Gains has his failings, but case backlog isn't his fault

Four years ago when we endorsed Paul Gains for a second term, we warned him that he would be under scrutiny. Our endorsement was by no means enthusiastic, but we felt that his primary and general election opponents had not made a persuasive case for bringing Gains' tenure to a halt.
Anyone who has paid attention to this page since 2000 will know that we haven't been enamored with the prosecutor's office and have criticized the officeholder for some of his decisions, such as combining a business trip with a skiing vacation.
Thus, we were looking forward to this year's election for Mahoning County prosecutor. The prospect of a challenger with a spotless record and a file folder full of specific examples of incompetence on the part of the incumbent and his staff had our pulses racing.
But when Brad Gessner emerged as the only challenger in the March 2 Democratic primary, we knew that whatever issues he raised would be viewed through the prism of his seven years as an assistant prosecutor under James A. Philomena.
Sins of the boss
Philomena is serving time in prison for selling justice during his tenure.
Gessner, a member of the Austintown Board of Education and an assistant prosecutor in Summit County, insists that he did not know about the case-fixing enterprise operated by Philomena.
He says that had he known about the "Justice For Sale" sign erected by his boss, he would have gone to the FBI.
But Gains, who defeated Philomena in the 1996 election (he subsequently was the victim of a botched mob hit Christmas Eve), says that one of the cases fixed shows Gessner as the prosecuting attorney of record.
And he wonders how anyone who had worked for Philomena as closely as Gessner had could not have known what was going on.
In response, the challenger points to his hiring by the Summit County prosecutor and the fact that he was not implicated in the Philomena scandal as proof of his innocence.
But such a blind spot to what was going on around Gessner does raise questions about his ability to keep a close watch over an office with a large staff.
Indeed, Gessner has made Gains' performance as a manager a main issue in the campaign. He contends that by having three top assistants who earn large salaries, the prosecutor is short-changing the rest of staff.
Because the assistant prosecutors are part-time, he says, a huge backlog of cases, many of them homicides, has been created. If elected, Gessner would require all assistants to be full time and he would get rid of the upper echelon management positions that now exist.
The backlog of cases is an important issue, but Gains counters that he is being unfairly blamed for what is a problem with the criminal justice system in Mahoning County: too many cases but not enough common pleas judges, magistrates and other court personnel to handle them.
It is difficult for a layman to know who's telling the truth about the reasons for cases not being dealt with in a timely fashion, but a judge whom we respect and trust says it is unfair to blame the prosecutor's office.
The judge acknowledges that Gains should make changes, but to do so he needs more money to operate an office that handles so many cases.
The judge also said the assistant prosecutors should be paid more money to keep them from bolting to the private sector. Every time there is a turnover, the case docket suffers.
While Gessner deserves credit for focusing attention on the caseload problem, we aren't sure that his solution of full-time prosecutors and his desire to work with judges and law enforcement is adequate.
Expert evaluation
Rather, we believe the Ohio Supreme Court should be invited to send in a team of experts to evaluate the Mahoning County criminal justice system. Is there a need for another common pleas judge? Should additional magistrates be hired? Is it necessary, given the large number of arrests on felony charges being made as part of the countywide crackdown on serious crime, to have full-time assistant prosecutors?
Should there be an evaluation of the charges that are being filed to determine whether too many cases are being sent to the common pleas court rather than being handled in the Youngstown Municipal Court?
As we said at the outset, we were awaiting a challenger to Gains who would give us a reason not to endorse the incumbent.
Unfortunately, Gessner did not rise to the challenge in his interview with Vindicator editors and writers.
Therefore, The Vindicator endorses Paul Gains -- with the hope that he play a more active role in the criminal justice system in Mahoning County.
We do take note of the fact that that he is no longer using the phrase "I took a bullet for the community" on the campaign trial or in his campaign literature. That suggests to us that he is maturing.
And that gives us hope.
There isn't Republican in the race for county prosecutor, and unless an independent files -- the deadline is March 1 -- the winner of the Democratic primary will be sworn in January 2005.