By Ed Runyan
Testimony from the corruption and gambling trial of Ralph Infante indicated that the former mayor’s crimes began the first year of his 24 years as Niles mayor.
So why did it take so long to end? Why didn’t someone run against him?
Testimony from former Niles Law Director Terry Dull suggested intimidation may have been a factor.
Dull was law director 30 years from 1987 to 2017. He retired late last year, just before his law license was suspended in December for misappropriating client funds.
At Infante’s trial, Dull testified that Infante made a remark to Dull at a polling place many years ago, before Infante was mayor, suggesting that Dull might regret his friendship with the mayor of Niles at the time, Joe Parise, who was an independent, not a member of the dominant Democratic Party.
“He wanted to make sure I was being a good Democrat. He said don’t get too close to that mayor,” Dull said of Parise. “He said, ‘We could run somebody against you,’” meaning run another Democrat against Dull in the primary for the law director’s job.
Infante was a longtime officer in the Trumbull County Democratic Party, serving part of the time as vice chairman and more recently as secretary. He served two terms on Niles City Council before he was elected mayor.
Trumbull County Commissioner Dan Polivka, county Democratic Party chairman, said he appointed Emily Webster Love of Kinsman as party secretary “effective immediately” to replace Infante, who was sentenced May 11 to 10 years in prison after being convicted at trial of 22 charges, including engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity during his time as mayor.
During the trial, Dull testified about the award of a contract to a printing company whose minority owner was what prosecutors called a “buddy” of Infante’s.
Prosecutors say Infante bypassed city council and the law director in approving it.
Dull said he was not consulted on writing the contract and never saw it. If he had, he “probably would have added some variations to” it, he testified.
Dull said he also was never consulted on writing a retire/rehire policy the mayor enacted that resulted in the mayor’s brother, Joe Infante, being rehired in 2014. Ralph Infante was convicted of a felony related to the rehiring.
Steve Papalas, a Niles councilman from 1980 to 2017, said Dull was not the only elected official or department head who appeared to be intimidated by the mayor.
“I think that was the issue for a couple of elected officials,” Papalas said.
Papalas and another former Niles council member, Bob Marino, raised questions to the Ohio Auditor’s Office in 2014 that led to the investigation that led to Infante’s Indictment.
But why didn’t someone raise such issues earlier?
Papalas said there is a big difference between suspecting someone of wrongdoing and proving it.
Furthermore, “We had department heads who didn’t give us straight information,” Papalas said. “We had leadership that took advantage of the weakness of department heads.”
When asked why he thinks Infante went 16 years without an opponent for mayor until current Mayor Thomas Scarnecchia defeated Infante in the Democratic primary in 2015, Papalas said Infante was popular in his first few terms and may have appeared to be unbeatable later.
“He has a very large family and a lot of friends,” Papalas said, adding that he respects and feels bad for the “cousins, aunts and uncles” of Infante — people he respects who are suffering because of the outcome of Infante’s trial.
Papalas said he felt “targeted” a few times during his re-election campaigns, but he “went door to door” and won all of his elections.
Papalas, a retired teacher, said a word that describes Infante as mayor is “hubris,” or excessive pride or self-confidence.
Such people “become comfortable in the position and think that they can’t fail,” Papalas said.
Youngstown FBI Agent Deane Hassman testified at the trial that a rumor had been going around Niles that Infante had gotten free tickets to the 2007 NCAA football championship game in Arizona from Anthony Cafaro Sr., then president of the Cafaro Co.
Hassman went to see Infante in 2009 regarding the story and equipped himself with a secret recording device. On the recording, played for jurors at the trial, Infante admitted he got the tickets from Cafaro Sr. or Anthony Cafaro Jr. and failed to report them on state ethics disclosure forms.
Hassman said he had been investigating Cafaro Sr. since 2006 at that point. Despite the admission of wrongdoing by Infante, no charges were brought against Infante until his November 2016 indictment.
Casual observers could have concluded that something was wrong in the spring of 2014, when Niles treasurer’s employee Phyllis Wilson admitted stealing from her job and was later sentenced for stealing $142,000.
The investigation into Infante began during the summer of 2014 after Papalas and Marino raised questions about $70,000 in missing money.
Chris Rudy and Roy Speer with the Ohio Auditor’s Office conducted interviews and gathered records in 2014 and executed search warrants at the mayor’s office and at other city offices.
The investigation came to the public’s attention when investigators raided city hall, seizing Ralph Infante’s computer and that of his secretary, Bonnie Marchionte. That happened just days after the Ohio Auditor’s Office placed Niles in fiscal emergency, a designation under which the city still operates. Infante lost his re-election bid the following May.
Steve Ruman, Niles native and longtime area newspaper sports writer, said Niles residents and observers took to social media to grouse about the problems of the city. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if investigators got some leads from such sites.
“I believe social media had a lot to do with bringing that out,” Ruman said of allegations that turned into indictments.
Infante’s attorney, John Juhasz, apparently believed social media was a factor.
He asked that the trial be moved out of Trumbull County because of the “brutal” commentary on websites of local newspapers.
Judge Patricia Cosgrove conducted individual questioning of potential jurors about what they knew about the case. She concluded that a fair jury had been seated and denied Juhasz’s request.