By David Skolnick
The 8th District Court of Appeals vacated the eight felony convictions of Martin Yavorcik in his Oakhill Renaissance Place corruption case, saying Cuyahoga County was the wrong place to conduct the trial.
In a 3-0 decision Thursday, the court of appeals wrote: “The trial court erred in denying Yavorcik’s motion for judgment of acquittal for lack of venue. As a result, Yavorcik’s conviction cannot stand. It is mandatory that venue be proven beyond a reasonable doubt before a conviction can be sustained.”
The court of appeals ordered the case be sent back to Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Janet R. Burnside, who oversaw Yavorcik’s trial, “to vacate the judgment.” It added: “The court finds there were reasonable grounds for this appeal.”
The decision read: “There is no venue in Cuyahoga County either because a pattern of corrupt activity has not been established,” and “the evidence demonstrates that Yavorcik’s nexus with Cuyahoga County is nonexistent.”
Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, said: “We are currently reviewing the decision to determine if we’ll appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court.”
The AG’s office helped prosecute Yavorcik’s case with the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.
David Doughten, Yavorcik’s attorney, said: “This was a very important decision that should impact on prosecutorial overreach in the future. However, we are mindful that the state has the ability to attempt to appeal this matter to the Supreme Court of Ohio. But we are confident [the] Supreme Court of Ohio would similarly rule, if they decide to accept the matter. We believe the court of appeals’ opinion rests on solid precedent.”
Yavorcik, a failed 2008 independent Mahoning County prosecutor candidate, was found guilty March 25, 2016, of eight felonies: one count each of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, conspiracy and tampering with records, two counts of money laundering and three counts of bribery.
He was sentenced by Judge Burnside on April 22, 2016, to five years’ probation, including the first year on house arrest – which he served – as well as having his law license suspended for five years, requiring him to undergo alcohol-abuse treatment, and 200 hours of community service.
It’s unclear what will happen with Yavorcik’s suspended law license.
The Mahoning County Bar Association has two complaints filed with the Board of Professional Conduct of the Ohio Supreme Court. One is related to the now-vacated convictions in the Oakhill case. The other was filed last month contending Yavorcik failed to give more than $10,000 in settlement money to a client in August 2013.
Doughten said of Yavorcik’s law license: “We have to wait and see what happens with a possible state attempt to appeal this, but, theoretically, if this is upheld, it would be possible [to be reinstated]. But first things first. This is only a step, but a major one at that.”
A three-member panel of the Cleveland-based 8th District Court of Appeals heard Yavorcik’s appeal March 28, 2017. The panel also heard the prosecutor’s request to give Yavorcik a harsher punishment, which was rendered moot because of the venue issue.
During the appeal, Judge Kathleen Ann Keough, a Youngstown State University graduate, asked numerous times why the case wasn’t heard in Mahoning County “where everything happened,” rather than Cuyahoga County.
“Why do you have to take Cuyahoga County resources when you had perfectly good ones in Mahoning County?” Judge Keough asked.
Dan Kasaris, senior assistant attorney general, and Matthew E. Meyer, Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor, said at the time that Mahoning County was known for public corruption, and they proved to a jury during the criminal trial the conspiracy that involved Yavorcik had a connection to Cuyahoga County through a Cleveland law firm.
The two other appellate judges hearing this case were Sean C. Gallagher and Anita Laster Mays.
Prosecutors alleged a conspiracy started in 2006 to impede the move of Mahoning County’s Department of Job and Family Services from a Cafaro Co. subsidiary-owned property on Youngstown’s East Side to the county-owned Oakhill Renaissance Place, the former Forum Health Southside Medical Center on the South Side.
Prosecutors say Yavorcik joined the conspiracy in 2008 when he ran for prosecutor. The jury convicted Yavorcik of illegally taking about $140,000 in bribes to kill the Oakhill probe if he were elected. He lost that election by 38 percentage points to incumbent Democrat Paul J. Gains.
Gains declined to comment on the 8th District decision.
Ex-Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally, in his previous capacity as a county commissioner, and ex-county Auditor Michael V. Sciortino, both Democrats, took plea deals in the Oakhill case, and were sentenced to a year’s probation. Neither could be reached Thursday by The Vindicator to comment on the court of appeals’ decision.
The connection to Cuyahoga County is Ulmer & Berne, a Cleveland law firm, prosecutors said.
McNally was convicted of four misdemeanors related to his faxing the county’s confidential offer to buy Oakhill in 2006 to attorneys at Ulmer & Berne and for making false statements during a sworn deposition.
Sciortino was convicted of one felony and two misdemeanors connected to his receiving free legal services from Ulmer & Berne, paid by Anthony Cafaro Sr., then president of the Cafaro Co., in 2006, and, like McNally, for making false statements during a sworn deposition.
However, the court of appeals determined Thursday that Yavorcik had no ties to Cuyahoga County.
“Without establishing that Yavorcik engaged in a conspiracy underlying the pattern of corrupt activity, venue is extinguished,” the court wrote.