The General Counsel's office stopped its assistance of the indicted congressman when he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The House's Office of General Counsel has no plans to give indicted U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. any further legal advice.
It will be up to Traficant, a nonlawyer defending himself, to determine which documents submitted by the U.S. attorney's office in his criminal case he believes cannot be used against him under the Speech or Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
In a Monday court filing, House Senior Counsel Michael L. Stern wrote that his office "ceased to represent Congressman Traficant with respect to compliance with grand jury subpoenas at the time that he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights," which was in July 2000.
At the time, Traficant refused to turn over certain documents, asserting his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, contacted the General Counsel after his office records were subpoenaed by the government in December 1999. The counsel office reviewed the records and determined which documents he did not have to turn over on the Speech or Debate Clause privilege.
Protection: The clause protects the speech of Congress members on the House floor or in committee rooms.
The government submitted 233 pages of documents last week that Traficant withheld, citing the clause. The government asked Traficant to review the papers with the General Counsel and let them know if he has any objections to the evidence being used against him at his trial, set to begin Feb. 4.
"We cannot advise Congressman Traficant as to which documents, if any, he should object to as privileged under the Speech or Debate Clause because that judgment no longer involves a question of the rights and privileges of the House, but primarily -- if not exclusively -- a question of how the decision to assert or not to assert the privilege will affect the congressman's interests in this case," Stern wrote.
Advice to prosecutors: In the filing, Stern, who could not be reached Monday to comment, also gave some advice to federal prosecutors in Traficant's case about the Speech or Debate Clause:
"The proposed procedure would only dispose of Speech or Debate issues relating to documentary evidence, not testimony; the government's proposed procedure would only dispose of Speech or Debate issues relating to the particular documents the government has identified; and in some cases it may not be clear until a piece of evidence is actually offered at trial, and the court can review the context in and purposes for which it is offered, whether the Speech or Debate Clause bars the introduction of the evidence."
Traficant, a nine-term congressman, faces a 10-count indictment on charges of racketeering, bribery and tax evasion.
What's alleged: Federal prosecutors say Traficant sold his influence to local businessmen in return for money, meals and improvements to his Greenford family farm and his former houseboat in Washington, D.C. The indictment also says Traficant required his employees to work on the farm and houseboat on government time and had one of his staffers kick back half of his salary.
Traficant could face up to 63 years in prison if convicted.
Traficant appeared Friday in front of Judge Lesley Brooks Wells in U.S. District Court for a status hearing. Traficant submitted motions, several of them the judge says were filed incorrectly, in an attempt to postpone the hearing.
In a fax sent to the judge, Traficant said the refusal to continue the hearing violated the Speech and Debate Clause, the Separation of Powers Clause of the Constitution, and the Sixth Amendment allowing defendants to be represented in court because he should have been in Congress that day representing his constituents.
Judge's reaction: "These actions were taken by defendant either out of ignorance or disdain for the Rules of Court which he has repeatedly been advised he must as a pro se defendant, like all other pro se defendants, observe," wrote Judge Wells, who has criticized Traficant for improperly filing motions and his conduct in court.
Judge Wells has also stated her reservations about Traficant defending himself. The judge said during Friday's hearing that she was surprised Traficant has failed to pick up boxes of evidence compiled by federal prosecutors.
Traficant said he is more interested in audio and video tapes the government may use as evidence. On Friday, Traficant filed a motion seeking all tapes and pictures federal authorities have of him, his associates and those involved in his case.
The congressman also specifically asked for audio tapes of an interview federal officials supposedly conducted in the Euclid City jail with Lawrence "Jeep" Garano, a convicted associate of Lenine Strollo, former local mob boss.