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TRAFICANT ON TRIAL Rep rests defense of his case



Published: Fri, April 5, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The son-in-law of John Demjanjuk testified as a character witness.

By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

CLEVELAND -- In a surprise move this morning, U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. rested his defense, then asked to proceed with closing arguments.

U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells, however, released the jury and told the prosecution and defense to be ready with closing arguments Monday.

Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, had earlier made several oral motions, asking for dismissal of a 10-count indictment against him. He said the judge had violated his rights under the First, Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution.

The judge denied all the motions.

The 60-year-old congressman said the judge had failed to let him defend himself with his vendetta theory. He has contended all along that his acquittal in 1983 over federal bribery charges resulted in a pursuit since then by the FBI and IRS.

"I've had a target on my back and a vise around my chest," he said.

As opposed to Traficant's usual exchange with Judge Wells, which often involved shouting, Traficant appeared calm today and spoke in a normal conversational tone.

He accused Judge Wells of admonishing him for dillydallying in a nine-week trial, during which time the government spent seven weeks prosecuting him.

"If my behavior has been unusual, I apologize," he said.

"Thank you," Judge Wells said.

Traficant quickly finished his thoughts by saying, "I've had adequate provocation to carry on a one-sided trial."

Traficant said the defense "sits" and then said, "Quietly, I might add."

Responses: Craig S. Morford, lead prosecutor, told the judge that all the matters Traficant raised, except for his contention that his Fifth Amendment right was violated, have been previously addressed by the court.

Traficant contends that Judge Wells erred Wednesday when she asked, with the jury present, if he intended to take the stand in his own behalf.

Morford said the court has a right and a duty to manage the trial. The prosecutor said the judge's comments came after Traficant had run out of witnesses on five of eight trial dates.

Morford said the government put on 55 witnesses and never ran out on any trial days.

Judge Wells said, "Long ago, we discussed the fact that every defendant has a right not to testify." She reminded the congressman that the jury had been told that at the beginning of the trial.

After a break this morning, the judge called the jury in and had them open a book of jury instructions. She explained that the evidence in the trial had concluded.

At the conclusion of the jury instructions, Traficant stood and asked that they proceed to closing arguments. The judge said no and released the jury about 11:20 a.m.

The judge said both sides will give their closing arguments Monday morning.

Certain parameters must be met in the closing arguments. She said there can be no misstatement of evidence, and personal attacks are not permitted.

As with opening statements, closing arguments are not evidence, the judge said.

What happened Thursday: Traficant managed to round up five witnesses Thursday, including one character witness who just happened to stop by to wish him well and ended up with a subpoena.

As is his practice, much to the consternation of the judge and prosecution team, Traficant didn't supply the names of witnesses. The congressman has run out of witnesses more often than not since his defense began March 21, and the judge has had to send the jury home early.

Betty Manente, who joined Traficant's Trumbull County staff in 1985, his first year in Congress, bolstered the government's case, not her boss's, Thursday.

She agreed it was common knowledge that when George F. Buccella was gone from the office and "down south," that meant he was working at the congressman's 76-acre horse farm in Greenford.

Buccella, now Trumbull County Health Board administrator, is named in Traficant's indictment as one of three staffers who did work at the farm during regular business hours.

During a break, Traficant said Manente and John Vogel of Mineral Ridge would be able testify about an allegation that Buccella was involved in a $2,500 payoff to fix a DUI case. The judge wouldn't allow it as a means to impeach Buccella's prior testimony because Buccella was not convicted of the crime.

"You have made yourself very 'uncredible' in the legal world," Traficant told the judge.

"Thank you, congressman," she said. She told him the clock was ticking, a reminder that he has to move his defense along and not waste the jury's time.

Character witnesses: Traficant had two character witnesses testify Thursday, including Edward W. Nishnic of North Royalton, who stopped by court in the morning to wish the congressman well, then found himself subpoenaed.

Nishnic is a son-in-law of John Demjanjuk. Traficant's efforts helped free Demjanjuk from Israel, where he'd been convicted and sentenced to hang as "Ivan the Terrible," a Nazi death camp guard.

Last month, a federal judge ordered that Demjanjuk be stripped of his U.S. citizenship.

Nishnic said he went door to door in Washington, D.C., in 1992-93, looking for help, finally getting Traficant interested in the case. Nishnic described Traficant as a selfless person who was generous with his time.

Nishnic said Traficant never asked to be paid for his help. The congressman, Nishnic said, is a courageous person who cares about the little guy.

"His character gave me belief our system of justice in the United States was the greatest system on earth," Nishnic told the jury.

Pastor's comments: The Rev. Robert Saffold of Shaker Heights, who said he prefers to be called Brother Bob, testified nonstop for 33 minutes.

Saffold's comments were mostly about his own accomplishments. At one point, Judge Wells told Saffold that although he was supplying helpful evidence about himself, what he really needed to address was Traficant's character.

Saffold, who is black and a former Warren firefighter and amateur boxer, said he'd first become aware of Traficant in the 1970s and heard "JT related to the brothers."

Saffold described Traficant as someone who's always been a champion of minorities. The congressman, he said, is honest, fair and objective.

"I followed your political career. You took unpopular stances," Saffold said from the witness stand. "I don't believe you could be bought, intimidated or threatened."

Saffold said Judge Wells has gone overboard to allow Traficant to do things.

"She could be wrong," Traficant said sarcastically.

The congressman, Saffold said, has been unjustly maligned. "You are a true servant of the people."

"Do you like the fact that I'm a fashion leader?" Traficant asked.

Saffold said Traficant was no Beau Brummell, but clothes don't matter.

Traficant represents the downtrodden, the poor, the minorities, Saffold said. He called the congressman an American hero.

"Did I pay you to come here?" Traficant asked.

"You couldn't pay me to come here," Saffold answered.

Court decorum: There was a small skirmish Thursday when the judge refused to let Traficant call Fred Hudach of Hubbard back to testify. The testimony Hudach gave Tuesday about the FBI and Traficant, outside the presence of the jury, was excluded.

Traficant pushed a box of documents off the defense table when the judge said she would not allow Hudach to testify about his review of an FBI lab report. Hudach had been on Traficant's staff for a year as an investigator.

Traficant received a warning Thursday from the judge about courtroom decorum. It came to her attention that he had made some comments in the morning before she took the bench.

She asked him to control himself and show common decency.

Traficant said he didn't appreciate FBI agents in the front row of the gallery staring at him. Judge Wells told him not to be so touchy.

The congressman is accused of taking kickbacks, compelling staffers to do work at his horse farm in Greenford, accepting bribes and gifts and using his influential position instead of paying contractors for work at the farm.

meade@vindy.com




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