YOUNGSTOWN Now playing: Traficant probe 2001, the sequel
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Let's say there's an old videotape that shows how Mahoning County Sheriff James A. Traficant Jr. came to successfully defend himself against bribery and tax evasion.
You'd see the similarities between Traficant the sheriff under federal indictment when "E.T." filled theaters in 1982 and Traficant the 17th District congressman under federal indictment now as "Pearl Harbor" hits movie screens.
Pop the tape in the VCR and hit "play."
It's June 15, 1981. Traficant meets with FBI agents and tells them he "knows of" organized crime figures Orlando and Charles Carabbia, Joseph Naples and James Prato. The sheriff says he hasn't met with them or taken money from them and doesn't have them under investigation.
Pay close attention as the agents surprise Traficant with his voice on audiotapes made in 1980 by the Carabbias. The topic is bribe money he took during his run for sheriff.
He slumps in his chair and then signs what later becomes a controversial confession. Two FBI agents witness his signature.
As he leaves the FBI office in Austintown, the sheriff expresses fear for himself and his family if he cooperates with the agents' organized-crime probe.
Through mid-July, Traficant meets several more times with FBI agents. He's turning into a reluctant witness.
He doesn't want the FBI to reveal the reason for his cooperation -- the tapes. What he does want is to direct the organized crime investigation and remain sheriff. Agents cannot accept his terms.
The sheriff soon receives a grand jury subpoena.
Grand jury: Hit the VCR's fast-forward button and stop in August 1981.
Grand jurors in Cleveland are hearing from Traficant's campaign workers and sheriff's department employees, some of whom exercise their constitutional right to not answer certain questions. Prosecutors are asking about Traficant's 1980 sheriff's campaign.
As our vintage videotape plays, we see Atty. Carmen Policy accompany Traficant to the grand jury. Policy says his client is there in his official capacity as sheriff.
Hit the VCR's fast-forward button and stop in the spring of 1982.
Traficant predicts that the grand jury will indict him and says he won't resign or take a leave, despite the urging of civic groups and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 141. As spring turns to summer, Mahoning County common pleas judges also want him to step aside until the federal investigation is complete.
Policy remains Traficant's lawyer until shortly after the grand jury hands up its indictment in August 1982. The split comes when Traficant fails to heed his lawyer's advice to keep quiet about the case in public.
The sheriff uses press conferences to attack the FBI and IRS and drops the names of officials he says have mob ties, such as Stanley E. Peterson. In a flashback, we see that Peterson was an FBI agent who transferred out of Youngstown in 1969 and returned when he retired in 1974. He served as Youngstown's police chief from January 1978 to March 1982.
Stop the tape.
Policy, now president of the Cleveland Browns, was at an NFL meeting in Chicago on Tuesday and could not be reached.
Familiar tactics: Traficant, meanwhile, predicted his latest indictment after word spread in January 2000 that his congressional office records had been subpoenaed.
So far, one labor union has called for him to resign.
Through his press releases and public appearances, the 60-year-old congressman has intensified his attacks on the Justice Department. He asserts the local FBI was controlled by the mob and says certain agents still have mob ties.
He has resurrected Peterson's name and says the FBI never investigated him for corruption.
Hit the VCR play button.
Now it's August 1982 and the videotape shows the sheriff -- in a marked cruiser -- drive up to a South Avenue banquet hall where supporters are raising money for his defense fund. The next scene shows Traficant dancing with his wife, Tish, to the sounds of the Mike Roncone Band.
When he takes a break and talks to reporters, he repeats his assertion that he didn't sign the confession (dated June 15, 1981) that states he took mob money. He says the FBI faked the document.
"This is a very serious period of my life," he says. "I find it difficult to find an attorney to take on the power of the IRS and FBI."
Consulted Boston law firm: As the old tape plays, we see Traficant travel to Boston to meet with Atty. James Merberg at F. Lee Bailey's law firm. Bailey has gained a national reputation with his defense of Dr. Sam Sheppard, Albert DeSalvo (the Boston strangler) and Patricia Hearst.
Stop the tape.
Reached in Boston last week, Merberg took only a minute to find his appointment calendar for Sept. 20, 1982. "I saw him at 3 in the afternoon," the lawyer said.
Merberg couldn't recall why Traficant didn't retain the law firm -- whether it was the fee or a difference in philosophy. "I can assure you that we would have been talking money," he said of the appointment.
Hit the VCR play button and fast-forward to Nov. 2, 1982.
Atty. Mark Gervelis of Conneaut comes on board as Traficant's lawyer and Atty. Mike Harshman of Youngstown as an adviser. U.S. District Judge Ann Aldrich sets trial for Jan. 24, 1983, but pretrial motions delay it.
As the old tape plays, FBI Special Agent Robert G. Kroner Jr. is on the witness stand, testifying at a pretrial evidence suppression hearing about what persuaded the sheriff to sign the confession. Kroner says agents had offered to play the Carabbia tapes again for Traficant.
From the defense table, Traficant interrupts and blurts out: "That's a goddamn lie."
The sheriff asks, for the second time, to cross-examine witnesses, such as Kroner, but Judge Aldrich sticks by her original ruling and denies his request. "There's a rule against perjury, too," Traficant snaps at the judge.
Gervelis takes his client in the hall to calm him down.
Hit the VCR fast-forward button to early March 1983.
Defends himself: Traficant doesn't think his lack of a law degree will be an impediment and insists that the right to self-representation is guaranteed by the Constitution. No one, he tells Judge Aldrich, knows the facts of the case as well as he does.
As the tape plays, we see Judge Aldrich grant the sheriff's request to be his own lawyer. She warns him that almost no one in his right mind goes it alone. She quotes the adage that "the man who has himself as a lawyer has a fool for a client."
The judge tells the sheriff to hire an adviser to consult with -- but notes that the adviser would not be allowed to participate in the defense. She denies his request to again delay the trial and says it will start April 25, 1983.
Stop the tape.
Gervelis, now based in Boardman, said Judge Aldrich had given Traficant the option of having a lawyer or representing himself. The sheriff wanted both, but the judge wouldn't allow it. As it turns out, Traficant made the right decision, Gervelis said.
At a hearing two weeks ago, Traficant told U.S. District Judge Lesley B. Wells that he will represent himself in February against charges of bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. She had no luck talking the congressman out of it, and he rejected her suggestion to hire legal advisers.
Hit the VCR play button.
Motions denied: It's April 1983, and the sheriff wants his trial to be moved out of Cleveland, preferably to Youngstown. He floods Judge Aldrich with motions.
"The defendant feels that the unique structure of Mahoning County requires that the case be heard by Mahoning County residents familiar with that political system," Traficant wrote in a motion. "Only in this manner can the defendant receive a trial by his peers."
Failing that, he asked that the jury be restricted to Youngstown-area residents. The judge refuses to move the trial.
The sheriff then asks Judge Aldrich to get off the case, maintaining she has already decided his guilt. He also accuses her of forcing him to go to trial unprepared. She rejects his motions.
Hit the VCR fast-forward button and stop at June 16, 1983.
Acquittal: Watch as Traficant cries on the courthouse steps in Cleveland moments after 12 jurors, including three from the Youngstown area, found him innocent.
Jurors interviewed said they disregarded the confession and audiotapes.
Traficant had convinced them that he had been infiltrating the mob when the Carabbia tapes were made.
Stop the tape.