By DAVID SKOLNICK
AND PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS
YOUNGSTOWN -- Despite concerns expressed by the federal judge hearing his case, U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. insists he will defend himself against charges of racketeering, bribery and tax evasion.
"With all due respect, I think it's unwise to represent oneself in these proceedings," U.S. District Judge Lesley B. Wells told Traficant during his initial court appearance today in U.S. District Court here.
"I understand you've done this before, but you're not schooled in the law, you're not schooled in the rules of evidence. I still urge you to consider whether you want to represent yourself in this case. Look at the penalties," the judge said.
Traficant could face up to 63 years in prison and $2.2 million if convicted on all counts.
In response, Traficant called Judge Wells' questioning "asinine."
Cites '83 trial: The congressman said he's had a history of defending himself in court going back to his successful defense against racketeering and bribery charges in a 1983 trial.
Judge Wells said the circumstances of that trial and this case are completely different.
"We want to give you a fair trial," the judge said.
In response, Traficant asked, "Do you mean to demean me today?"
The judge advised Traficant to consider the appointment of standby counsel to sit with him during the trial to help him with procedural matters.
Traficant declined that option but said he might seek the advice of lawyers in preparing his case and during the trial.
Bond, restrictions: Magistrate Judge George Limbert, who arraigned Traficant today, released him on $50,000 personal recognizance bond recommended by the federal pretrial services department.
Traficant pleaded innocent to the 10-count indictment "by reason of sanity."
He's permitted to travel to Washington, D.C., to serve in Congress, but any trips outside the U.S. Northern District Court jurisdiction, which covers northern Ohio, would require prior approval of the court.
Traficant said he was concerned about the travel restrictions because he wants to go turkey hunting in Pennsylvania in the next week.
The congressman also had to surrender his passport and would need prior permission from the court to leave the country.
Questioning by judge: During today's hearing, Judge Wells read the charges and asked Traficant a number of questions regarding his decision to defend himself.
She asked him if he understood the charges and maximum penalties. In response, Traficant said, "I fully understand, your honor. I'm getting screwed here."
The judge warned Traficant that he will not receive any special consideration during the trial because he is not an attorney.
Trial postponed: Also, Traficant asked that the July 16 trial date be postponed.
"The federal prosecutors have been meeting with witnesses for two years and July 16 wouldn't give me enough time to visit the restroom in this courtroom."
Prosecutors estimate their case will take about four weeks.
The judge set the trial date for Feb. 4, 2002, at 9:30 a.m., with a final pretrial hearing Jan. 7, 2002.
Federal Prosecutors Craig S. Morford, Bernard A. Smith and Matthew B. Kall had said in a motion before the court that the congressman has the constitutional right to be his own lawyer but that such action is fraught with danger. The government wants to ensure that Traficant makes his decision with "eyes open" and puts it on the record to avoid appellate issues.
Charges: The 60-year-old congressman 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.
Accusations against the nine-term congressman include having staff members do manual labor on his houseboat in Washington, D.C., and at his horse farm in Greenford. He accepted cash, expensive dinners, free labor and materials at the farm from businessmen, took kickbacks from high-ranking congressional staff members and more, the government said.
Count four, for example, alleges a conspiracy to violate the federal bribery statute and lists as co-conspirators his administrative assistant and a lawyer placed on the congressional payroll in November 1998. Payroll records show Henry A. DiBlasio as the administrative assistant, not Charles O'Nesti, as previously reported. R. Allen Sinclair has been identified as the lawyer.
The charge states that the assistant had diverted a portion of his salary to Traficant, which the newly hired lawyer then agreed to do. Cash in an envelope was slipped under the door at Traficant's Overhill Road office in Boardman, which the congressman rented from the lawyer's wife, the government said.
Cafaro role: Among the businessmen expected to testify against Traficant is John J. Cafaro, executive vice president of the Cafaro Co. Cafaro has said he will plead guilty to a one-count criminal information that charges him with conspiracy to commit bribery of a public official.
From November 1997 to March 2000, Cafaro agreed to give Traficant things of value and, in return, the congressman would support having technology from USAerospace Group, owned by John J. Cafaro, certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and used by airports and various government agencies. USAG is a laser technology company based in Manassas, Va.
The congressman took several official actions, including promoting the laser technology guidance system to the FAA, the government said.
The government wanted the case, now assigned to U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver, to be transferred to Judge Wells, but she perceives a potential conflict.
A motion filed by Cafaro's Cleveland lawyer, Geoffrey S. Mearns, says that Judge Wells' husband is a partner at Squire Sanders & amp; Dempsey, the same firm that performed legal work on behalf of USAG to obtain the laser-guidance patents that are at issue in the case.
"The parties understand that Judge Wells' standard practice is to recuse herself from hearing any case in which even an attenuated potential conflict of interest may exist," Mearns said in his motion. He said the government agreed with his motion to not have Judge Wells preside over the Cafaro case.
His plea will be taken at 1 p.m. Monday in Judge Oliver's court.
Reporters broadcast morning shows from the courthouse site. A Fox 8 satellite truck from Cleveland was parked in a section of Front Street that was cordoned off to allow parking for news vehicles.