Ohio auditor is under the gun

Public corruption loomed large in the high-octane race for Ohio auditor in the November general election, but when the votes were counted, the winner turned out to be the candidate who was described as a “central figure” in Statehouse scandals.

Indeed, Republican Keith Faber, who took the oath of office Monday, defeated Democrat Zack Space despite having received $36,513 from the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, once the largest charter school in the nation until it abruptly shut down a year ago.

ECOT is the epitome of public corruption in state government. Republicans have controlled the executive, legislative and judicial branches since 2011.

State audits dating back to 2001 found problems with ECOT, and an audit released last May was referred to prosecutors for possible fraud charges, according to the Dayton Daily News.

Ohio sued to recoup millions of dollars from ECOT and its founder, Bill Lager. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-2 in favor of the state.

ECOT sucked up almost $1 billion since 2000 when Lager, a top Republican Party donor, launched it with the blessing of the GOP.

The unholy alliance between the money-grubbing charter-school industry and the Ohio Republican Party was the foundation of Democrat Space’s challenge of Republican Faber in the general election. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on the charter experiment in education that has largely proven to be a failure.

Space is a former member of Congress, while Faber is the former president of the Ohio Senate.

Payday lenders

During the campaign, Space charged that Faber was complicit in ECOT collecting millions in state funds based on questionable enrollment figures; letting payday lenders charge low-income Ohioans some of the highest APR rates in the country; and, adopting a political map with gerrymandered districts.

“Keith Faber has been a primary actor in the pay-to-play culture of corruption that has gripped the General Assembly,” Space, a lawyer, contended on the campaign trail.

But in the end, Faber benefitted from the Republican sweep of the statewide non-judicial races other than the U.S. Senate contest that was won by incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown.

However, the closeness of the result in the auditor’s battle suggests that Ohioans were rightly concerned about Faber’s performance in the Legislature.

The Republican won by a mere 163,529 votes out of the total 4,056,617 cast. Faber secured 49.93 percent, to 46.06 percent for Space.

Thus the question that’s of utmost importance to the residents of the Mahoning Valley: Will the new auditor follow in his predecessor’s footsteps and crack down on public corruption?

Indeed, will Faber pick up where former Auditor David Yost, now the state’s attorney general, left off with regard to the blockbuster investigation of development projects in downtown Youngstown?

Yost, who created the Public Integrity Unit in the auditor’s office, went after David Bozanich, former long-time finance director for the city of Youngstown; Charles Sammarone, former mayor of Youngstown; and developer Dominic Marchionda, who has been involved in several major projects in downtown Youngstown.

A 101-count indictment alleges that Bozanich, Sammarone and Marchionda were players in elaborate public-corruption schemes. The allegations run the gamut, from bribery and kickbacks, to freebies, to misuse of public dollars, to the financing of high-flying lifestyles.

But the charges against Bozanich are of particular concern because of his 20-year tenure as city government’s wheeler and dealer.

State and local investigators have spent an inordinate amount of time connecting the dots because there are so many other players, in addition to the three who have been indicted.

Public corruption has been a millstone around the Mahoning Valley’s neck, which is why the new auditor, Faber, is under the gun to demonstrate his commitment to going after corrupt public officials and Valley residents who use their money and influence to corrupt them.

Indeed, Yost made it clear that the indictments against Bozanich, Sammarone and Marchionda and the 10-year sentence handed down to former Niles Mayor Ralph Infante were the tip of the iceberg.

In other words, more heads in the public and private sectors must roll.

Infante, former longtime mayor and political powerhouse in Trumbull County, was convicted by a jury on 22 criminal charges stemming from his long tenure in office.

In a nutshell, Infante used his public position for personal gain.

As attorney general, Yost will direct the cases against Bozanich, Sammarone and Marchionda – all three have pleaded not guilty – but future investigations into public corruption will be in Faber’s hands.

Given his record as a state legislator, Valley residents are justified in wondering if public corruption will continue to be a priority for the state auditor’s office.

Asked whether Faber would be committed to cracking down on corrupt public officials and those who would deign to corrupt them the way his predecessor had done, the new auditor’s spokeswoman did not hesitate in answering in the affirmative. She noted that the auditor is statutorily required to ensure the proper expenditure of taxpayer dollars by governments at all levels and other public entities.

Given the sordid history of corruption in the Mahoning Valley, it won’t be long before Faber is put to the test.

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