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Slap on wrist adds to public’s ongoing mistrust

The slap on the wrist extended by Judge Maureen Sweeney to former Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone, who pleaded guilty to reduced criminal charges, is the exact reason why the public often loses its faith in government.

Initially accused of soliciting bribes from city vendors and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, Sammarone last week took a plea agreement to two felony counts of tampering with records.

Sweeney sentenced the long time public official to five years of probation and 30 days of supervised community service.

As part of the plea deal, prosecutors declined to recommend a sentence for Sammarone.

Sammarone initially had faced nine counts of bribery, three counts of tampering with records and one count of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity — all felonies — and a misdemeanor count of falsification.

Sammarone had been accused of soliciting and accepting $10,000 in bribes from Raymond Briya, a former MS Consultants Inc. chief financial officer, from October 2012 to July 2013 to steer city contracts to the company without the knowledge of other MS officials.

Briya, who is cooperating with prosecutors, pleaded guilty in September 2019 to five felonies in corruption allegations against Sammarone, ex-city Finance Director David Bozanich and downtown developer Dominic Marchionda. The three — along with 10 companies affiliated with Marchionda — were indicted Aug. 30, 2018, on 101 counts. Charges remain pending against Bozanich and Marchionda.

Among Briya’s guilty pleas is an attempted bribery conviction in which he admitted to giving more than $100,000 in cash, meals, gifts and golf benefits to Bozanich over a decade, and of giving at least $9,000 in cash to Sammarone to “corrupt” them in their official capacities with the city.

Sammarone’s attorney John Shultz called the case against his client among the weakest he’s confronted in his legal career. Still, the former Youngstown mayor pleaded guilty to charges that prove he let down his constituents in one way or another. He will walk away with a very light sentence, leaving residents with a bad taste in their mouths.

Sammarone pleaded guilty to two counts of tampering with records for not reporting rental income derived from owning a condo in Florida on his 2012 and 2013 Ohio Ethics Commission financial disclosure statements and / or for accepting bribe money from a city contractor. Shultz said, however, the former mayor was never bribed.

David Betras, an attorney and former Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman, had secretly taped Sammarone and the former mayor’s son, Christopher, in 2014 to discuss getting the younger Sammarone to quit a Democratic primary that year for probate court judge. If Sammarone had gone to trial, Betras was to testify about the recording.

According to the indictment of the older Sammarone, he is heard on the recording “repeatedly stating that he is ‘old school’ and that ‘one hand washes the other,’ or ‘I am with the old school, one hand washes the other,’ and that ‘anything is legal if no one else knows about it. I have been around a long time.'”

Last week, Shultz said Betras had been trying “to incite Chuck to do something or say something that was illegal, and he never did.”

Shultz defended Sammarone’s recorded words saying, “that’s just the way Chuck talks. That’s the way a lot of members of Chuck’s generation speaks. These are cliches and unfortunately those cliches could have been utilized negatively against him.”

Still, Sammarone’s bad behavior and yet another conviction of a former local public official reinforces how they often walk away with minimal punishments.

To the contrary, we believe public officials convicted of a crime — any public official, but especially those elected to office — should face penalties, fines and prison time twice what an average citizen would receive.

That’s because these people stepped up to represent the taxpayers and then not only fell short of that obligation, they betrayed the constituents who elected them, possibly causing irreversible harm to the public trust.

We are disappointed in both former Mayor Sammarone and in the judge’s sentence.

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