Unsolved mystery: Oakhill scandal

Editor’s Note: As the days dwindle down to the Aug. 31 closing of The Vindicator, this writer has revisited some of the mysteries that make the Mahoning Valley such a gold mine for journalists. Today’s is the last one.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was one of the first people to call this writer after the public announcement that The Vindicator will permanently close its doors at the end of this month.

The governor expressed his regret about the demise of the 150-year-old news-paper and conveyed his sympathies to the owners, Publisher Betty Brown Jagnow and General Manager Mark Brown, and the staff.

The call from DeWine and his kind words were noteworthy because The Vindicator’s Editorial Board and this writer have been at odds with him for quite some time over his handling of the widely publicized Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy in Youngstown.

DeWine was the attorney general when the purchase of Oakhill Renaissance, the former Southside Medical Center, by Mahoning County commissioners turned into a major scandal.

That’s because the transaction became the subject of an intense investigation by state and federal law- enforcement agents. The probe uncovered a conspiracy to prevent the county from buying the former hospital complex.

Subsequent court documents revealed that the mastermind of the Oakhill racketeering enterprise was prominent Mahoning Valley businessman Anthony M. Cafaro Sr.

Cafaro, retired president of the Cafaro Co., a leading shopping center developer headquartered in Niles, orchestrated the scheme to prevent Mahoning County commissioners from buying Oakhill Renaissance.

Garland Plaza

The Cafaro Co.’s Garland Plaza on Youngstown’s East Side had housed the Mahoning County Job and Family Services department for almost two decades. Two county commissioners at the time, Anthony Traficanti and David Ludt, let it be known publicly that the purchase of the former hospital complex in Youngstown’s central business district would result in JFS offices being relocated from the Cafaro property.

As the attorney general who oversaw the Oakhill case, DeWine had the final say on bringing charges against the participants in the criminal enterprise.

Two prominent elected officials in Mahoning County and a Youngstown lawyer were charged criminally and were subsequently convicted: former Youngstown mayor and county commissioner John A. McNally and former county Auditor Michael Sciortino pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges; Atty. Michael Yavorcik took his case to trial and was found guilty. His conviction was ultimately set aside.

But Attorney General DeWine decided not to pursue Cafaro Sr., even though assistant prosecutors in their court filings characterized the politically influential Mahoning Valley resident as the mastermind of the conspiracy.

Even so, DeWine insisted there was not enough evidence to support the filing of criminal charges against Cafaro.

Interestingly, the court documents portray the extremely wealthy developer as the puppetmaster pulling the strings on his three puppets, McNally, Sciortino and Yavorcik.

The Vindicator Editorial Board and this writer did not buy DeWine’s explanation for why he let Cafaro walk away unscathed. As a result, this newspaper refused to endorse him in the 2018 primary and general elections for governor.

Sadly, the final chapter of this sordid tale of influence peddling in Mahoning County has yet to be written.

While we won’t be around to see how the story ends, there’s a sliver of hope that the current attorney general, a former county prosecutor and journalist, will seek an answer to this question: Was DeWine right when he said there wasn’t enough evidence to bring criminal charges against Cafaro?

It should be noted that Attorney General David Yost came to The Vindicator’s office for a meeting with The Editorial Board to express his sympathy and disappointment over the newspaper’s closing.

His visit was much appreciated.

That said, if Yost, a former state auditor, chooses to reopen the Oakhill case, he might want to also seek an answer to another question: Why did assistant prosecutors assigned to the Oakhill criminal conspiracy case characterize Cafaro as the mastermind?

In January, when he took the oath of office, Yost offered this reassuring view of the criminal justice system: “Each of us at law has equal value, rich or poor, President or pauper.

“It’s why Justice wears a blindfold – identity before the law is irrelevant. …

“The Attorney General’s role – my role, for the next four years – is to push the system toward that ideal, where every person stands on the same level floor.

“Peggy Noonan, one of America’s most gifted observers, wrote a couple of years ago that the most critical division in America is not between left and right, or even “haves” and “have-nots,” but between the protected and the unprotected.”

Yost is well aware that The Vindicator through its editorials has taken a very strong stand against public corruption, in general, and against the rich and powerful who seek to turn government into their playground, in particular.

Indeed, his chief of staff, Ben Marrison, former editor of The Columbus Dispatch, urged this writer to read his boss’ speech.

“It dawned on me that you may not have read or seen Dave’s speech for his swearing in. Given your appropriate cries for people to be treated equally with no favors for those in power, I think you may like this.”

While the history of Mahoning Valley politics is replete with convictions of officeholders, influence peddlers and racketeers, the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy case is in a class by itself. That’s because of the message that was delivered when then Attorney General – and now governor – DeWine let the very powerful Anthony M. Cafaro Sr. off the hook.

Here this writer’s lament: When The Vindicator is away, the rats will come out to play – in packs.