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Traficant vows to fight



Published: Sat, May 5, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- This time around, U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. gets no showy display of handcuffs and FBI escort for a 10-count indictment.

A federal grand jury in Cleveland handed up the indictment Friday against the 17th District congressman, who fully expected it. Using cooperating witnesses and mounds of records, the FBI built a bribery and tax evasion case that spans his 16 1/2 years on Capitol Hill.

The government said participants in the criminal acts included his district director, Charles O'Nesti, now deceased; John J. Cafaro, executive vice president of the Cafaro Co., who will plead guilty; contractors Anthony and Robert Bucci; contractor A. David Sugar, who has pleaded guilty; Attorney R. Allen Sinclair and others. The Vindicator used public records to identify Sinclair's involvement.

The 41-page indictment describes a greedy elected official who, instead of paying his bills, offered to use his position if those he owed money made his debts go away. He also had staff members do manual labor on his houseboat in Washington, D.C., and at his horse farm in Green Township, the government said.

He accepted cash, expensive dinners, free labor and materials at the farm, took kickbacks from high-ranking congressional staff members such as Sinclair and more, the government said.

If convicted he faces penalties of up to 40 years in prison and $2.2 million in fines.

Call it rerun, repeat or encore: It's the second time the FBI has said Traficant took bribes and evaded taxes. When Mahoning County sheriff in August 1982, Traficant was handcuffed by FBI agents after his indictment. He won acquittal the following year.

This time, a low-key summons from the U.S. attorney's office in Cleveland replaces the personalized arrest. A magistrate or U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells is expected to arraign him in Cleveland next week.

The investigation continues, said FBI Special Agent Andrew G. Arena, in charge of the bureau's Boardman office.

Racketeering allegations: Among the racketeering acts, the government alleges that Traficant:

* Accepted a deck on the farmhouse from an international businessman he helped secure the release of several million dollars held by a Saudi Arabian prince. The Vindicator has reported that Traficant helped Bernard J. "Pete" Bucheit's former Boardman construction company obtain some or all of the $11.6 million owed it by a Saudi Arabian prince for construction work.

* Accepted concrete floors and horse stalls, drainage pipes, waterlines and more from Capital Ready Mix and Big G Construction and helped the contractor secure loans. (The companies' owner, Greg Tyson, has testified before the grand jury).

* Accepted the repair of field drains, cutting of roads, removal of trees, supply and spreading of gravel and grading from Sugar.

* Placed three employees on the congressional payroll to perform personal services at the farm, including baling hay, running and repairing farm equipment, maintaining and repairing structures and more. One employee on the payroll collected from 1988 to February 2000; the second from 1991 to 1996; and the third from October 1990 to July 1992.

Traficant statements: "I have had a bull's-eye on my back since I defeated the Department of Justice," Traficant said in a press release. "I will defend myself in court."

The congressman sent a second release, warning reporters away from his home on North Main Street in Poland. He intends to digest the indictment and have a press conference Monday.

Earlier Friday, at a speaking engagement in Poland, he said he's as frightened as anyone would be but issued a challenge to federal prosecutors: "If I defeat you, you'll be working in Mingo Junction," a small community in Jefferson County near the West Virginia border.

The congressman, now in his ninth term, believes the indictment is a prosecutorial strategy to get others to turn on him.

Not long ago, the Poland Democrat -- who turns 60 on Tuesday -- proclaimed himself the most powerful congressman in the history of the Mahoning Valley and professed that he'd done nothing wrong.

"I don't give a damn what anybody says," he told The Vindicator. "I have used my popularity as best I could to try and help this Valley."

Traficant has several months to prepare his defense. He has expressed a desire to go to trial in August, when the House is in recess.

Guilty pleas: So far, Sugar, the New Middletown contractor who did work at Traficant's horse farm in Green Township, and a man who once cared for the horses have pleaded guilty for their attempts to hamper the investigation.

Sugar, of Honey Creek Contracting, pleaded guilty to perjury, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. He has a sealed plea agreement and awaits sentencing.

Clarence T. Broad received a 27-month prison sentence for tampering with a grand jury witness by plotting to kill Sandra J. Ferrante, a woman who lived at Traficant's farm for 17 years and trained his saddle horses for shows. Broad had wanted to keep Ferrante from testifying at the grand jury.

1980s battle: The charges against Traficant conjure up vivid images of nearly two decades ago when, acting as his own lawyer, the flamboyant orator persuaded jurors during a seven-week trial that he took mob bribes during his 1980 sheriff's campaign as part of a secret sting operation.

No matter how hard Traficant tried over the years, he found that, like a shadow on a sunny day, he couldn't shake the "mob-connected" apparition that has followed him everywhere.

Traficant has never missed an opportunity over the past two decades to hold himself out as the only American -- and unschooled lawyer, to boot -- who ever successfully defended a federal bribery case. He claims the win planted the seeds of a vendetta that the FBI and U.S. attorney's office have nurtured ever since.

After his acquittal, Traficant vowed to rid Mahoning County of the mob, saying "the sheriff's involvement in organized crime will become manifest in the near future." No organized crime arrests took place while he was sheriff.

Although Traficant won the criminal case, he lost in civil court. A U.S. Tax Court judge ruled in 1987 that Traficant took $108,000 in mob bribes during the 1980 sheriff's race and ordered him to pay nearly $190,000 in penalties and interest.

The IRS has garnisheed his wages since he lost his final appeal in 1989, and his most recent financial disclosure form shows he still owes the IRS between $50,000 and $100,000.

With the newest federal charges, Traficant becomes the 24th sitting U.S. congressman in history to be indicted while in office. Indictments began in 1838.

Taunted FBI: Word that the FBI once again had Traficant as a target almost went unnoticed until The Vindicator learned in January 2000 that his payroll and other office records had been subpoenaed by Craig S. Morford, an assistant U.S. attorney.

Traficant, rather than have the story dribble out over several days, sent faxes to all local news outlets to "announce" that he was under investigation. He then began taunting his pursuers, telling them to indict him.

Getting ahead of the story effectively took some of the punch out of his latest indictment. It also gave Traficant time to lay the groundwork during the past 16 months for part of his defense -- an assertion that certain local FBI agents are corrupt.

Early on in the probe, sources told the newspaper that agents had been questioning businessmen about goods and services they provided to Traficant, especially at his horse farm.

Did he pay or did he promise favors? That's what the FBI wanted to know.

Laws require that congressmen report the value of all gifts totaling more than $250 on their annual federal financial disclosure forms. Since 1985, when he joined Congress, Traficant has never reported a gift.

Traficant keeps about 30 saddle horses at the farm, which has been in the family since 1968. The 76-acre farm was given to Traficant's daughter as a gift in December 1999 -- days after he received a federal subpoena for office records -- as were several other properties owned by Traficant family members.

Once Traficant's troubles became public, he went on the attack, using the Congressional Record and speeches on the House floor to denounce the Justice Department.

All the while, Morford and the FBI maintained a stoic silence, not even acknowledging that the investigation existed.

Traficant, though, tried to convince everyone that the Justice Department was responsible for news leaks. He suggested that the government wanted to influence his re-election bid in the March 2000 primary.

Although the investigation has been public for 16 months, it started much earlier, with grand jurors hearing evidence in March 1999.

Others involved: News stories at the time told how mob boss Lenny Strollo had caved under a mountain of FBI evidence. Also caught in the probe was O'Nesti, Strollo's pal, and ex-sheriff Phil Chance.

O'Nesti, identified as a "bag man" in the Traficant tapes of 1980, pleaded guilty in March 1998 to racketeering charges. Traficant defended his friend and allowed him to retire, later saying O'Nesti lied to him about the mob.

O'Nesti died before being sentenced.

Traficant once called Chance the "second-best sheriff" in Mahoning County. Chance, convicted of racketeering charges in July 1999, is serving time in a federal prison.

Witnesses who made their way to the Traficant grand jury on the fifth floor of U.S. District Court in Cleveland have included, among others, prominent businessmen and streams of the congressman's current and former staffers.

Focus of inquiry: Over the course of the probe, the FBI checked out the following:

* Traficant's association with Bucheit, who once told The Vindicator that Traficant did his job as congressman and asked for nothing in return.

* What Traficant staff member William B. Pearch knew about Greg Tyson of Big G Construction, for whom Traficant helped secure a $675,000 loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the city of Youngstown in 1996.

* Whether Pearch or other staff members did work on public time at Traficant's farm or on his houseboat in Washington. Traficant has said staffers did work for him as favors only on their own time.

* Employee kickbacks and "ghost" employees who were listed on Traficant's payroll but did no congressional work.

Political opponents have called Traficant an embarrassment and worse throughout his congressional career, but few dared challenge him because of his immense popularity.

Traficant has passed few bills during his career and failed in his attempts to land a powerful committee assignment. Now, because of his decision to vote for a Republican as House speaker, he sits on no committees.




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