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Who will have last laugh in Trumbull?
Published: Sun, Jul 3, 2005
You've got to hand it to Trumbull County Commissioner James Tsagaris, he's able to laugh even in the face of persistent rumors that his name is on the list of public officials and others caught up in the investigation of government corruption that stems from the so-called purchasing scandal.
Tsagaris' sense of humor was evident Wednesday morning during the formal announcement by the David Fink, president of Pan Am Airlines, of regularly scheduled commercial flights from the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport starting Sept. 15. Fink and other company officials had flown in on a Pan Am Clipper Connection Boeing 727 from the East Coast, and as they made their way through the passenger waiting area to the main terminal for a news conference, Tsagaris turned to this writer and asked, "So what big question are you going to ask Mr. Fink?"
With the Boeing 727, emblazoned with the familiar Pan Am insignia, sitting on apron, the question triggered this reply: "I'm going to ask him if his airline has a prison plane to transport our crooked politicians out of here." Fans of the 1997 movie "Con Air," starring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack, will appreciate the quip. Tsagaris certainly seemed to, reacting with a chuckle and a comment of his own.
But several hours later, mulling over the light-hearted exchange, this thought came to mind: Does the commissioner know something that the rest of us bloodthirsty journalists don't about the government corruption investigation?
The thought was prompted by the fact that a month has passed since a grand jury that heard testimony from Trumbull County officials and employees about a kickback scheme was dismissed after nine months' service. No indictments were announced, as is standard operating procedure, even though the rumor mill in Trumbull County had been working overtime for weeks before the end of the grand jury's session. "Round up the usual suspects," seemed to be the order waiting to be issued by the special prosecutor, Victor Vigluicci, from Portage County. There was no order.
Vigluicci was brought in by Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins to avoid a possible conflict of interest. The county prosecutor's office represents the commissioners and other officeholders. Vigluicci has declined to explain the absence of indictments and would not say whether he intends to impanel another grand jury to continue the probe of the exorbitantly high prices paid by the county for cleaning supplies and other items.
Watkins, on the other hand, has sought to allay fears that no elected officials will be held responsible. Watkins said, "This investigation is pending from my end, and from the special prosecutor. There's unfinished cases here, and the special prosecutor is pending."
Given that the grand jury probe of county government's purchasing practices began in 2002, taxpayers are justified in asking, "What's going on?" And in light of a sworn statement from Tony Delmont, the fired maintenance director, that commissioners and Sheriff Thomas Altiere were aware of the scheme that defrauded the public treasury of $400,000 and that these officials received the lion's share of kickbacks, the words "cover-up" become part of the conversation among cynics.
Last summer, as he was weighing the pros and cons (that word again) of the board of commissioners going to the voters with a request for a 0.5 percent piggyback sales tax, Tsagaris met with this writer and a Vindicator reporter for a no-holds-barred discussion. While he wanted to put forth the arguments for additional revenue, Tsagaris did acknowledge the challenge involved in asking voters for more money while county government officials were being investigated for corruption. In fact, the commissioner admitted that he was a target of the probe, but insisted he would not be indicted.
A year later, Tsagaris is still in office and gives the impression that he doesn't have a care in the world. Hence, his chuckling at the comment about Pan Am's having a prison plane to fly corrupt public officials out of the Valley.
The commissioner may be laughing now, but if this investigation continues indefinitely and his name keeps cropping up as one of the officeholders in Trumbull County who will be indicted, he will cease to think it's funny.
It's time for prosecutors to act.