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Traficant is guilty of all counts



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



By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

CLEVELAND -- In the end, U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. was not above the laws made by Congress, the very laws that will also determine his prison sentence in June for racketeering.

Congress enacted its sweeping anti-corruption Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act in 1970. The law is by no means limited to Mafia bosses and their underlings.

After 10 years of considering reforms, Congress established sentencing guidelines for federal judges in 1984. Until then, judges could hand out anything from probation to the maximum sentence.

Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, was found guilty Thursday of all 10 counts he faced, including RICO, bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion.

"I'm not afraid of going to jail," he said. "I'm surprised they didn't charge me with murder." He remains free on $50,000 unsecured bond.

Facing punishment

Traficant likely faces four to six years in prison when sentenced June 27 by U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells. He must forfeit $96,000 derived from racketeering activity and also faces maximum fines of $2 million.

"You don't win and brag, you don't lose and complain," Traficant said minutes after being found guilty. "I'm not going to resign. I will appeal, but I don't think I have a good chance on appeal because I'm not too well liked by the judges in this country."

Despite his hope and boastful self-assurance, lightning did not strike twice for the Mahoning Valley's off-beat congressman.

Thursday afternoon, unseasonably warm and sunny for early April, was not a repeat of June 16, 1983.

On that warm and sunny day, Traficant, his own unschooled lawyer, cried on the courthouse steps and hugged jurors who acquitted him on bribery and tax charges. The then-Mahoning County sheriff went on to win a seat in Congress, where he's been since 1985.

Traficant lost an off-shoot civil tax case in 1987 when the judge concluded he failed to declare $163,000 in mob bribes on his tax return. He was assessed tax and penalties, which were deducted from his congressional paychecks.

The tax trial brought him face to face with Craig S. Morford, a young prosecutor for the IRS.

Morford, now a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force in the U.S. attorney's office, claimed his second victory over Traficant at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

Keeping his word

Judge Wells read 10 guilty verdicts as Traficant stood alone chewing on a lozenge at the highly polished defense table where he'd kept wiping off imaginary dust. "No," he said softly when asked if he wanted the jury to be polled after each verdict.

"If you believe I'm guilty, you come out and just say it. I'll accept it like a man," he had promised in his closing argument to the jury Monday.

The 60-year-old congressman kept his promise.

"I accept your verdict," he said, his voice lacking emotion.

The jury, as it had throughout the 10-week trial, paid rapt attention. Jurors' faces revealed the resolve they felt and demonstrated.

The jury deliberated about 25 hours over four days, including time to determine the $96,000 forfeiture.

When jurors arrived Thursday morning, most were in jeans. They took a long lunch and returned in business clothing, a sign that a verdict was near.

A quick change

Traficant's graciousness in losing quickly eroded in court. He became animated after accepting the verdicts and called the process unfair.

He said Judge Wells didn't allow the jury to hear all his evidence. He said she allowed a trial of circumstantial evidence.

The jurors, he said, believed a liar, a reference to multimillionaire J.J. Cafaro, who admitted giving the congressman $40,000 in illegal gratuities. Cafaro's testimony included an admission that he lied under oath when a defense witness at an unrelated racketeering trial in 1999.

Traficant then pointed to the prosecution table where IRS Special Agent Charles Perkins and FBI Special Agents Mike Pikunas and Richard Denholm sat with the prosecution team.

Traficant told the jury that the agents were not called to testify because they "were scared to death of my cross-examination."

A contrast of conduct

Throughout the trial, which began Feb. 5, only the assistant U.S. attorneys -- Morford, Bernard A. Smith and Matthew B. Kall -- had been at the table. Traficant always sat alone, often commenting on the 3-to-1 imagery.

The congressman often ridiculed the prosecution team and used crude language to taunt them during the trial. By contrast, the prosecutors maintained a polite demeanor with the congressman.

"I'll live by it and take whatever legal grounds I can take" were his final words to the jury.

Unlike 1983, no tears flowed Thursday afternoon as Traficant left court -- only angry, vile words for the crush of reporters and House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt, who has called for the congressman's resignation.

The congressman said he still has some rights as an American and he's no quitter.

Traficant said he doesn't regret not having a lawyer. He said he would have spent $500,000 for the same decision. "I don't know how I'll handle the appeal," he said as he inched toward a car at the curb on Superior Avenue driven by a Youngstown staffer.

Deciding the verdicts

Unlike 1983, there were no hugs from jurors Thursday afternoon.

Three women jurors held a press conference and blasted the man they came to know over the past 10 weeks.

The jury -- 10 women and two men -- found Traficant guilty of the Cafaro count Tuesday, its first full day of deliberations, the verdict forms show. They found the congressman guilty of eight more counts Wednesday.

On Thursday, jurors checked guilty on the verdict form for the RICO count. The panel had to agree that he committed at least two of the 11 racketeering acts listed. Jurors agreed on eight acts.

The three acts left blank represented illegal gratuities from contractors Greg Tyson, James R. Sabatine and A. David Sugar Sr. (in 2000). Sugar had a separate entry for 1999.

More than once throughout the trial, Traficant made admissions to the press about his conduct as his own lawyer, saying the "courtroom is a theater." The jury chose not to believe the theatrics and the "clever ploys," as he called his courtroom strategy, which included getting impermissible evidence to the jury by making statements in his questions.

Traficant renewed his complaint to reporters that the jury did not come from his district.

"Very few people on this jury really knew Jim Traficant or had an understanding of Jim Traficant," Traficant said. "I think it would have made a big difference."

He also repeated his claim that Judge Wells violated his Constitutional rights.

Praise from prosecution

"Obviously we're very pleased with the verdict. I think it shows we have a great system here in this country," Morford said after court. "It's amazing to think that 12 jurors put their lives on hold like they did, that they showed the attention they showed."

Morford heaped praise on the FBI and IRS agents and his fellow U.S. attorneys who worked hard for two years. The evidence, the pattern of corruption won the case, he said.

"It's not personal, it's never been personal," Morford said . "It's our job to follow the allegations and not let it become personal." He said he'd like the case to be remembered as a "lot of people from a lot of agencies who gave up a lot of their lives to try to do their job the best they could."

Traficant's being a member of Congress made no difference, Morford said. "No man is above the law, and we have to apply the law to everyone the same -- whether it's a congressman or everyman -- we can't make those distinctions," Morford said.

He would not comment about the possibility of perjury charges against any of Traficant's defense witnesses.

After four months -- trial preparation and trial -- what does the prosecution team plan to do to relax? "I don't know, we haven't had time to think of it," Morford said with a grin. He then tossed the question to Kall. "I still don't even know. Let it all sink in first," Kall answered.

Holding on to empathy

Morford said the outcome was bittersweet. He said it's a sad day when you see a congressman convicted. "I don't think it's something you run out an celebrate," the prosecutor said. "Obviously we're pleased the jury viewed the evidence and came to the verdict they did, but it's not something you feel like spiking the football and yelling about."

Morford said he tries to have empathy for anyone in these cases. "It's the right result. It's the just result, but I wouldn't be human if I didn't see the human side of it," he said. "That's something that affects you when you do this job and you do it right."

If Traficant files an appeal, the government will respond, he said.

Trial's evidence

By his own admission, Traficant never looked at the evidence the government used at his racketeering trial. "I never opened the box," he said.

The government turned over 37 boxes of evidence last July.

Two and a half years ago, a contractor gave the government a torn place mat with a "to-do" list for Traficant's horse farm. That fragment turned Traficant's world upside down.

The FBI learned that many contractors did work at the 76-acre spread on state Route 165 in Greenford. Agents found the once run-down farm had been transformed over the years with new outbuildings, roads and an addition to the farmhouse.

Bills for the work were scarce.

The contractors, caught in tales of deceit and bribery, agreed to tell a grand jury what congressional favors they got from Traficant in return for the labor and materials.

The investigation led beyond the farm, to Traficant's 17th District office in Boardman, his 37-foot wooden boat near Washington, D.C., and to staff members who were accused of kicking back part of their salary each month or worked at the farm. The grand jury heard it all from a stream of witnesses.

Trail of witnesses

When the congressman learned of the investigation, in December 1999, three months after it began, he called it a vendetta. He said the FBI, IRS and U.S. attorneys, stinging from his victory over bribery charges in 1983, intimidated, coerced and threatened the witnesses.

The prosecution team presented 55 witnesses in 22 days of testimony. Traficant called his Greenford farmhand, 20 friends, six congressional employees and four others to testify on his behalf. U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells deemed testimony from three irrelevant or hearsay, and it was not heard by the jury.

Contractor A. David Sugar Sr., owner of Honey Creek Contracting in Petersburg, said he tried to "cover his butt" by creating fake invoices. Sugar pleaded guilty to faking invoices for work at the congressman's Greenford horse farm and testified as a government witness.

Other prosecution witnesses included:

* R. Allen Sinclair, administrative counsel to Traficant for 13 months, said he kicked back $2,500 each of those months. Sinclair said he continued the tradition of his predecessor, Henry A. DiBlasio.

Sinclair also disguised his ownership of the building at 11 Overhill Road in Boardman, as DiBlasio had done. That way, Sinclair could continue another tradition, renting the congressman a district office and a hideaway efficiency apartment.

Outside court, Traficant said the FBI bugs everybody and if agents thought they could have got him to confess to Sinclair, "They would have had wires up his rectum."

* J.J. Cafaro, a vice president with The Cafaro Co., paid $40,000 in cash and boat repairs to thank Traficant for using his muscle with the Federal Aviation Administration for USAerospace Group. Cafaro had purchased USAG's landing lights technology. Cafaro pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his giving money to Traficant.

Cafaro said that he lied at ex-Mahoning County Sheriff Phil Chance's racketeering trial when he testified that he had not given Chance cash during the 1996 sheriff's race. Chance won the race but was found guilty at trial in July 1999 and is in federal prison.

* Albert Lange Jr., directed by Richard E. Detore at USAG, joined a boat club and pretended to buy the congressman's decrepit boat. Lange also spent months overseeing $26,000 worth of repairs.

* IRS Special Agent Bruce Hess said Traficant failed to report $33,123 in bribes, kickbacks and free boat repairs on his 1998 tax return and $45,200 in 1999.

* Jackie Bobby said DiBlasio and Charles P. O'Nesti had grumbled to her about having to kick back part of their congressional salary to Traficant.

* Grace Yavorsky Kavulic deposited in Traficant's personal account bundles of cash that turned up in the interoffice mail. She said she, too, heard O'Nesti complain about not being able to keep all his pay. Traficant portrayed Bobby and Kavulic as disgruntled staffers who left in 1998 when he hired Claire Maluso at their salary and wanted them to train her.

* George F. Buccella and Richard Rovnak testified that they worked at the congressman's horse farm while collecting federal paychecks.

* Contractor James R. Sabatine said he gave the congressman $2,400 in cash, rather than do $10,000 worth of work at the farm.

* Contractor Anthony R. Bucci, who had kept the place-mat fragment in his wallet, said he decided that, in place of trying to collect on a $13,000 bill from Traficant, he would "own a congressman." Traficant tried to show that Sugar, Sabatine and Bucci had faced 20 years in prison and reduced the time to a few months by testifying. Judge Wells told the congressman, several times, to stop misrepresenting the facts.

* Leisel Bucheit, on behalf of her father's construction company, sent a bill to Traficant in 1993 for renovations to the farmhouse but had no idea if it was paid. She said it wasn't paid by the time she left in 1996. DiBlasio, Detore and Bernard J. Bucheit are under indictment.

Testimony showed that Traficant employed unqualified people, others at huge salaries for little work, treated some like farm workers and had three of them kick back part of their salaries.

The prosecution team, through its witnesses, described a congressman with an expensive hobby -- saddle horses -- and an unwillingness to pay out of his own pocket for the farm's renovations.

The government's evidence included $24,000 in cash from kickbacks, deposit slips, handwritten notes, bank records, letters, photos, false invoices, checks, receipts for boat repairs, receipts for a welder and generator and an assortment of other documents. Some of the photos show the addition to Traficant's farmhouse, paid for by Bucheit, according to the government.

Testifying for defense

Here are some of Traficant's defense witnesses:

* Dennis C. Johnson, a congressional employee from Salem, testified he was told by O'Nesti, who was near death at the time, that the government wanted O'Nesti to say things that weren't true and that he feared going to a prison medical facility. O'Nesti, Traficant's longtime district director, died in February 2000 before being sentenced in an unrelated corruption case.

* Michael S. Terlecky of Canfield, convicted 12 years ago of taking mob bribes when he was a lieutenant at the Mahoning County Sheriff's Department, recalled a conversation he said he had with O'Nesti, motivated by a newspaper headline in the summer of 1999. Terlecky quoted O'Nesti as saying that he loaned Traficant money, always got repaid and never gave kickbacks. Traficant and Terlecky are friends, and the congressman says he wants to get Terlecky a presidential pardon.

* Percy Squire, a Columbus lawyer and Traficant friend, testified about a Nov. 14, 1998, episode at Youngstown State University that had been testified to twice before in the trial.

Cafaro said he handed Traficant $13,000 cash and they drove around YSU that day. Cafaro said he drove a green Cadillac.

* Bryan Kidwell, a welder from Vienna, supplied Traficant with an alibi. Kidwell testified March 25 that Traficant came out of the building at YSU with a short gray-haired man -- not with Cafaro. Traficant got into his pickup truck, Kidwell said. Squire, though, testified that he walked out of the YSU building with Traficant. The attorney said that he did not see Traficant get into a green Cadillac but into a truck. Squire said he then departed and didn't see Traficant leave.

* Michael L. Robertson, a private investigator and former Secret Service agent, had a "hypothesis" to explain away $2,500 kickbacks to Traficant from Sinclair in 1999. Robertson had found nine deposits for $2,500 each in Sinclair's lawyer account.

After Morford showed Robertson 10 checks from Sinclair's clients or insurance settlements, each for $2,500, the private investigator said it "resolved the hypothesis." He said he didn't have much time to investigate and didn't have the checks to review.

As for $26,600 cash deposited into Traficant's account, Morford asked if the money could have come from kickbacks.

"For all I know," Robertson answered.

meade@vindy.com




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