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TRAFICANT TRIAL Power struggle continues



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



The congressman subpoenaed the son-in-law of John Demjanjuk.

By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

CLEVELAND -- U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. had only to fill three hours today to push his racketeering trial into its 10th week.

Traficant and U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells continue to engage in a power struggle over when the trial that began Feb. 5 will end.

Judge Wells' ultimatum, first issued Wednesday, remains hanging over Traficant's head. He either produces witnesses to fill the day or he is the trial's final witness, if he decides to take the stand.

If he's not going to testify, he had better have his 90-minute closing argument ready, she told him.

Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, 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. The congressman stretched his witnesses to 4:30 p.m., thereby avoiding the judge's wrath.

Judge Wells' normal routine is to release the jury at noon on Fridays. Traficant said he hoped to have five witnesses lined up.

How it's going: As is his practice, much to the consternation of the judge and prosecution team, Traficant didn't supply the witnesses' names. 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.

Judge Wells said that if Traficant finishes with his witnesses before noon today, he has a choice -- take the stand or rest his defense. The judge said she has a right to schedule her courtroom and she will no longer allow Traficant to inconvenience the jurors by having them come in to work short days.

"I am nearing closing," Traficant said late Thursday. He said he expects to finish the middle of next week.

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 to 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 while 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 became 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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