By Ed Runyan
A jury Monday morning will file into Trumbull County Common Pleas Court to begin deliberating the fate of former Niles Mayor Ralph Infante on corruption charges.
The bribery allegations against Infante may be of the greatest interest, but special prosecutor Dan Kasaris spent considerable time during closing arguments Friday talking about another concept – transparency in government.
Infante, 62, is charged with 32 criminal charges, including engaging in a criminal enterprise, taking bribes and illegal gambling. Testimony in the trial lasted two weeks.
Sixteen of the 32 charges he faces are called tampering with records, and nine of those accuse him of falsifying annual ethics disclosure forms public officials such as mayors have to file.
Kasaris said the average person may not understand the reason for the ethics disclosure forms since average people don’t have to file them.
“Why is the statute there? It’s so you can pick up the phone and call the [Ohio] Ethics Commission and ask for my ethics forms, the defendant’s ethics forms, and find out who’s giving us gifts, what businesses we own, where our investments are, so that you ... can know if your elected official has a potential conflict of interest,” Kasaris said.
“Transparency. We want public officials to be transparent,” Kasaris said. “The defendant has never been transparent.”
As an example, Kasaris mentioned $1,000 in cash Niles employee Karen DeChristofaro testified during the trial she gave Infante each December toward the end of Infante’s time as mayor. Infante never reported any such gifts.
Visiting Judge Patricia A. Cosgrove on Thursday dismissed a soliciting-improper-compensation charge based on DeChristofaro’s statements to investigators, but DeChristofaro’s allegations are part of a tampering-with-records charge.
“Regardless of whether you like the law, think the law is silly, you all agreed [during jury selection] that you would follow the law as jurors,” Kasaris said.
Other tampering-with-records charges relate to income-tax returns prosecutors say Infante falsified by failing to report bribes, gifts and other income of about $100,000.
Kasaris said Infante ran the second-largest city in Trumbull County for 24 years. It had a budget of $48 million, but Infante “wants you to think he can’t read forms,” Kasaris said of allegations Infante failed to file the forms correctly.
Infante is also accused of failing to report gambling earnings from Super Bowl block pools he ran, though Infante testified he didn’t earn any money from the pools.
Infante’s lawyer, John Juhasz, said his client is human.
“I’m not gonna stand here and try to tell you that Ralph didn’t make mistakes, that at times he didn’t act like the sharpest knife in the drawer,” Juhasz said. “I’m not here to tell you the city of Niles was always run perfectly.”
Juhasz said everyone criticizes politicians. “We hear things like ‘the swamp needs to be drained,’” he said. “It may not always be pretty ... but that doesn’t make it criminal,” Juhasz said.
“And the guy who is the mayor of a small town like Niles and operates a social club [ITAM No. 39 bar in McKinley Heights] is not John Gotti, and there is not some big enterprise here,” Juhasz said referencing a famous New York City mobster.
Juhasz spoke of the allegations against Infante regarding awarding a contract to Pegasus Printing in 2012 to print utility bills for Niles and the ways it is connected to other events.
Prosecutors have suggested Pegasus got the contract instead of another bidder because Infante’s friend, Tom Harwood, was a minority owner of Pegasus, Juhasz said.
“Is there any evidence to say that Pegasus got the contract for that reason? Is there any evidence that Ralph drove that contract at all? No,” Juhasz said.
Prosecutors have also suggested Infante and his wife, Judy, got $8,000 worth of free football tickets from Cafaro Co. executives Anthony Cafaro Sr. or his son, Anthony Cafaro Jr. They have suggested Infante helped the Cafaro Co. get free water and free waterline repairs in exchange, Juhasz said.
“There is no evidence of that, just suspicions by government agents,” Juhasz said.