Shooting fish in a barrel

Here we go again: A headline-grabbing multiple-count indictment of a well-known public figure in the Mahoning Valley to burnish the region’s reputation for government corruption.

But before you indulge in wishful thinking about scofflaws being led away in chains, don’t forget the past – which is prologue in this region, as incident after incident has shown.

Thus, a cynic might suggest that Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who announced the 54-count indictment against former Niles Mayor Ralph Infante, will do what he has done in other such cases: Make a deal.

There certainly is pre- cedent for giving Infante a chance to plead to misdemeanor charges and be able to seek public office again – if he so chooses.

That’s the deal prosecutors struck with Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally, who was indicted with two others on 83 criminal charges stemming from their roles in the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal enterprise.

McNally was permitted to remain in office and will run for re-election next year. Former Mahoning County Auditor Michael Sciortino and Youngstown Atty. Martin Yavorcik also received kid-glove treatment.

All three were placed on probation, rather than being sentenced to prison by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Janet Burnside.

Uncertain future

Given that Attorney General DeWine showed no interest in going after the mastermind of the criminal enterprise – he was identified as Businessman 1 in court documents – it’s not a stretch to believe that the criminal case against Infante, the former mayor of Niles, his wife, Judy, and a city worker, Scott Shaffer, will also fizzle after the public’s interest has waned.

It is no secret that the mastermind of the Oak-hill criminal conspiracy was millionaire businessman Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., the retired president of the Cafaro Co.

He got a kiss on the cheek from DeWine.

Thus, the nabbing of the Infantes and Shaffer can appropriately be likened to shooting fish in a barrel. They were easy targets.

Indeed, when it was announced that the slew of criminal charges against the ex-mayor includes bribery, theft, money laundering, racketeering, gambling and records tampering, the reaction from longtime observers of Valley politics was the same as this writer’s: What took investigators so long?

Judy Infante is charged with nine counts of records tampering and single counts of racketeering and theft.

Shaffer faces two counts of theft in office.

All three pleaded not guilty Monday in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court. Visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove of Summit County is presiding over the case. Judge Cosgrove set $100,000 personal recognizance bonds for each of the defendants.

The trial is set to begin April 24.

Ralph Infante’s indictment says he participated in a criminal enterprise even before he became mayor in 1992 and that he continued his unlawful activities until January of this year.

The purpose of the enterprise was to “create sources of power and money for Ralph Infante through bribery, theft in office, the misuse of city owned property,” according to the indictment.

If that has a familiar ring, it’s because the Oakhill Renaissance indictment contained similar language.

Ralph Infante is accused of accepting about $150,000 in cash and gifts, such as NCAA Championship tickets in 2007 from a businessman without reporting them to the ethics commission.

Not surprisingly, the businessman is not identified in the indictment.

Likewise, Infante is accused of giving a job to a friend of a contractor after the contractor performed $7,000 to $8,000 worth of work on Infante’s property in 1995.

The contractor is not named.

Then there’s the bribe of between $500 and $1,000 he is accused of accepting in return for giving someone a job with the city.

The identity of the individual who paid the bribe remains under wraps.

Of even greater interest is the gambling-related charge.

Infante’s business, ITAM No. 39, at 1762 N. State St., Girard, was indicted on gambling offenses and one count of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity. That latter charge dates back to 1992, the first year Infante was mayor.

Thus the question: If gambling was taking place at the ITAM location, who were the participants? Were other public officials regulars at the tables? Were there business and community leaders who frequented the establishment?

This writer’s cynicism about the Niles indictments stems from the long history of prominent individuals in the Valley walking away unscathed after they corrupted government officials.

The Oakhill Renaissance criminal enterprise case is the most egregious because it involved Anthony M. Cafaro Sr. using his power and financial might in an attempt to derail the purchase by the county of the former South Side Medical Center on Oakhill Avenue.

McNally, who was a commissioner at the time, tried to stop his colleagues, Anthony Traficanti and David Ludt, from going forward with the transaction.

Cafaro wanted to scuttle the purchase because Traficanti and Ludt had made it known that they planned to move the county’s Job and Family Services agency from the Cafaro Co.-owned Garland Plaza to Oakhill Renaissance.

But there have been other government corruption-related cases in which powerful individuals in the Valley bribed elected officials and were never held to account in a court of law.

One of the most memorable occurred during the tenure of the late Mahoning County Prosecutor James Philomena, who went to prison for accepting bribes from lawyers and others to fix cases.

Philomena’s willingness to reduce drunk-driving charges to reckless operation in return for sizable payments, often to a middleman acting on the prosecutor’s behalf, became the stuff of criminal justice legend.

But despite Philomena’s conviction, most of the individuals who paid the bribes weren’t even identified publicly.

When Attorney General DeWine recently announced that there would be no additional indictments relating to the Oakhill conspiracy case, the message was clear: I’m giving Cafaro a pass.

The decision did not surprise this writer because the state’s top law enforcement officer has been forthright about his view of public corruption.

Last year, DeWine told The Vindicator that his goal is to go after officeholders and others who break the law and to make sure they don’t remain on the public payroll.

Of course, the McNally plea bargain gives lie to DeWine’s contention.

Thus, with Ralph Infante, Judy Infante and Shaffer, there’s every reason to wonder if they will ultimately be held to account for their alleged criminal acts.

Dan Kasaris of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, special prosecutor in the case, used the word “voluminous” to describe the amount of evidence state investigators and the FBI have compiled.

The word “voluminous” could also be applied to the evidence in the Oakhill case, and we all know how that turned out.

It’s a sad fact: Government corruption will continue to thrive as a cottage industry in the Mahoning Valley so long as the corrupters are given a pass.