In elegant courtroom, stage is set
The judge's exquisite courtroom hasn't changed much since 1910.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
CLEVELAND -- U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. has roughly two months to convince 12 jurors that he's just the son of a truck driver who went to Washington, D.C., in 1985 to benefit the Mahoning Valley.
Federal prosecutors will argue that the one who benefited was Traficant.
The 17th District congressman anticipated gavel-to-gavel press coverage of his racketeering trial and asked that it take place in a spacious courtroom.
He tried to persuade U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells to give up her highly coveted, albeit cramped, surroundings for the trial, which was to begin today.
The judge's high-ceilinged courtroom, awash in intricately carved and highly polished wood, boasts an enormous mural, majestic chandelier and gold leaf everywhere the eye lands. Microphones represent one of the few concessions to modern times in the courtroom, which has been in operation since 1919.
It's easy to imagine elegant ladies of 90-plus years ago in plumed hats (with 3-foot wingspans) and floor-length bustled dresses, plopping parasols into one of the vintage twin umbrella stands. At the ladies' side, picture urbane men in form-fitting suits, high-collar shirts and homburg hats swinging walking sticks.
Press coverage: Judge Wells, always quick to point out her exquisite work environment to newcomers, appeared somewhat taken aback when the brash congressman requested larger quarters. She told him that only a dozen news organizations had signed up to cover the trial.
When the judge explained the situation to Traficant at a final pretrial, press credentials had been issued to The Vindicator, other newspapers and radio and TV stations. Since then, four more news organizations, including national publications such as USA Today and Roll Call, asked for credentials.
Daily reports of the trial -- in print, televised or on radio -- have the potential of being picked up nationally.
Mindful of the ban on cameras in federal courts, three sketch artists, including one from The Vindicator, received press credentials. The artists will have seats with unobstructed views.
The judge's gallery has seating for 55 to 60 people in 10 high-backed unpadded benches. Anyone not seated 15 minutes before the morning and afternoon sessions will find the doors closed to them.
Objects to setup: Traficant, prodding to get his way, had suggested holding his trial in a large courtroom one floor below Judge Wells', which she has designated an "overflow" room for press and spectators. The much roomier courtroom will provide trial coverage via closed circuit on two 35-inch TVs.
Traficant objected to the idea of anyone's viewing the trial on closed-circuit TV. "I don't want people on two different floors," he said.
The congressman reasoned that a fixed camera would present a narrow view and not allow all trial participants' demeanor and attitude to be seen.
Judge Wells cited the "enormous cost" of moving and ended the discussion.
Jury accommodations: The judge, noting Cleveland's unpredictable February weather and the probability of weather-related illnesses, decided to seat 12 jurors and six alternates. With six alternates, the judge believes she'll have enough jurors to see the trial through to its conclusion, which could be late March or early April.
Jurors will be paid $40 per day plus travel expenses and parking. Jurors who live at least 60 miles from Cleveland can stay in downtown hotels (at a reduced government rate) and be reimbursed by the court $128 for each night's subsistence.
Most of this week will be filled with jury selection. Opening statements aren't expected before Friday, at the earliest.
Traficant's defense, meanwhile, is in his own hands, but not because he has a law degree hanging in his Capitol Hill office or anywhere else.
After his May 4, 2001 indictment, the 60-year-old Democrat rejected the idea of establishing a defense fund to hire a team of high-priced lawyers. Instead, he decided to again act as his own attorney, reminding everyone that he successfully defended himself against federal bribery charges in 1983 while Mahoning County sheriff.
Traficant's defense in the first trial didn't include taking the witness stand.
Should he decide to take the witness stand this time, he would have to question himself, then answer his own questions. Such a move would open him up to cross-examination by the prosecution team -- Craig S. Morford, Bernard A. Smith and Matthew B. Kall.
It won't be difficult to spot Traficant in Judge Wells' refined milieu: He'll be the only one in polyester bell-bottoms and cowboy boots. He'll also be the lone figure sitting at the defense table.
Prosecution: In contrast, the prosecution table has seats for Morford, Smith, Kall, FBI Special Agent Richard Denholm and IRS Special Agent Charles Perkins.
The nine-term lawmaker faces 10 counts, including racketeering, bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion. His 44-page indictment, in concise terms, says he used his position to enrich himself, had congressional staffers do work at his Greenford horse farm and houseboat in Washington, D.C., failed to disclose his full income and tried to influence a grand jury witness.
If convicted, he likely faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, based on the sentencing guidelines.
Traficant's defense strategy, through his public appearances and press releases, has been to attack the FBI, IRS and U.S. attorneys, saying they have pursued a vendetta since 1983. To believe Traficant, jurors must disbelieve the government's long line of witnesses, some of whom are convicted felons.
The congressman has a mound of evidence to overcome, including allegations that he took kickbacks from three high-level staff members.
The government's witness list includes a parade of businessmen, mostly contractors, expected to testify about the thousands of dollars' worth of improvements they are alleged to have provided at Traficant's horse farm or Poland residence. Instead of paying for the work, the congressman used his influence and performed official acts, prosecutors said.
The prosecution team also has a list of assorted cash, gifts, services and vehicles it says were given to Traficant by businessmen.
Boxes of evidence: In July, Traficant received 37 boxes of evidence collected by the prosecution team. The boxes contained thousands of documents and tangible objects; 20 videocassettes and 453 audiocassettes; a 13-page report and transcript of his contacts with FBI agents; and 21 FBI lab reports.
Among the documents the government intends to present as evidence is correspondence between Traficant and federal agencies and businessmen for whom he lobbied.
Traficant reportedly turned over his defense evidence to prosecutors Jan. 9. The congressman, during an appearance on the Fox News Channel's "Hannity & amp; Colmes" show, said he submitted seven audiotapes and a box of documents.