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Warning on self-representation



Published: Thu, May 10, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The arraignment will take place in a courtroom on the same floor as the congressman's district office in downtown Youngstown.

By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

CLEVELAND -- Before U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. acts as his own attorney, federal prosecutors want a judge to make sure the congressman knows the dangers that lie ahead.

In a motion filed Wednesday, the government asked that Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, not be arraigned Friday in Youngstown by a magistrate, but in Cleveland by U.S. District Judge Lesley B. Wells after a hearing.

At the hearing, Prosecutors Craig S. Morford, Bernard A. Smith and Matthew B. Kall want the judge to determine if the congressman's apparent decision to represent himself has been "knowingly and intelligently made." Traficant is not a lawyer but successfully represented himself 18 years ago in a federal bribery trial when he was Mahoning County sheriff.

Judge Wells granted the government's motion in part. She has decided to preside over the hearing in Youngstown's federal court and then leave and have Magistrate Judge George J. Limbert do the arraignment.

A grand jury handed up a 10-count indictment against the 60-year-old congressman May 4. He faces four counts of bribery, two counts of filing false tax returns, and one count each of obstruction of justice, seeking and accepting illegal gratuities, conspiracy to defraud the United States and violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute. The last count includes a $100,000 forfeiture action.

Urges extreme caution: Although Traficant indisputably has the constitutional right to represent himself, proceeding to trial without an attorney is fraught with dangers for a criminal defendant, the motion states.

Quoting case law, the government said: "Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law. ... He lacks both the skill and knowledge to adequately prepare his defense. ... He requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step of the proceedings against him."

Prosecutors want to ensure that Traficant makes his decision with "eyes open" and put it on the record to avoid appellate issues.

A defendant can represent himself or hire a lawyer, but he can't do both. "Manipulating the criminal justice system by attempting to assert both rights is not permitted," the motion states.

Judge's instructions: If, after Judge Wells' questions at the hearing Traficant still wants to represent himself, the government wants her to tell him that he will be expected to comply with all applicable legal rules and procedures. Irrelevant, prejudicial or inflammatory remarks or questions will not be permitted simply because he is not an attorney.

"In other words, Congressman Traficant should be advised that he will not be accorded special leeway or other advantages because he is not an attorney," the government said. "Furthermore, the government requests that Congressman Traficant be warned that not even the court can predict all possible disadvantages that the congressman may encounter. ..."

By their motion, prosecutors apparently want to avoid what observers said occurred in the 1983 trial when Traficant represented himself and managed to get his points across without taking the stand by the way he framed questions to witnesses.

He persuaded jurors during the seven-week trial that he took mob bribes during his 1980 sheriff campaign as part of a secret sting operation.

Accusations: Traficant is charged with having congressional staff members do manual labor on his houseboat in Washington, D.C., and at his horse farm in Green Township. He's also accused of accepting cash, expensive dinners, free labor and materials at the farm from businessmen in return for favors and of taking kickbacks from high-ranking staff members.

Traficant, who has been in the nation's capital since Monday evening, received a copy of the motion there and at his home in Poland, said spokesman Charles Straub. The congressman was expected to review the motion this morning, Straub said.

Judge Wells had a copy of her order hand-delivered to his Youngstown office and faxed to his office in Washington.

meade@vindy.com




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