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Some intent on fighting organized crime in Youngstown

Sunday, December 31, 2000

By Bill Heltzel, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The attempted assassination four years ago of Mahoning County prosecutor-elect Paul Gains was an occasion of despair for reformers who had long sought to drive organized crime out of the Youngstown, Ohio, region.

The mob hierarchy was confident enough of its grip on Mahoning Valley politics to try to kill a prosecutor -- the very symbol of the rule of law. Even worse, cynicism and resignation had so corroded the community's spirit that there was almost no public outcry.

But the Gains shooting ended up having a far-reaching impact. More than 70 public officials and mob figures have been convicted since then. The mob's lucrative gambling and drug operations have been crippled. The reformers are starting to get some respect.

The Citizens' League of Youngstown, an anti-mob group formed 19 years ago by lawyer James Callen, is working to change attitudes that enabled organized crime to flourish. Earlier this month, Callen led a delegation to Palermo, Sicily, for a four-day conference on fighting organized crime with culture.

One of the ironies of the Gains shooting, Callen said, is that "Paul wasn't a reformer. We interviewed him prior to the 1996 election and asked his opinion of organized crime. He downplayed it."

But mob boss Lenine Strollo saw Gains as a threat. Strollo, who admitted in court last year that he was a "made man" in the Pittsburgh organized crime family, depended on his control of politicians and police to protect illegal gambling operations in the Mahoning Valley.

One of Strollo's allies, according to prosecution court documents, was James Philomena, the prosecutor who Gains defeated in the primary election. Strollo wanted Philomena to fix a robbery and burglary case against a mob soldier. In exchange, witnesses testified at Strollo's trial, Philomena wanted Gains killed.

Gains also had spurned attempts by the mob to pay him off before he took office. Though fighting the mob was not a priority, the former Youngstown police officer was aware of organized crime. When he had represented criminal defendants as an attorney, he discovered public corruption.

"Clients informed me that cases could be fixed," he said. "That's why I ran. My principal goal was to put a stop to that, to take the for-sale sign out of this office, and to reduce violent crime. I didn't consider organized crime a priority, but I didn't believe then that it was involved with drug dealers."

Strollo gave the order to kill Gains to Bernie Altshuler, his top lieutenant, who in turn gave the contract to a drug dealer. The dealer brought in two other men. Four years ago, on Christmas Eve, the hit team drove out to Gains' house. They brought a bag of cocaine to plant on the body and make it look like a drug-related crime.

The gunman walked in while Gains was on the telephone, shot him in the side and an arm and then aimed at his heart. The .38-caliber revolver jammed. The gunman panicked and ran.

Even Gains did not connect the attack to the mob. If the mob had done it, he initially told friends, he'd be dead. Investigators did not identify the hit team until several months later when an ex-girlfriend of one of their associates started talking.

The public also saw no connection.

"People didn't want to believe my shooting was related to my taking office," Gains said. "They wanted to believe I was dirty, or it was someone's husband or that it was for gambling or drug dealing or that I was gay. I don't think anyone wanted to believe it was an attempt to nullify an election."

Investigators connected the hit team to the murder earlier in 1996 of Ernie Biondillo, a rival mobster who was edging in on Strollo's operations. It was the first time, Callen said, that the killing of a mobster had ever been solved in the Mahoning Valley.

More important, it gave the FBI and other federal and state agencies the leverage to pursue a more ambitious goal. Investigators conducted a massive undercover operation into public corruption. And though the Gains shooting did not outrage the public, the public corruption cases did.

Former prosecutors, a former assistant U.S. attorney, judges, attorneys, the sheriff, a police chief, a county engineer, and various politicians were indicted and convicted. Criminal cases had been fixed. Huge amounts of money had been diverted from public agencies or spent on sloppy work.

"Every time you hit a pothole and had to pay $140 for a front-end job, you could thank organized crime for the shoddy paving," Gains said.

The Citizens' League was never a major player in civic affairs. When its members successfully drew attention to organized crime, by testifying before Congress or getting quoted in national publications, other community leaders criticized them for giving Youngstown a black eye. Callen was mocked for seeing a mobster behind every tree. After the New Republic published a scathing portrayal on the region last summer, the Youngstown-Warren Chamber of Commerce saw the problem as negative publicity.

"The Chamber's view is that it's an image problem," Callen said. "There's never any discussion of changing the underlying reality."

But with every indictment, the credibility of Callen and the Citizens' League improved. A New York Times article in April was seen by Roy Godson, a Georgetown University government professor who studies ways to fight corruption. Godson notified officials in Sicily about the League's efforts, and the mayor of Palermo invited Callen to a United Nations symposium, "Creating a Culture of Lawfulness."

There are several striking similarities between Palermo and Youngstown. Both have had distressed economies. Both had parasitic crime groups and compliant public officials. Both had a populace that was resigned to the power of the mob.

The Mafia in Sicily was considered "virtually inviolable," Enzo LoData of the Sicilian Renaissance Institute wrote in the conference program. The "stifling yoke of crime on Sicilian society constituted the main obstacle to economic, social and cultural progress on the island."

The Sicilian Mafia controlled construction, food markets, public contracts, and narcotics, and it employed public corruption and violence to prevent the development of a civic conscience.

"It was precisely this dominance over the mental attitude and spirit of the people that guaranteed the Mafia absolute control over the island."

There also are significant differences. Palermo, with 700,000 people, plays a bigger role in Sicily than Youngstown, with fewer than 90,000, does in Ohio. The political corruption in Sicily extended to the top of the national government, in its control of the Christian Democratic Party.

The Sicilian Mafia was the center of a worldwide heroin network, whereas the Youngstown mob operates mostly in Northeastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.

The Sicilian Mafia was much more violent and brutal. Toto Riina, the boss of bosses for many years, is believed to have killed, or had others kill, more than 800 people during his rise to power. In the Mahoning Valley, a dozen or so mobsters have been killed in the past 21 years.

But the most significant difference is that Palermo has found ways to fight organized crime by changing its culture. Beginning in the 1980s, educators, religious leaders and others began forming anti-Mafia associations.

For more than 100 years, religious leaders would not publicly mention the existence of the Mafia. But in 1982, Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo denounced the Mafia and declared participation in its activities as evil. That in turn allowed priests to fight the evil more vigorously.

The Palermo schools set up a curriculum that promoted a civic conscience and cultivated a generation resistant to Mafia control. Students were encouraged to adopt national monuments and restore historical places, as a way of reconnecting them to their cultural heritage.

Palermo magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paola Borsellino led judicial investigations. They culminated in a "maxi-trial" that decimated the Mafia's leadership.

Then in 1992, Falcone and Borsellino and their police guards were murdered. They were symbols of the fight against organized crime, but instead of cowering the public, their killings galvanized Sicilians.

Observers of the "Palermo Renaissance" date the start of the cultural revolution to 1992. The following year, in Italy's first direct election of mayors, Palermo voters chose reformer Leoluca Orlando with a 75 percent majority. Orlando attacked public corruption and worked with educators and religious leaders throughout Sicily to cultivate civic values.

The conference earlier this month celebrated those victories and highlighted ways to develop an ethic of lawfulness in religion, education, business, labor and culture.

Orlando described the reform movement as a two-wheel cart. If only the wheel of law enforcement turns, the cart goes around in a circle. But if the wheel of culture turns, the cart moves forward.

Business Journal publisher Andrea Wood said the conference challenged the theory prevalent in the Mahoning Valley that jobs must be created before corruption can be cleaned up.

"It's the other way around," she said. "You have to create a culture of legality first."

The Youngstown delegation included Gains and new sheriff Randall Wellington, religious leaders, educators, business leaders, and reporters. While they were in Italy, Callen said, they were ridiculed on radio talk shows in Youngstown.

George McKelvey, mayor of Youngstown, did not go. McKelvey, who campaigned against mob vending machines in City Hall, told The New York Times that his city is "cutting the cancer out" and is already well on the way to recovery. He derided "ivory tower" reformers who put down the public as too accepting of corruption and organized crime.

"The main thing that came out of the trip," said Wood, "is that it can be done. ... The problem is not enough community leaders went, or the right ones. Clearly, we needed some of the political leadership there. The sheriff and the prosecutor went, but they already get it."

The reformers are unsure whether they have enough community support to apply lessons learned in Palermo. Callen also is cautioning against a quick fix, echoing a statement by Godson, the Georgetown professor, who wrote that "real progress should not be expected for five to 10 years and maybe longer."

He also emphasizes a lesson that was highlighted in Palermo. The Sicilian Mafia has not been destroyed. It has been suppressed. As long as the culture tolerates corruption, organized crime can flourish.

"Certainly, they've taken a big hit here," Callen said. "It isn't nearly as visible and prominent. But even though they may be on their knees now, there is every reason to believe it will recur if we don't take advantage of this period and make some changes."

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