Scandals plague Ohio GOP

It’s a given that public corruption in the Mahoning Valley will invariably feature Democratic officeholders in leading roles.

The ongoing criminal trial of former Niles Mayor Ralph Infante, a prominent Democrat in Trumbull County, comes on the heels of the widely publicized Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal enterprise that resulted in the convictions of two well-known Democratic politicians, former Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally and former Mahoning County Auditor Michael Sciortino.

While the mastermind of the enterprise, prominent Mahoning Valley businessman Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., was given a pass by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in Tuesday’s primary, McNally and Sciortino were kicked out of office by the voters.

However, they avoided time behind bars.

While the Infante case – he is charged with taking bribes for jobs, doing favors for Cafaro Sr., making money off football-pool gambling, steering a city contract to a friend and other allegations – is in the hands of a jury, the trial merely reinforces this writer’s long-held belief that public corruption is in our DNA.

How else to explain a mayor in a comparatively small town accepting $8,000 worth of tickets to the college football championship game in 2007 from Cafaro, who was president of the Cafaro Co., and his son, Anthony Jr.?

Fee waivers

In his opening statement, Special Prosecutor Dan Kasaris, senior member of the Ohio Attorney General’s staff, contended that Infante waived “thousands of dollars in fees to the Cafaro Company without authority.”

Kasaris added, “You have the defendant giving away thousands of dollars of city property to the Cafaros without authority, without city council action.”

Infante, who took the stand in his defense Thursday afternoon and Friday, denied the allegations of theft in office, bribery, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity and illegal gambling.

But the trial has been a constant reminder of the putrid nature of Democratic Party politics in the Valley.

It is, therefore, refreshing to see Republicans caught in the dragnet of government corruption. Regretfully, the drama is being played out in Columbus rather than this region.

Nonetheless, area Democrats will get a chance to weigh in on the scandals involving prominent GOP officeholders because the alleged wrongdoings will serve as the backdrop for this year’s general election.

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper has launched a full-scale attack on the Republican Party and is making sure the press is kept abreast of all the developments.

Pepper contacted this writer recently after The Vindicator Editorial Board conducted an endorsement interview with Attorney General DeWine.

The newspaper chose not to endorse him because of his decision to let Cafaro Sr. off the hook in the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal enterprise.

State prosecutors had identified the retired company president as the mastermind of the conspiracy designed to block Mahoning County government from buying Oakhill Renaissance Place, the former Southside Medical Center.

McNally was a county commissioner at the time, and Sciortino was county auditor. They and others did Cafaro’s bidding as he sought to block the other two commissioners, Anthony Traficanti and David Ludt, from proceeding with the purchase.

Traficanti and Ludt had announced they planned to relocate the county Job and Family Services agency from the Cafaro Co.-owned Garland Plaza to Oakhill Renaissance.

The JFS had occupied office space on Youngstown’s East Side for almost two decades.

When asked why he closed the Oakhill case without bringing charges against the individual who orchestrated the conspiracy, DeWine said there wasn’t enough evidence to take on Cafaro, a major donor to political campaigns.

But the attorney general’s statement flies in the face of the court filings by state prosecutors that laid out the details of the conspiracy.

The Vindicator published two editorials. The first contended DeWine had failed to adequately explain his decision to give Cafaro a pass. The second explained why the newspaper had chosen not to make an endorsement in the race for the Republican nomination for governor.

DeWine is being challenged by Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.

Democratic Party officials see an opening as far as The Vindicator’s support in the general election goes because the newspaper did endorse Richard Cordray for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Cordray is the former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and previously served as state attorney general, treasurer, state representative and solicitor general. He has an impressive record of service.

Pepper told this writer that the GOP’s “culture of corruption in Columbus” will be a factor in the general election.

Democrats intend to use a broad brush in painting Republicans as corrupt.

They will argue that the GOP’s stranglehold on the governor’s office, statewide administrative offices and the Ohio General Assembly has given the party a sense of entitlement.

There are two main issues that will haunt Republicans in the fall:

The for-profit charter school system that has drained more than $1 billion from the state’s public schools. The lack of transparency and oversight and the GOP’s refusal to treat the charters and public schools equally have led to widespread corruption.

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) has become the poster child of this corrupt industry.

Democrats have labeled the scandal “Chartergate.”

The FBI’s investigation of the international trips taken by former House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger paid for by the payday-lending lobbyists.

Rosenberger has resigned, but while he was in office the payday industry succeeded in putting the brakes on a bill that would have clamped down on predatory lending practices that are costing Ohioans millions of dollars in interest.

Democrats believe the “culture of corruption” in Columbus has made Republican candidates vulnerable this year.

It remains to be seen if “Chartergate is Coingate on steroids,” as one Democratic Party official put.

Coingate was the infamous pay-to-play scheme cooked up by a Republican Party insider, Tom Noe, a former Toledo-area coin dealer who raised money for Ohio Republicans. Noe was convicted in a state investment scandal in 2005.

Coingate reached into the highest levels of state government and led to the convictions of former Gov. Bob Taft, his chief of staff and 17 others.

The scandal helped Democrats win four of five statewide elected offices in 2006.

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