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By PATRICIA MEADE



Published: Sun, February 3, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By PATRICIA MEADE

and DAVID SKOLNICK

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS

It wasn't so much a matter of James A. Traficant Jr.'s proving in 1983 that he didn't take mob bribes, but more so that the government did a poor job of proving he did, two jurors say. "My vote was based on the evidence presented by the attorneys," said Joe Christopher, jury foreman when Traficant, as Mahoning County sheriff and his own lawyer, won acquittal in 1983. "The government didn't make its case, and I'm not the only one who thought that. There were 12 people on the jury."

Since then, Christopher, a Girard resident and former councilman, said he has voted for Traficant each time the 17th District congressman sought re-election. Traficant has been in Congress since 1985.

John Lampkin and Donald Mumford, both of Warren, also served on Traficant's jury 19 years ago in U.S. District Court in Cleveland. The other nine jurors were from the Cleveland area.

"We had a gut feeling that maybe Traficant had been doing something, but we didn't know exactly what because the prosecution wasn't clear," said Mumford, who added that he has voted for Traficant since the trial. Lampkin declined to comment.

This time around, Traficant faces a 10-count indictment and will have no jurors from his district, which includes Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties. His racketeering trial begins Tuesday.

Mumford doesn't give Traficant much of a chance this time around. That is because Mumford cannot imagine this prosecution team's being poorly prepared, which he said was the problem in 1983.

"That prosecution was so terrible," Mumford said. "The prosecutors thought they had it made from the very beginning, so they didn't make much effort to do research. Time after time, they were validly contradicted. We didn't feel they proved their case. The jury was thinking, 'Gee, this prosecution team isn't doing its job,' and there was sympathy for Traficant. His personality and his coarseness seemed to be appealing."

Mumford called the 1983 prosecution team "pompous and arrogant, and that really turned the jury off."

Complaints: Jury members complained to the judge in the 1983 case that they were having trouble hearing witnesses because the prosecutors were too loud during testimony, Mumford said.

"They were gabbing back and forth like school kids," he said. "Anybody who would be prosecuting him now would do a much better job than the previous group of prosecutors. Their behavior was so bad."

The advantage Traficant had in 1983, Christopher said, was the lack of a third party to verify whatever transpired.

"The witnesses against Traficant were people who he had conversations with on a one-on-one basis," Christopher said. "Which means if you said something, he could counteract it because you said it to him; there was no third party involved."

This time, the government has multiple witnesses, including longtime friends, former staffers and businessmen, expected to corroborate the charges against Traficant.

In 1983, prosecutors said Traficant, during his 1980 campaign for sheriff, accepted more than $160,000 from organized crime figures, including Charles and Orlando Carabbia. The evidence included audiotapes made by the Carabbias and a confession Traficant signed -- which FBI agents witnessed.

Mumford said the jury did not believe the legitimacy of the tapes or the confession.

"We were listening to a fifth-generation tape," he said. "Had someone altered it? There were so many questions that there was reasonable doubt. You can't put a man away on possibilities. You have to know for sure, and we didn't know for sure. Also, on the confession, you could see where the last line may have been altered. There was some hanky-panky going on as far as the prosecution was concerned."

Mumford said he would not want to go through the experience of another Traficant case.

"It was tedious and exhausting," said the retired Packard Electric public relations official.

"It wasn't a pleasant experience. It was very emotional," he said, noting that some of the women jurors were crying when they were trying to decide a verdict.

"They were fearful for some reason," Mumford said. "I think they didn't want to make a mistake. It was a high-stress thing. We were sitting in that jury room day after day after day."

Even so, Mumford said he and the other jurors paid close attention to the testimony in the case at all times.

"I didn't tune anyone out," he said. "I didn't think any of the testimony was boring. It was quite lively and humorous. I laughed aloud" at some of Traficant's jokes.

The new prosecution team, referring to the 1983 trial and subsequent tax trial, which Traficant lost, said Traficant "testified" without taking the witness stand by the way he phrased questions to witnesses. With that in mind, prosecutors have asked that U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells prohibit him from doing that again.

What happened in August: New information about the 1983 trial, meanwhile, emerged last August when prosecutors filed a portion of what William B. Pearch told a grand jury in April 2000. Pearch had been a deputy when Traficant served as sheriff, then joined his congressional staff in 1985 and stayed until 1993.

In preparation for his 1983 trial, Traficant realized a "devastating inconsistency" existed and told Pearch to create an affidavit that would explain why some of the money Traficant said he took in 1980 from Charles Carabbia as part of a "one-man sting" during his sheriff's campaign wasn't printed until 1981, the government said. Pearch testified at the trial.

At the grand jury in April 2000, Pearch said Traficant, sometime after being indicted when sheriff, had given him cash to hold that later would be presented as evidence of the sting and wanted the serial numbers written down.

Pearch noticed some of the bills were series 1981 and realized the situation undermined Traficant's sting defense, the government said.

"Well, I'm not a rocket scientist, but I don't know how he could have bills in there, series 1981, that was given to him in 1980," Pearch told the grand jury.

"... He proposed that I write a statement that indicated I had borrowed a sum of money from this packet I got and ... later, I had replaced it, which would possibly account for the 1981 series' being in there."

Craig S. Morford, who questioned Pearch at the grand jury in April 2000, said: "So, he was asking you to lie and prepare a false affidavit that he could provide to the court as part of his defense. Is that correct?"

"Yes," Pearch answered.

"Did that trouble you, what he was asking you to do?" Morford, lead prosecutor, asked.

"It bothered me ever since then," came the reply.

meade@vindy.com, skolnick@vindy.com




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