Monday, May 21, 2001

Mall developer to share role in Traficant case

The Associated Press

        CLEVELAND — A Youngstown millionaire who helped build the careers of many politicians is playing a prominent role in helping the government try to convict U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.

        As the youngest son in a traditional Italian family, John J. Cafaro took a subordinate role in running the shopping-mall empire his father founded in Youngstown 50 years ago. Cafaro Co. is the largest family-owned shopping center developer in the country, with more than 80 malls and shopping centers in 13 states.

        While the oldest son, Anthony, inherited the reins of the business from his father, William, it was John — better known as J.J. — who teamed with his father to make the Cafaros the most politically influential family in the Mahoning Valley and among the largest campaign contributors in the country.

        John Cafaro, 49, will be compelled to testify next year in federal court against Mr. Traficant, who is charged with racketeering, obstruction of justice, accepting bribes and collecting kickbacks from employees.

        He pleaded guilty last week to conspiring to bribe Mr. Traficant to back a high-tech business venture that he owned. Mr. Cafaro could receive up to five years in prison.

        “I'm glad his father's not around to see this,” said Don L. Hanni, former chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party and a lifelong friend of William Cafaro, who died in 1998.

        From an early age, John Cafaro would accompany his father to a political lunch group that met every Saturday at the Captain's Table, a restaurant at the Ramada Inn in Youngstown. Anyone making a run for office was welcome to stop by to make a pitch.

        “They were running the Democratic Party from that corner table, and William Cafaro was like a king holding court,” said Leo Jennings, a Youngstown political consultant. “There usually was a parade of candidates seeking the old man's blessing.”

        The Cafaro family donated more than $1 million to state and national political causes during the 1990s.

        U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, a beneficiary of those campaign contributions, said John Cafaro's conviction will hinder any political aspirations the businessman might have had.

        Attorney Geoffrey S. Mearns, who represents Mr. Cafaro, said his client is committed to continuing his political activities, although at a reduced level.

        “From now on, he will consult regularly with professional advisers to be sure that his conduct conforms to all applicable laws and ethical guidelines,” Mr. Mearns told the Plain Dealer.

        Anthony Cafaro, 55, said that while he is tempted to choke his younger brother, he will always be part of the business, and he will always love him.

        “I'm not making excuses for J.J. or condoning his mistakes, but everything has to be put into a proper perspective,” Anthony Cafaro said. “I would hope and pray that the reputation of the Cafaro Co. will not be tarnished.”


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