Grand jury drops hammer drops on Infante

NILES — A storm of suspected political corruption made landfall Tuesday in Niles, sending allegations of a decades-old illegal gambling operation, theft in office, intimidation and bribery crashing down around the former mayor and his wife.

It’s been eight months since investigators searched the home and business of the former mayor, and nearly a year after a special prosecutor was assigned to investigate allegations of illegal activity in December, court documents released Tuesday reveal allegations of a far reaching racket.

A 56-count indictment against Ralph A. Infante, the man who led the city of Niles for nearly a quarter of a century, an 11-count indictment against his wife, Judy Infante, and a two-count indictment against city water department operator Scott Shaffer was issued in a special report of the Trumbull County grand jury.

A message left with Ralph Infante was  not returned Tuesday. Judy Infante declined to comment.

The investigation began in 2014, which was the year the state auditor’s office placed the city in fiscal emergency after city officials notified them about unruly deficit spending and bad accounting practices.

The indictment accuses Ralph Infante of operating an illegal gambling operation — with sports betting and slot machines — out of McKinley Height’s Italian American War Veterans Post No. 39. He operated the business with Judy Infante.

But the indictment also delves into details of bribes for jobs, the waiving of tens of thousands in building fees, tax fraud and ethics violations.

Ohio Auditor Dave Yost’s office led the investigation, with assistance from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the FBI.

The activity that led to the charges against the Infantes spans back to 2006, Ohio Attorney General spokesman Dan Tierney said.

The indictment lays out charges of a criminal enterprise involving the Infantes, 10 unidentified men, two unidentified women and the 2006 to 2015 Niles Board of Control, which gives permission to spend city money under certain sums. The board is compromised of the mayor and, at the time, the safety and service directors, but the meetings are attended by several other department heads and city officials.

While Ralph Infante was mayor, he stole from the city in several different ways between 2006 and the end of his administration in 2015, the indictment states.

A theft in office charge, a third-degree felony, accuses Infante of waiving more than $40,000 in building fees for a local, unnamed company and gave away city property to an unnamed company in Niles. And, according to the indictment, Infante let city employees use city property for private purposes — including landscaping work at a former, unnamed city councilman’s house while he was a city council member.

Nine of the tampering with records charges against the couple accuse the two of failing to report income to the federal government and Niles when filing their taxes from 2011 to 2016. In addition, Ralph Infante is accused of hiding about $200,000 in gambling income or gifts from the Ohio Ethics Commission, and destroying records of the money or gifts, including $7,550 tickets to the 2011 NCAA Championship game in San Antonio, gifted by an unnamed businessman.

The indictment states Infante started receiving envelopes full of thousands of dollars from unnamed city employees around Christmas time every year from 2009 to 2015, amounting to seven misdemeanor charges of receiving improper compensation for doing the work of a public servant.

Ralph Infante received thousands of dollars in cash and free work around his house to hire people who became city employees in the 1990s, the indictment states. And, he is accused of securing public contracts in ways that unlawfully benefited him, his family or his business interests.

The activity wasn’t only illegal, the indictment states, but Ralph Infante also roped others into the criminal activity, using intimidation, fear and political retribution.

“A jury is the ultimate peer review,” Yost said. “We’re confident our report will be found to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Shaffer, a 14-year employee in the water department, is accused of privately using city property and selling it to pocket the cash, according to the indictment. He earns about $18.91 an hour as an operator, according to files from the city auditor.

“Today’s indictment and the investigation regarding the City of Niles are the latest efforts my office has undertaken to help fight corruption in the Mahoning Valley,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine stated in a press release.

Daniel Kasaris, a senior assistant in DeWine’s office, was the special prosecutor in charge of investigating the corruption and gambling case.

Court dates in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court have not been set, and former Summit County Judge Patricia Ann Cosgrove will preside over the case, according to DeWine’s office.

In December, state and federal agents seized several records from Niles City Hall related to the Cafaro Co.-owned Eastwood Mall Complex, the same day state law enforcement officials were at the developer’s headquarters in Youngstown searching through records.

The FBI, Ohio Bureau of Investigation and Ohio Auditor’s Office participated in the search of the Niles building and zoning office that, according to a receipt given to city officials, yielded drawings and blueprints related to the Hampton Inn, the new Cafaro headquarters, Residence Inn and the Area Agency on Aging 11 Inc., as well as a bankers box with files related to their respective construction projects.

Authorities have not connected the company or businesses to the indictments released Tuesday.

Niles Mayor Tom Scarnecchia, who last year unseated Infante, said now that the indictments have been public, hopefully the city can start moving forward.

“Now is the time for us to heal,” Scarnecchia said.