Just days into the new year and the Mahoning Valley is once again confronted by the insidious nature of public corruption that is so much a part of our history. The latest incidents dominating the headlines are especially troubling because they involve two elected officials who, by all accounts, have served the public well.
Judge Diane Vettori of the Mahoning County Area Court in Sebring was removed Tuesday from the bench by the Ohio Supreme Court after she was accused by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland of stealing at least $96,200 from a former client. The Supreme Court applied a rule that disqualifies judges who face charges punishable as felonies under state or federal law from continuing to serve on the bench until the case is concluded.
The criminal information filed by U.S. Attorney Justin E. Herdman and FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen D. Anthony charges Vettori with one count of fraud, one count of structuring cash deposits and one count of making false statements to law enforcement.
The information alleges that the judge, who has served since 2002, stole between $96,200 and $328,000 in cash that was in the home of a client when the client died in March 2016. The seriousness of the charge is highlighted by the fact that, if convicted, federal sentencing guidelines will be applied. The possibility of time behind bars looms large.
The second incident that has grabbed the attention of Valley residents involves Mahoning County Probate Judge Robert Rusu, who is the subject of a complaint filed with the Ohio Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Conduct.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel contends that Judge Rusu, appointed to the bench in 2014 by Gov. John Kasich, failed to recuse himself from at least 200 cases in which he previously served as a lawyer.
Rusu is attributing his actions to a misinterpretation of rules that govern judicial conduct.
But Disciplinary Counsel Scott J. Drexel wants the Supreme Court to find that the probate judge violated the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct and the Code of Judicial Conduct and to sanction him accordingly.
We will have more to say about Judge Rusu in the next few days.
The criminal charges against Judge Vettori are especially troubling because they reflect a mindset among some public officials that has given the Valley a black eye nationally.
She isn’t the first member of the bench in Mahoning County to be the target of a federal or state investigation, and if history repeats itself, she won’t be the last.
That’s discouraging because it seems this region just can’t get rid of the dark cloud of public corruption that has hung over us for so long.
Vettori’s removal from the bench is of small comfort given the long list of judges who over the years have ended up on the wrong side of the law. They include two former county court judges, Martin Emrich and Fred Bailey; two former Youngstown Municipal Court judges, Patrick V. Kerrigan and Andrew Polivischak; a former county Common Pleas Court judge, Maureen Cronin; and former Probate Judge Mark Belinky, who resigned and was replaced by Judge Rusu.
But it isn’t just the judiciary that has contributed to the Valley’s reputation, which was summarized thus by The (Toledo) Blade: “Youngstown: a city mired in fear and corruption.
The story, published in 2001, referred to the attempted murder on Christmas Eve 1996 of then county Prosecutor-elect Paul Gains by the Mafia. Here’s what it said, in part:
“The shooting – which the prosecutor survived – led to an investigation that went far beyond the attack on his life. It exposed Mahoning County as one of the nation’s most corrupt regions, a place where the Mafia had a grip on everyone from politicans and judges to the police.
“With the May indictment of the area’s most powerful politician, Congressman James Traficant ... on bribery and other charges, some officials are asking: Can it get any worse?”
The answer today, based on the newest revelations of misbehavior by public officials, is this: Yes it can.
For the past two years, the headlines were dominated by the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy that resulted in the convictions of then mayor of Youngstown, John A. McNally, former county Auditor Michael Sciortino and Youngstown Atty. Martin Yavorcik.
To add insult to the injury suffered by the residents of the city, McNally not only refused to resign, but sought re-election last year. Fortunately, thoughtful voters sent him packing.