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TRAFICANT CASE Answering the charges



Published: Fri, May 11, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The congressman's spokesman in Washington, D.C., said his boss still intends to be his own lawyer.

By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. had to officially decide today whether to be his own lawyer or hire one to fight racketeering, bribery and tax charges.

U.S. District Judge Lesley B. Wells was to travel here from Cleveland to conduct a hearing to determine if the 17th District congressman's decision to represent himself has been "knowingly and intelligently made."

In anticipation of the court proceedings, local as well as out-of-town reporters converged on the Thomas D. Lambros Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse early today.

Reporters broadcast morning shows from the 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. Officials said they also expected CNN to cover the proceedings.

Traficant, who is not a lawyer, has steadfastly maintained since his May 4 indictment that he would represent himself.

Charles Straub, the congressman's spokesman in Washington, D.C., said late Thursday that his boss still intends to represent himself.

Federal Prosecutors Craig S. Morford, Bernard A. Smith and Matthew B. Kall said in a motion 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.

The Poland Democrat must be warned by the judge that, if he insists on representing himself, he will not be afforded special treatment, the government said. When Mahoning County sheriff in 1983, Traficant successfully defended himself and won acquittal in a federal bribery trial.

After Judge Wells' hearing today, Traficant was to be arraigned by Magistrate Judge George J. Limbert. The trial has been set for July 16 in Judge Wells' court.

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 ninth-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.




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