As the 12 Democratic precinct committee members in Niles contemplate the extraordinarily important role they will soon play in the future of the troubled city, they would do well to remember this comment attributed to Ralph Infante, the former mayor turned jailbird:
“Don’t worry about the [expletive] cops. I got this. I own the judges in this town.”
The Trumbull County Democratic Party insiders may also want to remember the greeting Chris Rudy, an investigator with the Ohio Auditor’s Office, received from law-enforcement officials when he began delving into Infante’s activities:
“Ohio laws don’t apply here. This place runs under the Code of Infante.”
Finally, the precinct committee members should mull over the words of Ohio Auditor David Yost, who triggered the Infante investigation:
“Eventually I think we got most of the folks to stand up, but there wasn’t anybody who was saying, ‘Thank God, you’re here. I’ve been waiting 20 years to tell my story.’”
But Yost, the Republican nominee for Ohio attorney general, also offered this definitive statement that should please all law-abiding, honest citizens: “Our work is not complete in the Mahoning Valley.”
The state auditor made that comment to The Vindicator in the wake of the 10-year prison sentence handed to Infante, who was found guilty by a jury of 22 criminal charges stemming from his 24 years as mayor.
So, let’s tie this all together.
On July 17 or thereabouts, Trumbull County Democratic Party Chairman Dan Polivka will convene a meeting of the 12 precinct committee members from Niles to select a mayor who will serve until the end of 2019.
The meeting is prompted by the surprise resignation of Mayor Thomas Scarnecchia, who had been in office since 2016.
Scarnecchia, 76, who formerly served on city council, defeated Infante in the 2015 Democratic primary. He went on to win the general election over Councilman Barry Profato, who ran as a write-in candidate.
It is noteworthy that Profato, a well-known political figure in Niles, received 2,018 votes to 3,074 votes for Scarnecchia. Write-in candidacies are inherently difficult.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Profato has already announced that he will seek the Democratic Party’s appointment.
There are other names floating around, including Ed Stredney, the city service director appointed by Scarnecchia.
One person who is not interested in spending the next year and five months in the mayor’s office is Barry Steffey Jr.
By virtue of his position as city council president, Steffey took over the mayor’s office from Scarnecchia, who stepped down at the close of business Monday.
Therein lies the challenge for the precinct committee members.
What standards should they apply in deciding who is best qualified to lead the city for the next 17 months?
Here are some facts that must be taken into consideration:
Niles is in state-mandated fiscal emergency and is still going through the process of developing a five-year budget that shows revenues and expenditures in balance each year.
Despite Scarnecchia’s success in changing the culture of corruption in City Hall that Infante created, there’s a dark cloud that still hangs over the community.
The expected continuation of the state investigation into city government’s activities during the Infante years means more dirty laundry may be aired.
Thus the question: Do the Democratic Party insiders have an obligation to delve into the issue of public corruption with the applicants for the job of mayor?
Yes, they do, given that Infante served as secretary of the Trumbull County Democratic Party and was not forced to give up that position after his indictment in 2017. He also served as a Democratic member of the board of elections.
In other words, his deep roots in the party and his reputation as the political king of Niles have served to explain why there wasn’t widespread condemnation of the former mayor from the party leaders.
Infante’s conviction and 10-year sentence in state prison should have prompted Chairman Polivka and others to publicly repudiate the long-time officeholder and political insider.
That’s why the Niles party officials must demonstrate a willingness to explore the issue of public corruption with the applicants for mayor.
Here’s one question residents of the city would be interested in hearing the next mayor answer: Should the state pursue the four gambling charges and the one charge of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity that had been filed against ITAM No. 39? Infante and his wife, Judy, ran the McKinley Heights bar until several years ago.
Visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove, who presided over Infante’s trial and handed down the sentence, set aside the ITAM counts because the Infantes sold the club.
However, that does not mean the charges were dropped.
There’s another question the Democratic precinct committee members must ask the mayoral hopefuls because it involves city government’s finances:
“Will you investigate who authorized free water for the Cafaro Co.’s baseball field adjacent to the Eastwood Mall and the waiver of building permit fees for the company’s new headquarters?”
It has been reported that the prominent shopping center development company received $60,000 in free water and saved thousands of dollars in fees.
During the trial, Infante was asked about the favors that were done for the company. He denied authorizing them and added that he did not know how they came about.
It is noteworthy that Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., the now retired president of the Cafaro Co., and/or his son, Anthony Jr., gave Infante premium tickets to the 2007 college football championship game between Ohio State and the University of Florida.
The game was played in Arizona and featured James Tressel as coach of the Buckeyes. Before the Ohio State gig, Tressel coached the Youngstown State University Penguins to four national football championships in Division I-AA. He is now president of YSU.
The tickets Infante received were worth $7,500.
Given the appearance of favors done for a prominent business and rewards received by the city’s mayor, the issue cannot be wished away.
Whoever serves as mayor of Niles from July to the end of 2019 must be viewed by the public as pure as the driven snow. That will only happen if there is a public commitment to blow the lid off government corruption in a city that is sporting a very prominent black eye.