It wasn’t that long ago that if you had the right amount of money in Mahoning County, you could get away with it.
That was the way things were when James Philomena, who was ostentatious, arrogant and corrupt, ran the county attorney’s office.
Philomena was convicted in 1999 for extortion and again in 2001 for bribery and perjury for rigging cases during her eight years as a prosecutor.
Not only could you buy your way out of a crime at the time, but Philomena was tied up in the mob.
That makes what Paul J. Gains did so remarkable.
In 1996, Gains challenged Philomena in the Democratic Party primary for prosecutor. Back then, the Democratic primary was THE choice, as we were years away from Republicans competing in Mahoning Valley politics.
“I ran because no one else would, and believe me, I approached people to run, people who I thought were much more eligible than I was, and they all said no,” Gains said. “But I felt like someone had to do something, and I hope that’s my legacy.”
Gains’ greatest legacy is that organized crime figures were so concerned with having an honest person, rather than Philomena, as county prosecutor that they attempted to assassinate Gains on Christmas Eve 1996 to ensure he would not take over. position.
Putting “organized” in front of “crime” for this gang is being generous. The plan was to kill Gains and convince members of the Mahoning Democratic central committee to replace him with a lawyer who was later found guilty of taking bribes for fixing civil service tests at Campbell so the mob could control the hiring of cops there.
Gains was shot in his home, but his life was spared when the gun used by Mark Batcho, hired to assassinate the prosecutor-elect, jammed. Batcho panicked and fled the scene while Gains survived.
Various events followed, including a phone call to Gains from the girlfriend of a man involved in the conspiracy to kill him, which led to the downfall of the Mahoning Valley mob.
It garnered national attention, still does to this day, and made Gains one of the best-known elected officials in the area.
While I’ve covered Valley politics for more than two decades, I don’t have much to do with the offices of the elected attorneys in Mahoning and Trumbull counties. That is left to our very capable criminal and court reporters for each county.
But Gains is someone I’ve talked to often over the years.
Some of our conversations were about public corruption, some were about politics, and some were to help me better understand the law.
Even if he just had a quick question, he would often be on the phone with me for a long time explaining something while quoting the law and yelling at his assistant for more information.
As for politics, Gains was often challenged by his position.
While Gains said he “didn’t run for this job because he wanted to be a powerful politician,” he was astute.
In all, Gains was elected to seven four-year terms, and had a challenger for all but one of those elections.
Gains announced last Friday, just over 26 years after he was first elected, that he would retire effective November 30.
Organized crime is a memory in the Valley, and while political corruption has declined from the scandalous levels of the late 1990s and early 2000s, it still exists.
Profits have their detractors. But we must thank him and those who prosecuted numerous corrupt elected officials and public sector employees, as well as the lawyers and businessmen who worked with them, for the work they have done.
Whoever replaces Gains surely has big shoes to fill.
The first will be Gina DeGenova, who the county commissioners appointed as acting prosecutor, to begin December 1. She has a good chance of getting the vote of the county Democratic Party central committee when it meets Jan. 7 to select the person to fill out Gains’ form. term, which expires at the end of 2024.
Skolnick covers politics for The Vindicator and Tribune Chronicle.