Just when it seemed that the epidemic of public corruption in the Mahoning Valley had been quelled by the widely publicized Oak- hill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy, along comes former Judge Diane Vettori-Caraballo to shatter the illusion.
And with Vettori-Caraballo’s 30-month sentence in the federal penitentiary, another chapter is added to the long history of dastardly behavior of individuals in and out of government.
What’s surprising about the ex-Mahoning County Court judge’s fall from grace is that it occurred in the midst of the epochal Oak-hill scandal that featured one of the most prominent businessmen in the region and his minions in Mahoning County government.
The Oakhill case epitomized government at its worst: Anthony M. Cafaro Sr., retired president of the Cafaro Co., a leading shopping center developer in the nation, corralled then Commissioner John A. McNally and then county Auditor Michael Sciortino to assist him in preventing county government from buying the former South Side Medical Center – now called Oakhill Renaissance Place.
Cafaro had learned that McNally’s two colleagues, commissioners Anthony Traficanti and David Ludt, intended to relocate the county’s Job and Family Services offices from the Cafaro-owned Garland Plaza on Youngstown’s East Side.
The county had rented space in the plaza for about two decades.
Cafaro didn’t want to lose the tenant and sought to derail the purchase of the former hospital with the help of McNally, who went on to become Youngstown’s mayor, and Sciortino, who was defeated in his re-election bid.
In the end, the two public officials were convicted of state criminal charges. They received kid-glove treatment from a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge.
Fortunately, they’re both out of government.
Cafaro, who was identified by state prosecutors as the mastermind of the Oakhill criminal conspiracy, was given a pass by then Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
He wasn’t even charged for his role in the scandal.
DeWine is now governor of Ohio.
The Oakhill case generated extensive press coverage, which is why the crimes committed by former Judge Vettori-Caraballo are so shocking.
She could not have been blind to the reality that the Mahoning Valley is constantly under the microscope by state and federal investigators because of the region’s reputation.
Last week, Vettori-Caraballo, who was sworn in as a county court judge in 2003, pleaded guilty to stealing from the estate of a deceased client. (County court judges work part-time and are permitted to maintain private law practices.)
Judge Dan Aaron Polster of the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio, sentenced her to 30 months each on counts of mail fraud, structuring bank deposits and making false statements to law enforcement. The sentences will be served concurrently. She must surrender to U.S. Marshals no later than Sept. 6.
Prosecutors accused her of stealing between $100,200 and $328,000 from the estate of her former client, Dolores Falgiani, for whom she helped prepare a will.
Much of the money was cash the judge/lawyer found hidden in Falgiani’s home after her death in March 2016.
But here’s where the great criminal mind turned to mush: She structured deposits of the stolen cash between accounts at several different banks so as to skirt regulations requiring banks to report large cash transactions to the IRS.
She used the ill-gotten cash to pay $58,000 in debt on more than 30 credit cards.
U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman didn’t mince words in commenting on this case.
“The fact that the defendant stole at least $100,000 from an elderly person who trusted her to administer their estate is heartbreaking,” Herdman said. “The fact that the thief in this case was a sitting judge who swore to uphold the law is outrageous.”
It’s more than outrageous, given the long history of judges and lawyers in the Valley crossing over to the dark side. It’s evil.
Vettori-Caraballo’s husband, a retired Youngstown police officer, was sentenced to three years of probation on a count of failing to pay taxes.
Caraballo has already fully paid an ordered restitution of $22,126, according to records.
Let’s be clear about what the seemingly unending circle of public corruption has done to the people of this region: They no longer trust government and they have little respect for individuals who don black robes and sit in judgment of society.
The silence is of legal community in the Valley is deafening every time one of their own violates his or her sacred oath of office and behaves like a common criminal
Twenty years ago, a federal prosecutor assigned to the federal court in Youngstown had an upfront view of just how deeply rooted public corruption is in the Mahoning Valley.
Prosecutor Stephen Katzman offered this stunning observation: The Valley is a sociologically and politically regressive community mired in corruption.
At the time of his statement in 1999, the Valley’s Hall of Shame included the late Congressman James A. Traficant Jr., former Mahoning County Sheriff Phil Chance, and former judges Patrick Kerrigan, Andrew Polovischak and Martin Emrich.
More than 70 lawyers, officeholders and mobsters were convicted in the federal government’s corruption dragnet.
Katzman had a message for public officials in the region that, unfortunately, fell on deaf ears:
“ … your conduct in your off-duty hours transcends to your on-duty hours. You have a 24-hour, seven-day obligation to live that position, to be a role model for the community. If you didn’t want that, then you should not have taken the position to begin with.”
It’s not that elected officials shouldn’t drink or golf with their friends, Katzman said, but they should recognize that everything they do will be examined under the microscope and should, therefore, be above reproach.
“None of us are perfect,” the federal prosecutor said 20 years ago. “I’m not perfect. But on my off-duty hours, I recognize people will recognize me, and I have a moral obligation not to make a jerk of myself.”
And yet, the roll call of jerks continues grow.
There were other judges who found themselves on the wrong side of the law: Mark Belinky of the Mahoning County Probate Court; the late Maureen Cronin of the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.
And now there’s Diane Vettori-Carabello, who served as judge in the tiny community of Sebring, but had instincts of a big-city hoodlum.