By Ed Runyan
As Ralph Infante prepares to be sentenced today after being convicted Monday on 22 counts of corruption and gambling during his 24 years as Niles mayor, it’s still a little unclear what offenses jurors felt he committed under the theft-in-office category.
Visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove could sentence Infante to more than 50 years in prison.
It’s clear the jury found Infante, 62, engaged in a pattern of corrupt activity throughout his time as mayor, engaged in illegal gambling and ran a gambling house, illegally rehired his brother, and lied to an investigator about how he got NCAA Championship football tickets.
It’s clear jurors found him guilty of 13 counts of failing to file accurate financial disclosure statements with the Ohio Ethics Commission and accurate tax returns related to his income.
It’s also clear jurors were not convinced two people paid Infante bribes, including city employee Scott Shaffer, who alleged he did it four times, or that one employee gave Infante $1,000 gifts for several years just because he was mayor.
But where it gets complicated is figuring out the specifics of Infante’s two theft-in-office convictions, which are felonies each punishable by up to a year in prison.
Prosecutors say they are still not allowed to discuss the case until Infante is sentenced, but a document filed in August 2017 called a bill of particulars provides some clues.
Under theft in office, the bill of particulars alleged Infante allowed city property and services to be given away without approval from city council, and it alleged that city property was sold for cash the city never received.
The acts occurred from at least June 2006 to January 2016, the document says.
It listed a number of things prosecutors said fit into this charge, such as providing free city property and employees’ labor to the Cafaro Co. and free water to the baseball field at the Eastwood Mall without getting authority from city council.
Also included was “receipt of cash from sales of city scrap [by city employees at the Metalico scrap yard in Warren] and not turning it over to the city auditor.”
Here are some of the comments witnesses made during the trial:
The Niles Water Department accumulates scrap metal from water pipes that are removed from the water system and replaced, Shaffer testified. A Metalico employee said the company paid city employees mostly in cash.
Shaffer, who delivered scrap metal to Metalico 34 times between 2011 and 2014, according to Metalico records, testified he took the cash from scrap and delivered it to Infante at City Hall. Charles Nader, former Niles auditor, said he had no records indicating cash from scrap metal made it into the city treasury.
Water Department foreman Brian Paridon testified that in 2013, he was part of a crew that spent a couple days repairing a waterline break near Macy’s at the Eastwood Mall, apparently without any charge to the Cafaro Co., owner of the mall.
Paridon, Nader, Shaffer and Councilman Steve Papalas testified the city’s responsibility for repairs to waterlines typically ends where private property begins, such as on mall property.
Shaffer testified he regularly used a city truck to remove tree trunks from private property and dump them on property off Park Avenue near Waddell Park.
“I pulled various stumps out throughout the city for people but I can’t remember who all,” Shaffer testified. Shaffer spoke about a specific time he took tree trunks from his parents’ property and dumped them on property off of Park Avenue and asked Infante if it was OK.
“I said, ‘Can I use the city truck to dump the stumps there?’” Shaffer said.
“And what did [Infante] say?” Dan Kasaris, special prosecutor with the Ohio Attorney General’s office, asked.
“Don’t wreck the truck,” Shaffer replied.
On cross examination by Infante’s attorney, John Juhasz, Shaffer said: “I don’t know how many times I used city equipment [for non-city business] because it happened all the time.”
Shaffer was charged with two counts of theft in office in Infante’s initial indictment, but the charges were dismissed after Shaffer agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and investigators.
The jurors returned not-guilty verdicts regarding all of the charges that were based on testimony from Shaffer that he bribed Infante four times for jobs for himself, his girlfriend and another friend and a promotion for his girlfriend.
When Infante took the witness stand, he said he had nothing to do with water department workers fixing broken waterlines at the mall.
“We always did that,” Infante said.
He denied waiving fees for the Cafaro Co. in an effort to help Anthony Cafaro Sr., the former Cafaro Co. president. And he denied purposely allowing a water meter at the baseball field at the Eastwood Mall to remain nonfunctional until after $60,000 worth of free water had been used.