony from several witnesses who said they paid Infante money in return for jobs and other favors.

There’s also the low-hanging fruit in the form of tickets worth $7,500 from prominent Mahoning Valley businessman Anthony M. Cafaro Sr. to the 2007 college football championship in Arizona. Ohio State, then coached by Jim Tressel of Youngstown State University football championships fame, played the University of Florida.

During the trial, Infante refused to admit there was any link between the tickets from Cafaro and the $60,000 in free water the city of Niles provided to the Cafaro Co. for its baseball field and the thousands of dollars in building permit fees the city waived during construction of the company’s headquarters at its Eastwood Mall complex.

Cafaro Sr., the retired president of the Cafaro Co., was the mastermind of the highly publicized Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy in Youngstown, but got away scot-free when Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine chose not to press charges against him. Three participants in the criminal conspiracy who did Cafaro’s bidding were convicted: Former Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally and former Mahoning County Auditor Michael Sciortino pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges; Youngstown Atty. Martin Yavorcik took his case to trial and was found guilty. However, his conviction was ultimately set aside.

Incidentally, DeWine will soon be sworn in as governor of Ohio.

There’s unfinished business in Trumbull County and Infante is well positioned to fill in the blanks for prosecutors.

Living behind bars provides a lot of time for soul-searching. The New Year could be transformative for a man whose fall from grace should serve as a cautionary tale.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t.

Another case that will command front-page coverage in 2019 involves “Bozo the clown and his pals” as a headline to a Sept. 2 column in this space deadpanned.

Here’s what the column said, in part:

“ … a Mahoning County grand jury handed down a sphincter-clinching indictment of three prominent players in the city of Youngstown: David “Bozo The Clown” Bozanich; Charles “Chuckles” Sammarone; and Dominic “Bling Bling” Marchionda. (The nicknames are for dramatic effect, given the crimes they are alleged to have committed.)”

Bozanich, veteran finance director of the city until his resignation in December 2017; Sammarone, veteran city government officeholder, including mayor; and Marchionda, headline-grabbing downtown developer, were the main actors in what state prosecutors are calling “The Enterprise.” There were nine John Does (unidentified individuals), six unidentified companies, a state agency, Youngstown city government and 14 businesses that wittingly or unwittingly participated in The Enterprise.

The bottom line: Bozanich, Sammarone and Marchionda are alleged to have made out like bandits.

The trial of the three – if there is one – promises to peel back several more layers of the Valley’s government corruption onion that has brought tears to the eyes of so many honest, law-abiding residents of the Mahoning Valley.

If Bozanich, Sammarone or Marchionda have any thoughts about plea bargaining, here’s a stomach-churning fact that will directly affect this case: The man responsible for blowing the lid off the downtown development projects, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, will soon be sworn in as Ohio attorney general, succeeding DeWine.

Yost knows where all the bodies are buried, or has a way of finding out. One of the major planks of his platform was his commitment to pursuing corrupt public officials and the individuals eager to corrupt them.

In other words, the state of Ohio’s top lawyer isn’t going to turn a blind eye to the public corruption that sadly has come to define the Mahoning Valley.

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