MILLER: Gambling politics in Ohio-PA border counties


By Dick Miller

WE.CONNECT.DOTS   Second of a series about contrasting Ohio-PA border politics.

State and national Democrat parties have written off Western Pennsylvania politics.  To deflect boredom, we Keystoners follow happenings in the Mahoning Valley – Mahoning and Trumbull counties through five Youngstown TV stations.  These Ohio counties form the west side of the state border with parts of Lawrence and Crawford counties and all of Mercer County in PA.

Mahoning Valley politicians cozied up to mafia-types from before World War II until a few years ago.  After Prohibition, mobsters served up gambling varieties – numbers; poker, bingo, dice, slots and sports betting to tens of thousands of factory workers.

As a teen-ager in the 1950s, I collected football pools at a clerk job at Hinkle’s Dairy Store in Ellport Borough and dropped them off at Johnny’s Oasis Friday in Ellwood City.  The money would flow to New Castle and then to Youngstown, or directly to Pittsburgh families.

Enter both state governments getting into legalized gambling with lotteries and later casinos.  Federal agents, like conquering armies, poured into the Mahoning Valley, breaking up mostly Italian gangs with indictments by the dozens.

Today, organized crime in the Mahoning Valley is less organized.  Drugs come from Detroit and elsewhere, but the dealers’ sway over politicians has declined.

Government corruption there is more in the form of bribes for contracts, no-work public jobs and, most recently, 19 employees of Mahoning Valley Sanitary District who “qualified” for raises after falsely claiming they earned a technical certification in water purification.

The Feds raided, interrogated and prosecuted in the Youngstown region on a grand scale.  During one crackdown, shortly before turn of the century, the FBI arrested 45 mobsters, government officials and assorted bad guys.

Three defendants went to trial, were convicted and sentenced to life without parole.  They had been charged with the murder of another gangster and the attempted murder of a newly elected prosecutor a few weeks before he was sworn into office.  The remaining 42 pled guilty to lesser charges.

The mob had influence into the Mahoning County prosecutor’s office.  They did not expect Paul Gains to win the election.  Gains, a former policeman, going to law school at night, expected people to obey the law.  Voters believed him and voted him into office.

The mob tried to kill him before he even took office.

Christmas Eve, 1996, Gains was shot several times, but miraculously survived.

Gangsters in that region were always wanting to kill each other.  Some were successful.  Some murders were never solved.  Youngstown is midway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland.  Generally, Pittsburgh mafia won out for Youngstown gambling, loan sharking and other racketeering.

The top mobster in Mahoning County was Lennie Strollo who reported to Pittsburgh mafia.

The writer had one brush with Strollo.  While serving as a court-appointed trustee in Lawrence County for former President Judge Ralph Pratt, my assignment was to “babysit” a bingo hall northwest of New Castle.

Strollo made it known he wanted supposedly to buy the hall.  I declined through an intermediary.  Mobsters fed off “non-profit” bingo halls, skimming cash that was intended to go to the charities “sponsoring” the bingo game.  New Castle had its own actors skimming money from little leagues and scholarship programs.

The mafia made little impact in West Central PA, despite being able to penetrate from the south (Pittsburgh) or west (Youngstown).  They ran card games in Hillsville Village in northwest Lawrence County.

Because of another case (a vending company) in Lawrence County, I had temporary responsibility for electronic poker machines in the New Castle area.

Poker machines are significant revenue producers, but were illegal in Pennsylvania.  Periodically state police (never local) would raid clubs and bars, confiscate the machines and get a fine levied on either the owner or person(s) in charge of the non-profit club.

Cities and boroughs set annual license fees for amusement games where liquor is served.  At least in New Castle and Pittsburgh, city councils ignored the illegality, charging more for licenses for poker machines because of the revenues.

There were very few such illegal gambling units in Mercer County.  Scratch-off tickets were more prevalent in fraternal clubs.

Much of the illegal activity occurring in the PA border counties had to do with sports betting.  Local bookies unable to balance their weekend bets would use mob-backed gambling syndicates in Youngstown and Pittsburgh to make “lay-off” wagers.

The lower level of gangster activity was not an accident in Mercer County.

Rumors had it that DA offices in Mercer and perhaps Lawrence County may have had some “wink-and-nod” relationships with bad guys until the late 1950s.  Ed Bell, an incorruptible Republican, was Mercer DA from 1964 until he died in mid-second term in 1970.  My respect for importance of sensitive politics in law and order circumstances came from Mr. Bell.  He almost made me a Republican.

Bottom Line: In the time of mobsters in the Mahoning Valley, murders could be gruesome as they tried to kill each other.  Drive-by shootings of innocent children did not become a concern until drug activity increased.

The Ohio 2017 primary is Tuesday (May 2) while Pennsylvania’s is scheduled for May 16.  Despite this, a few PA border county citizens — who depend on Youngstown television for their news — will show up at PA polls come Tuesday, expecting to be able to vote.

Mahoning County election officials will be unveiling new software that will speed up election results.  The web-based system has been used in more than 800 jurisdictions of various sizes since 2008.

Updated: May 1, 2017 — 5:56 am © 2016