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With or without a lawyer, rules in court are unchanged



Published: Mon, September 3, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells should resist any urge to grant a motion by prosecutors that she appoint a lawyer for U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.

While such a move would appear prudent in most cases. Traficant's bribery case is unique.

The congressman is a master at playing the victim card. This is a man who has spent 16 years in the Congress of the United States, where he now makes about $140,000 a year. Yet he manages to convince his constituents that he is one of the little people simply by not spending more than $140 a year on his wardrobe.

This is a man who sat down with two of the Mahoning Valley's most powerful and ruthless mobsters, pledged his allegiance to them, took their money and then convinced a hapless jury that he was running a mob sting. Never mind that after he was elected sheriff he didn't arrest any of the racketeers who gave him tens of thousands of dollars.

This is a man who bragged for years about being the only layman ever to beat the government's lawyers in a racketeering trial, and now goes around town telling people he's scared to death.

Well warned: Judge Wells has warned him repeatedly that if he acted as his own lawyer, he was going to have to abide by the rules of the court. She should keep reminding him of that.

Of course, every time she rules against him on procedural grounds, he is going to try to paint himself as a victim, but that has only public relations value. No appeals court is likely to buy Traficant's woe-is-me act when the judge's repeated warnings to the congressman on the perils of representing himself are established on the record.

On the other hand, if the court imposes legal counsel on the congressman, it is asking for a lengthy appeal -- perhaps even a pre-trial motion that would cause postponement of the February trial, something Traficant has seemed eager to win.

Who's kidding whom? Besides, truth be told, Traficant is without counsel in name only. It is obvious that he is getting legal help, just as he did during his first trial in federal court.

Indeed, the way things are, Traficant is able to have the best of both worlds, which is how he likes it. He can pretend to be working alone and at a disadvantage even while he gets considerable amounts of presumably free legal aid.

And by acting as his own counsel, he may still get the main fringe benefit that he enjoyed during his first trial. He can try to use his position as both defendant and advocate to "testify" before the jury without subjecting himself to cross-examination.

This time, if Traficant-the-lawyer begins making statements before the jury that Traficant-the-defendant couldn't make unless he took the stand, the prosecution should object and the judge should sit him down and swear him in.

Traficant has a constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination, but if he begins testifying in his own behalf, the government has a right to cross-examine him. His days of having it both ways should end.




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