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Traficant comes face-to-face with the reality of his trial



Published: Thu, July 19, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Leave it to Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. to think that he can describe a federal judge's question as "asinine" in May and then two months later ask that same judge for a favor.

The fact that U.S. District Court Judge Lesley Brooks Wells summarily denied Traficant's request to reset a hearing scheduled for Friday makes it clear that his courtroom antics at the time of his arraignment in May will no longer be tolerated.

We took Wells to task then for not insisting that the congressman adhere to the same standard of courtroom behavior that applies to all lawyers, so now we praise her for not buying his asinine -- that word again -- argument that as a member of Congress his presence in Washington is of utmost importance. He needs to "render ample representation to his constituents," he argued. Traficant sought a 30-day postponement of the Friday session at which any pre-trial issues will be discussed.

Judge Wells said no -- and chose not to explain her decision. Traficant had better be present in her courtroom in the federal courthouse in Cleveland or he could be held in contempt of court.

The 17th District Democratic congressman is scheduled to go on trial in February on 10 federal criminal charges, including racketeering, bribery and tax evasion. He will be defending himself, just as he did in 1983 when he successfully defeated the federal government in a high profile case. Traficant had been charged with racketeering, bribery and tax evasion based on the government's claim that he had accepted money from Mafia figures during his 1980 campaign for Mahoning County sheriff with the promise that he would not interfere with their gambling and other illegal activities.

Circus: That trial will be remembered as one in which the federal judge, Ann Aldrich, gave Traficant so much leeway, that he turned the proceedings into a circus and became the ringmaster. He was acquitted by a jury, but was subsequently charged in federal civil court with tax evasion and was ordered to pay taxes, interest and penalty on $103,000 that he took from the mob.

He has been paying the federal government while serving as a member of Congress.

In May, when Judge Wells let Traficant get away with characterizing one of her questions as asinine, accusing her of trying to deny him a fair trial by cramping his style and describing another federal court in which he appeared as "a kangaroo court," we were taken aback. After all, such shenanigans would never have been permitted had a lawyer been representing the congressman.

Now, our worries have been eased as a result of the judge's refusal to grant Traficant a delay and by the court's refusal to consider a letter he sent earlier this month suggesting that he might want to postpone the status conference. That letter, while addressed to Wells, triggered a response from her law clerk advising Traficant that the rules of procedure spell out how motions are to be filed and he must follow them.

Yes, the congressman has a right to a fair trial. No, he doesn't have the right to expect special treatment just because he's defending himself.




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