17TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT Chief of staff is critical of federal government
Two congressional staffers will quit their posts on James Traficant's campaign committee.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- A critic of the U.S. Department of Justice who has accused the agency of selective prosecution and abusing its power is the new head of 17th Congressional District office operations.
And, no, it's not James A. Traficant Jr.
It's John Walker Culbertson, who says the federal government has covered up what really happened in Waco, Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City.
Until June, Culbertson was a part-time staffer in Traficant's Washington, D.C., congressional office primarily investigating allegations of wrongdoing at the Justice Department and other federal agencies. Culbertson was hired by Traficant in September 2000 and earned $25,911 annually.
Two months before being hired by Traficant, Culbertson testified before the House Judiciary Committee's commercial and administrative law subcommittee in support of Traficant's Fair Justice Act.
In June, two months after Traficant's conviction in federal court on 10 felony counts, Culbertson became a full-time employee.
Then last week, Charles Straub, who ran Traficant's Washington, D.C., office for the past two years, quit to attend law school at the University of Cincinnati. Straub, who earned $61,600 annually, is still technically on Traficant's staff for the next few weeks, using his unused vacation time until it runs out.
Straub had planned to leave Traficant's staff once the former congressman was expelled, said Culbertson and U.S. Rep. Bob Ney of St. Clairsville, Ohio, R-18th, chairman of the House Administration Committee.
With no congressman, Traficant's former staff members are running the local and D.C. offices. They are supervised by the clerk of the House and the House Administration Committee. The committee has jurisdiction over House members' employees, salaries and travel and has oversight responsibilities regarding campaign finances.
During a meeting last week, Ney said Straub told him he was leaving for law school and Culbertson would be running the district's Washington office. Culbertson said Traficant, who knew he would be expelled, had asked him to run the district office in his absence. Straub could not be reached to comment.
The House Administration Committee and the clerk of the House will not micromanage the 17th District office, and have no problem with Traficant's decision to promote Culbertson to administrator, Ney said. All decisions on new hires, terminations, expenses and travel must now go through Ney's office.
Ney said he doesn't know Culbertson that well, but had talked to him a few times. "He's pretty decent. They said they wanted to keep the office as is," he said.
Culbertson spoke to Ney Thursday when both attended a fund-raiser for Michael Halleck, a Salem Republican running for the 6th Congressional District seat. Culbertson, accompanied by two other Traficant staffers, said he was at the fund-raiser solely to have a brief talk with Ney even though he stayed at the event for a few hours.
Culbertson would not disclose his new salary as the congressional district's administrator, and the House Administration Committee, which collects that information from congressional offices, did not have the figure.
Same point of view
Culbertson has a long history of speaking out against what he perceives as government corruption and cover-ups, which caught the attention of Traficant, a frequent critic of the federal government who is popular with the black helicopter crowd.
Culbertson and Traficant met in 1996, a year after the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Culbertson was a construction project manager by trade who was born and raised in Cincinnati.
Shortly after the bombing, Culbertson formed the Center for Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group, which he used to criticize the federal government for covering up the "real story" behind the Oklahoma City bombing.
He said the attack could have been avoided if not for security and law enforcement failure, that Timothy McVeigh did not act alone, and that the federal government was covering up the truth.
"The Department of Justice has continued to whitewash, stonewall or selectively investigate serious allegations of wrongdoing," Culbertson said during his July 27, 2000, testimony in front of the House Judiciary's subcommittee regarding Traficant's Fair Justice Act. He also accused the agency of a "cover-up" and of tampering with a grand jury witness "to influence and limit the testimony of this witness in an improper and illegal manner."
His report on the Oklahoma City bombing was discredited by General Services Administration officials.
Called it flawed
In an April 13, 1999, letter to Traficant, Robert Peck, then commissioner of GSA's public buildings service, said Culbertson's report was "fundamentally flawed; its highly dramatic conclusions were based on a gross misunderstanding of our security criteria"; and it had "no factual basis whatsoever."
When Culbertson was asked if he was a conspiracy theorist, he brushed aside the question.
"I'm analytical; things are what they are," he said. "Where there are problems, there are problems."
He said the federal government should have investigated the Waco, Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City tragedies instead of covering them up.
"I share the same concerns" about those events as Traficant does, Culbertson said. "It's too bad no one took the time to fix the system."
Culbertson had high praise for Traficant, who is serving an eight-year prison sentence on bribery, racketeering and tax evasion convictions.
"The Jim Traficant I met and knew always had the door open to everyone in the country," he said. "He was America's congressman. He's helped a lot of people."
Culbertson spent Thursday and Friday meeting with the staff at the 17th District's three local offices in Youngstown, Canfield and Niles.
"The staff is in shock" over Traficant's expulsion and prison sentence, he said. "But everything will be fine. The staff is going to pull together."
One of Culbertson's first moves was to request congressional staffers Robert W. Barlow and Danette R. Palmer remove themselves from Traficant's campaign committee to avoid any hint of impropriety.
"We're sensitive to that," Culbertson said. "We're not a political office anymore. We want to be clear and above board."
Barlow has served since 1998 as Traficant's campaign treasurer, and Palmer has been the campaign's assistant treasurer since 1999. They will hand over their campaign duties to someone in the next two weeks, Culbertson said.
There is nothing illegal about having congressional staff members work on political campaigns, Ney said, and it is a common practice among House members.
"But if you're going to do it, it's best to have them on both payrolls," Ney said. "We suggest they be paid for hours they work on the political side by the campaign. I don't see a problem as long as they don't perform political work on federal time."
Traficant's financial disclosure statements show that neither Barlow nor Palmer ever received salaries from the congressional campaign for political work they did. Both received reimbursements for expenses from campaign funds.