Sometimes the line between permissible lobbying and giving an improperpayment to a politician can be fuzzy, the attorney said.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
CLEVELAND -- The attorney for J.J. Cafaro says his client expected that by giving financial help to U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. the congressman "would use his office to support" laser-guidance technology being promoted by Cafaro's company.
Cafaro, local mall developer, pleaded guilty as expected Monday to a one-count criminal information in U.S. Court in Cleveland for conspiring to provide an unlawful gratuity to Traficant, of Poland, D-17th. Cafaro asked Geoffrey Mearns, his Cleveland-based attorney, to speak on his behalf to The Vindicator.
"There's no doubt that Mr. Cafaro's conduct crossed the line between permissible lobbying and providing an unlawful gratuity," Mearns said. "Sometimes that line can be fuzzy. There can sometimes be a gray area with political contributions and political relationships. Unfortunately, Mr. Cafaro crossed over that line."
Cafaro and his family have given about $1 million in legal contributions, much in soft-money donations, to political candidates and campaign committees during the past eight years.
Complex relationship: Mearns said the relationship between the Liberty businessman and the congressman was a "complex and evolving one" that also involved other employees at USAerospace Group, Cafaro's Manassas, Va., company that owns the patent for laser visual guidance technology.
"Others kept the relationship going," Mearns said. "This was not simply a relationship between Mr. Cafaro and Congressman Traficant, but also between other employees at USAG and the congressman. I don't mean to suggest that Mr. Cafaro doesn't accept responsibility for what he did. He accepts full responsibility for what he did and what others at his company did."
Cafaro was interested in getting Traficant's support for the technology because the congressman was a senior Democratic member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation in 1998 when USAG was working to get its technology certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, Mearns said.
Amounts involved: A 10-count federal indictment of Traficant on charges of bribery, racketeering and tax evasion says Traficant received about $40,000 from USAG for improvements and toward the purchase of the congressman's houseboat as well as $3,200 in free meals and a generator and welder for the boat.
USAG paid $26,000 in improvements and other fees for the boat and agreed to give Traficant another $26,000 for the sale of the boat, the indictment reads. Cafaro gave Traficant $13,000 in cash toward the purchase Nov. 14, 1998, in an envelope near Youngstown State University, according to the indictment.
But the other $13,000 was not paid and the boat was never sold to USAG, Mearns said.
"That transaction was never consummated," he said. "I can't really say why."
Approached for investment: Cafaro, who had no prior experience or knowledge of laser-guidance systems for airplanes, was approached in 1995 or 1996 by a person, whom Mearns said he couldn't identify, who asked the businessman if he would be interested in investing in a company that owned the technology.
"From 1996 to 1997, he was a passive investor," Mearns said. "He wasn't involved in the management of the company. It was an investment he put up and it was run by others. In 1997, he assumed a role in the active management of the company."
USAG, which sold only a minimal amount of technology and equipment, suspended its business operations last fall. Cafaro made a "substantial financial investment" in the company, Mearns said.
"The investigation [of Traficant and Cafaro] was well under way while the company was suffering from financial problems," Mearns said. "I can't necessarily say the investigation caused the problems."
Cafaro has been and will continue to cooperate with federal investigators who are prosecuting Traficant, Mearns said.
'Right thing to do': When asked if Cafaro was cooperating only because federal prosecutors discovered he was paying off Traficant, Mearns said, "It wouldn't be fair to characterize it as a situation where he got caught. It's a situation where Mr. Cafaro recognized that it was in his best interests and the right thing to do to accept responsibility for his own conduct and to provide truthful information to law enforcement. What they choose to do with that is up to them. But he feels it's the right thing to do."
Cafaro, who is seen as probably the most politically influential person in the Mahoning Valley, will continue to be active in politics, but in a more scaled-back role, Mearns said.
"I don't think Jay will turn his back on politics, but his participation may be more limited and of course, he will exercise much greater care with the guidance of professionals in this area to make sure his conduct steers well back of the line that he crossed," he said. "It will be more limited and more careful, but he still intends to be an active participant in the political process."