Letter: Cafaro building fees waived in Niles

111716...R CAFARO HQ 2...Niles...11-17-16... Exterior view of the Cafaro HQ at the Eastwood Mall Complex...by R. Michael Semple

NILES — At least $22,000 in building permit fees were waived by the Niles Board of Control for a local company as it built new headquarters in 2015 at the Eastwood Mall Complex, a letter signed by the members shows.

However, the board had no authority to do so, according to an indictment filed against the city’s former mayor on Tuesday.

Ralph Infante, who led the city from 1992 through 2015, was one of three members on the board of  control at the time. He is scheduled to be arraigned on a 56-count indictment alleging political corruption and illegal gambling 1 p.m. Dec. 5 in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court, according to court records.

In Niles, the board of control has historically consisted of the mayor, the service director and the safety director. The city has since combined the two latter positions.

The letter, signed by the three members on Dec. 17, 2014, states the city would waive “any and all city imposed fees and / or assessments” for inspections and permits done by city employees related to the Cafaro Company’s relocation to Niles from Youngstown — as well as providing a new transformer, concrete pad and installation, and a rate reduction for the company’s properties until 2021.

A 2015 chart Infante provided to the city’s building and zoning inspector shows about $22,000 in permit costs were waived and the company paid about $8,000.

It is common practice for a company like Cafaro to ask municipalities to waive fees for new construction and other real estate endeavors, said Joe Bell, a spokesman for the Cafaro Corporation.

However, the company had no knowledge of how the waiver was obtained or the city’s internal protocol and processes, Bell said.

“We believe we have done everything in an appropriate manner,” said Anthony Cafaro Jr., co-president of the corporation.

The Cafaro Company earlier this year completed construction of  its new corporate headquarters as part of a $30 million, three-phase project that also included a hotel and event center.

Counts 34 and 35 of the Trumbull County grand jury indictment for third-degree felony theft in office, accuses Infante of “depriving the city of Niles of money by waiving fees when he had no authority.”

“Ralph Infante as chairman of the Board of Control voted to and spearheaded the waiving of over $40,000 in building fees for a local company without authority or consent of the proper municipal corporation body,” the indictment states.

Council would have to approve the reduction or elimination of permit fees.

Bell confirmed investigators searched Cafaro buildings in December during the course of the investigation, but Bell said investigators have since returned everything they took.

The indictments presented thus far in the case — against Infante; his wife, Judy Infante; Niles employee Scott Shaffer; and the McKinley Heights business the Infantes own — are those expected from the investigation conducted to date, said Dan Tierney, a spokesperson for the Ohio Attorney General.

But, as a matter of protocol, Tierney said, the case will remain open as it makes its way through court.

There are two unnamed businesses listed in the indictment, as well as 12 unnamed people.

Those identities could be revealed in a trial, said Ben Marrison, a spokesperson for the Ohio Auditor, which initiated the investigation in 2014.