Witness recounts paying Infante for jobs

Tribune Chronicle / Guy Vogrin Senior Ohio Assistant Attorney General Daniel Kasaris Wednesday motions to a picture taken during a Feb. 1, 2016 raid of the ITAM Club No. 39 in McKinley Heights, which was operated by former Niles mayor Ralph Infante and his wife, Judy.

WARREN — Two key prosecution witnesses testified Wednesday in the corruption trial of former Niles Mayor Ralph Infante as one city worker detailed a jobs-for-cash scheme, while the lead state audit investigator detailed a bundle of cash stashed in closets during a 2016 raid of Infante’s home

Niles water employee Scott A. Shaffer admitted he had paid Infante $2,500 for his city job in early 2002, as well as buying other city jobs and promotions for his girlfriend and another friend.

In the deal for his girlfriend’s promotion in the city billing department, Shaffer described sometime in 2014 buying a flat-screen television, wood for a mounting frame and an air conditioning unit, with a value of almost $1,400, for the Italian-American Veterans Club (ITAM No. 39) operated by Infante.

“I asked him, ‘What is it going to take to get that promotion?’ And after a minute looking around, (the mayor) said, ‘A flat-screen television and air conditioning,'” Shaffer said in recalling his conversation with the ex-mayor at the ITAM club.

Shaffer, who had charges of theft in office and unauthorized use of city equipment dismissed in return for testimony, admitted to defense attorney John Juhasz he at first lied to state prosecutors when they questioned him about the ex-mayor’s dealings. Shaffer said he was urged to lie by Infante, who told him the whole thing would blow over and “they (prosecutors) would go away.”

Infante, 63, is facing 16 counts of tampering with records, two counts of gambling, two counts of operating a gambling house, seven counts of soliciting improper compensation, two counts of theft in office, eight counts of bribery and one count each of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, possessing criminal tools, having an unlawful interest in a public contract and falsification. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

Lead investigator for the Ohio Auditor’s office, Christopher Rudy, is expected to continue his testimony today before the jury of seven women and five men. Rudy, who has yet to be cross-examined, is the final prosecution witness. The defense is expected to present its case immediately after Rudy’s testimony.

Rudy detailed the investigation of Infante, which began in 2014 after a $70,000 discrepancy was found in Niles city accounts. Rudy said he first questioned Infante in June 2014.

“We looked at every city account in every city department,” Rudy said, noting he was “following the money.” After interviewing dozens of people, Rudy said the trail led to Infante.

Earlier, Shaffer told senior assistant Ohio Attorney General Daniel Kasaris he met Infante sometime after he closed his Katie’s Korner ice cream shop in Mineral Ridge in October 2001.

After first getting a part-time job for 28 hours per week in the street department, Shaffer said he needed full-time work and he said he kept pestering the then-mayor at the ITAM No. 39, where he often hung out.

“I offered $1,800 cash, but I kind of low-balled him. I heard that $2,500 was the going price on the street,” Shaffer said. “Ralph controlled everything. He was the boss.”

Shaffer testified the mayor agreed to hire him in the water department after he offered $2,500. Shaffer said he delivered the cash in an envelope at the bar.

The worker testified the exchange of cash took place before he received a March 18, 2003, letter informing him he was hired as a Class C laborer for the Niles Water Department.

Shaffer also testified to selling city-owned scrap metal and ordering a city employee to use city resources to landscape a former city councilman’s property. He described bringing plastic bags full of cash to the mayor’s office.

“I gave the cash to (the mayor) and I believed it when he said he was going to take it upstairs to the auditor’s office,” Shaffer testified.

Later, Shaffer admitted to once using his account at the Warren scrap dealer Metalico when turning in scrap from his parents’ house.

“I didn’t steal any of the city’s money,” he said. “I was just doing what the boss (Infante) told me to do.”

Shaffer, who said Infante treated him like a son, testified he also bought gift cards for Infante in 2012 to 2014 for Vernon’s restaurant.

Shaffer also recalled asking and getting permission from Infante to use a city-owned dump truck to gather tree stumps at his parents’ home and take them to a place near Waddell Park.

“The mayor told me, ‘Don’t wreck the truck,'” Shaffer said when asked if he received permission from Infante, who was mayor of Niles from 1992 to late 2015.

In reference to dealings about Shaffer’s girlfriend, Stephanie Ford, Shaffer testified he had paid Infante $3,000 in 2012 for Ford to be hired in the city billing office. He said he later wanted to see Ford promoted after her boss in that office, Tom Telego, became ill.

Shaffer also noted doing several favors, including plowing the mayor’s driveway during heavy snows and landscaping for a former councilman and another city official.