Corruption in Valley crops up — again

NILES — It will take, in part, transparency and a true two-party system to erase the culture of corruption that has exhibited itself in the Mahoning Valley, according to political experts.

Also needed is light shed on officials who want to keep their agendas secret, said William Binning, former chair of the political science department at Youngstown State University.

“There is a sense some elected officials have, here and elsewhere, that there are certain entitlements that come with their positions. That can lead them to look the other way when something is going on that shouldn’t, or lead them to seek improper benefits using their office. I don’t know if this is particular to this area, but we have certainly had our share of it,” Binning said.

The latest in a long string of political corruption cases was made last week against ex-Niles Mayor Ralph Infante in a 56-count criminal indictment. Among the charges are money laundering, bribery, theft in office, tampering with records, ethics violations, running an illegal gambling operation and maybe the most serious charge, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.

Mayor Tom Scarnecchia, who beat Infante in the 2015 Democratic primary election, said Niles can move forward with the trust of residents, but officials must earn that by being open and honest.

“We have to make sure people who are in decision-making and leadership positions stay very transparent,” Scarnecchia said. “We have to insist on transparency and can’t settle for anything but that.”

Many of the political scandals that have rocked Trumbull and Mahoning counties in the last few decades involved elected and other trusted community leaders.

Jeff Goodman, parliamentarian for the Trumbull County Democratic Party, said there are corrupt individuals in all areas, and he thinks the system does a good job of weeding them out.

“In any organization, whether the Republican Party, Democratic Party, police department, church, it is not an institutional corruption. But there are people who are corrupted and fall below the ethical standards of behavior that society thinks is acceptable,” Goodman said.

Earlier this year, Youngstown Mayor John McNally and former Mahoning County Auditor Michael Sciortino were sentenced for their effort in what prosecutors described as illegal moves to try to stop the Mahoning County Department of Job and Family Services from moving from the Cafaro Co.-owned Garland Plaza to the Oakhill Renaissance Place.

McNally was a county commissioner at the time of the move.

Attorney Martin Yavorcik, a one-time candidate for prosecutor in Mahoning County, was also convicted for his role in Oakhill. He was accused of promising to stop the investigation into the move if elected prosecutor.

Other high-profile cases include:

l The late U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant, who spent seven years in federal prison after a conviction on charges that included bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. He was released in 2009 and died in 2014 from injuries in a tractor accident at his farm in Greenford.

l Former Trumbull County Commissioner James Tsagaris, who spent nine months in federal prison in 2009 for hiding a $36,500 loan from a local businessman by not accounting for the money on disclosure statements required by the Ohio Ethics Commission.

He was originally sentenced to house arrest for one year with privileges to leave for work, but he was reported to be in a local cigar store several times socializing and playing cards, lunching with a friend or seen driving his ill sister around town, so a judge sent him to prison for flouting what was called a “gift sentence.”

l Former Mahoning County Treasurer Lisa Antonini pleaded guilty in 2011 to a federal bill of information accusing her of mailing a misleading campaign finance report, on which she did not report a $3,000 gift from a local businessman.

l Maureen Cronin, former Mahoning County Common Pleas Court judge, was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to sending through the mail a misleading state ethics report.

When Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced the charges against Infante, he said his office would continue to fight corruption in the Mahoning Valley.

“We will continue to help local governments, when requested, to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing, just like we have done in Niles and elsewhere around Ohio,” DeWine stated.

With at least 50 convictions tied to illegal gambling and political corruption in the Mahoning Valley in the last few decades, Binning said it would be good for the area for the pattern to stop.

But when political systems are without checks and balances and opposing parties can’t get the public’s attention and scrutinize the other party’s actions, one could argue that party dominance is problematic and could lead to corruption, Binning said.

“I’ve often thought the way to minimize corruption in the Valley is a serious two-party system because corruption isn’t specific to a certain party,” said Mark Munroe, chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party.

However, Goodman said there already is a two-party system, and in some cases, a three-party system. He cited the examples of write-in candidate Todd Johnson, who ran as an independent in the commissioners race against incumbent Dan Polivka, and Jay Williams, who served one term as Youngstown mayor as an independent.

The Democratic Party has dominated local politics for the last several decades and many of the elected officials convicted or accused of wrongdoing have belonged to it.

“The fact that these corrupt people happen to be members of the Democratic Party is just statistical because there are more Democrats than Republicans in the Mahoning Valley,” Goodman said.

Parties opposing the ruling party need to put forth good candidates, and voters need to do their research, Munroe said.

“Valley residents are so used to walking into the voting both and automatically pulling the ‘D’ lever. If we don’t get variety in government, this will continue in the Valley,” Munroe said.

Dave Betras, chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, said corruption is going to exist no matter which party seems to have control in an area.

“However, I do agree that a stronger Republican Party makes for a stronger Democratic Party,” he said.