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Published: 11/25/2000

Rooting out the Mafia

The irony is unmistakable in news that a delegation of Youngstown residents, concerned about the Ohio city's image and its continuing troubles with organized crime, will be searching for solutions next month in Sicily, ancestral homeland of the Mafia. The purpose, however, seems worthwhile.

The group will be attending a United Nations conference in Palermo aimed at exploring cultural changes necessary to root out the menacing tentacles of the Mob, wherever it exists. Leading the delegation will be James B. Callen, a legal-aid lawyer, who has been working for the past 20 years to build civic resistance to Youngstown's somewhat-diluted but still-dangerous crop of Goodfellas.

Nearly two decades ago, Mr. Callen testified before Congress on the need for action against organized crime in Mahoning County, where James Traficant, then the sheriff, had been put on trial for accepting mob payoffs. But the fight has been slow-going. Mr. Traficant was acquitted and eventually got himself elected to a seat in Congress, which he uses as a platform to insist that it's the federal prosecutors who are corrupt, even as he himself is under investigation.

A current crackdown by federal authorities drew impetus after a botched mob hit in December, 1996, on Paul Gains, a few days before he took over as county prosecutor. Since then, more than 50 people, including Mr. Gains' bribe-taking predecessor, James Philomena, and Lenine Strollo, the local mob boss, have been convicted.

But there is clearly more work to do. In Palermo, the Youngstown reformers will be looking at the work of the Italian city's anti-Mafia mayor, Leoluca Orlando, who believes that, in addition to law enforcement, programs in churches and schools can be successful in overcoming the centuries-old cultural ties used by the Mafia to maintain its criminal enterprises. A good deal of progress has been made by Sicilian officials since 1992, when the public became outraged after Mafia bombs killed two crusading prosecutors.

One prominent Youngstown official who won't be part of the Palermo conference is Mayor George McKelvey, who maintains, as he told the New York Times, that the city already is past the time when local public figures “sold their souls to the mob.” The campaign by “ivory tower” reformers, the mayor contends, is an “insult” to the local citizenry.

Maybe so, but Mr. Callen and others make a good case for the longer view, arguing that Youngstown would be wise to take broader steps to eradicate a culture of tolerance for organized crime and its insidious ways.

The Mahoning Valley's continuing struggle to rid itself of corruption indicates that law enforcement alone won't do the job. Tracking the problem to its perceived source, despite the irony and the faintly comic overtones, can't hurt.



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