It was a shot heard ’round the Mahoning Valley.
The 10-year prison sentence handed to former Niles Mayor Ralph Infante by Visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove was so harsh it triggered gasps of disbelief from his family and friends and surprise from veteran criminal defense lawyers.
The sentence came on the heels of an 11-day trial in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court that culminated in a jury finding Infante guilty of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity and 21 other criminal charges. All the charges were related to his 24-year tenure as mayor.
He lost his re-election bid in the 2015 Democratic primary to former city Councilman Thomas Scarnecchia.
The one-time political heavyweight was led away in handcuffs, and after spending several days in the county jail was moved to the Lorain Correctional Institution where he will begin his decade-long sentence.
Although the sentence could be reviewed after five years, his fate would be in Judge Cosgrove’s hands. Given her comments during sentencing, she would have to have a major change of heart to cut short Infante’s incarceration.
To put the former mayor’s punishment in perspective, consider the case of Lenine “Lenny” Strollo, the undisputed “Godfather” of the Mafia in the Mahoning Valley.
Strollo, who led the infamous criminal enterprise for decades, was arrested by the FBI in 1997 as part of the federal government’s crackdown on public corruption and organized crime in the Valley.
He was indicted on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) violations of aggravated murder, casino-style gambling and numbers lottery.
The murder charge was related to Strollo’s ordering a hit on mob rival Ernie Biondillo Jr. in June 1996.
Strollo also was implicated in the murder of rival organized crime boss Joseph N. “Joey” Naples, who was ambushed when he was checking on the construction of his house in Beaver Township.
The shooters were hiding in a cornfield across the road from Naples’ property. The crime has never been solved, but there were persistent whispers that Strollo put out the contract after getting permission from the Mafia families in New York City. Permission was required because Naples was a “Made Man” in La Cosa Nostra.
Strollo also was charged in state court with the murder attempt in December 1996 of then-Mahoning County Prosecutor-elect Paul Gains.
The Godfather’s federal indictment included 29 codefendants, 28 of whom pleaded guilty or were found guilty. One died before his trial.
In February 1999, the mobster became a government snitch and provided the FBI and federal prosecutors with important information about the Mafia in the United States – he had first-hand knowledge of organized crime figures in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and New York – and also testified in the trials of various local public officials and other crooks.
It was during one of the trials that Strollo offered this blood-curdling admission: For the Mafia, murder is simply “business.”
In 2004, Strollo was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but with credit for time served and good time, he was released in September 2008.
In other words, the Mafioso who was a major contributor to this region’s national reputation as “Crime Town USA” served only nine years for his soul-sucking criminality.
By contrast, former Niles Mayor Infante could end up serving 10 years for his white-collar crimes. To be sure, he used his public position for personal gain, but he never ordered the murder of a political rival.
Thus the question: Is there a way for Infante to get a reduced sentence?
There is – and it’s just a matter of time before he makes the move.
A decade in state prison is tantamount to a life sentence for a man who is very close to his family.
Here’s how reality will punch him in the gut:
In the next several months, he will have regular visits from family members and friends. He may even get to see them over the holidays, including Christmas.
But then it will be the new year, and the more Infante is out of sight, the more he will be out of mind. Suddenly, the visits from family and friends will get less frequent.
For a man not used to being alone, he will have only his thoughts to keep him company.
That’s when he will have his lawyer contact the state prosecutors to explore the possibility of a deal.
All Infante needs to remember is that there are bigger fish in this region’s public corruption ocean that deserve to be caught.
When the trial began, Infante faced five counts of bribery, but the jury found him not guilty of them.
However, given the testimony from several witnesses who said they paid the former mayor money in return for jobs and other favors, there is unfinished business.
There’s also the low-hanging fruit in the form of the tickets worth $7,500 he received from prominent Mahoning Valley businessman Anthony M. Cafaro Sr. to the 2007 college football championship in Arizona.
Ohio State, then coached by Jim Tressel of Youngstown State University football championships fame, played the University of Florida, and Infante and his entourage rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous from this region.
During the trial, the ex-mayor refused to admit there was any link between the tickets from Cafaro and the $60,000 in free water the city of Niles provided to the Cafaro Co. for its baseball field and the thousands of dollars in building permit fees the city waived during construction of the company’s headquarters at the Eastwood Mall Complex.
Last September when the criminal indictments were handed down against Infante, this writer posed the following question: “Is there another ‘Mr. Big’ lurking in the dank confines of government corruption in the Mahoning Valley? It sure sounds like it from a recent front page story in The Vindicator.”
The story provided important details of the criminal indictments against Infante, who was accused of taking bribes while he was mayor.
State prosecutors said he pocketed thousands of dollars in return for doing favors, but the jury in his trial obviously did not see a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
The reference in the September 2017 column to “Mr. Big” was triggered by the highly publicized Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal enterprise.
The goal of the enterprise was to block two Mahoning County commissioners, Anthony Traficanti and David Ludt, from buying Oakhill Renaissance, the former Southside Medical Center.
Cafaro Sr. was identified in court documents as the mastermind of the enterprise. He also was given the moniker “Mr. Big” and was called the puppet master.
He did not want the purchase to go through because Traficanti and Ludt had said Oakhill would be the new home of the county’s Job and Family Services agency, which had occupied space in the Cafaro Co.-owned Garland Plaza for almost two decades.
Cafaro’s enterprise involved several county officials, including then Commissioner John A. McNally and Auditor Michael Sciortino.
Both were ultimately convicted for their roles in the Oakhill Renaissance criminal conspiracy.
Cafaro was not charged, and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Republican nominee for governor, subsequently closed the case.
Thus the question: Will ex-Mayor Infante play the martyr and burn in the fires of hell that is prison, or will he emulate mob boss Strollo and play Let’s Make a Deal with the prosecution? It all depends on whether he’s willing to pay the ultimate price, the loss of his freedom, to protect those who were involved in his corruption and who will soon forget about him.