Judge sets tone with firm warning
A federal prosecutor complained to the judge about the congressman's behavior.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
CLEVELAND -- Less than 15 minutes into U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.'s racketeering trial this morning, the judge slammed him hard, saying, "This trial is not going to be a donnybrook. You will behave yourself in this courthouse."
U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells, with a hard edge to her voice, told the 17th District congressman that he must not continue the publicity he has welcomed outside the courthouse.
She said, "It's been reported to me that you said there would be a donnybrook in Cleveland. Donnybrook in Old English means debauchery and street fighting."
She said if his conduct outside the courthouse affects the trial, she will not hesitate to act -- "You may be very surprised."
Traficant stood, saying he'd like to respond. The judge cut him off, saying, "You're not going to respond any further."
Still standing, Traficant ignored the judge's admonition and said, "I take offense to that." The judge, glaring at him, said more than 100 prospective jurors were ready to come into the courtroom, and ended the discussion.
TV appearances: What prompted the judge's anger was a revelation by Craig S. Morford, an assistant U.S. attorney, who told the judge that he was reluctant to raise the issue but felt he had to about Traficant's going on national TV shows and in Cleveland with the aim of tainting the jury.
Morford said Traficant talked about arresting prosecutors and putting them in jail, clearly something no lawyer would do.
Traficant appeared on CNN's "Crossfire" program Monday night and was interviewed on a morning network show today.
On "Crossfire," Traficant blasted federal prosecutors, saying, "I'm going to get in their face. I don't like them. I don't like what they've done to our country. I don't like how they scare people. I don't like how they intimidate people. Judges appointed to lifetime terms are scared to death of these people," noting that he was just "a son of a truck driver. And I'm going to try to kick their a--."
In responding to Morford at the start of the trial, Traficant told the judge that most of the pretrial publicity came from the government. He said that when he was on television he simply responded to the questions, adding that he had a First Amendment right to do so.
The congressman said he never discussed salient points of the trial and talked about prosecutorial misconduct, which he said the judge had ignored.
"No sir, I have overruled that," Judge Wells said. She reminded him that last summer she ruled against his accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and advised him to get a lawyer. She said that he must follow the rules because he's wearing two hats -- as a lawyer and defendant-- and lawyers do not talk about pending cases.
Request for assistant: Judge Wells said she received a request from Traficant to have an assistant in the courtroom and wanted to know the identity of the person. Traficant said he just wanted someone to take notes. The person is not a lawyer and would not sit at the defense table, he said.
Judge Wells said she couldn't accommodate that person now, until the jury is impaneled, unless the person sits at the table with him.
The congressman then repeated his objection to having closed-circuit television for spectators one floor below the courtroom and asked that it be removed. Citing the public interest, Judge Wells said she would maintain the overflow courtroom.
The judge, who had already received the prosecution team's witness list, asked Traficant for his list. He seemed reluctant to turn it over and said he didn't know if he would be able to give all the names today.
The judge told him to do the best he could. She doesn't want anyone on the jury who may have a connection to any witness and called it the common-sense approach.
Jury makeup: Traficant also voiced his concern about political and religious groups that have targeted him and asked if the judge had considered his proposed jury questions about religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Judge Wells said he would have a list of the people filling out the questionnaire and the opportunity to ask questions after the form is filled out, but she didn't say whether questions about religious and ethnic backgrounds had been included on the questionnaire.
Prospective jurors were called in and the case against Traficant was explained to them. Judge Wells warned them not to seek out any press reports of the trial. They were given questionnaires to fill out and when they finished they were free to go and were not due back until Thursday. Wednesday will be spent with both sides studying copies of the filled-out questionnaires.
Talking to press: During a break this morning, Traficant had an impromptu press conference and was asked if he'd seen the questionnaire and if it contained questions about religious and ethnic backgrounds. He said he didn't want to talk about it because he keeps getting in trouble with the prosecutors.
In a typical off-color moment, Traficant mentioned that his stomach is upset and he estimated that his "gas" would register at 7.4 on the Richter scale.
Asked about the bandage on his right index finger, Traficant said he hit it on a table saw, almost cut it off, dipped it in peroxide and taped it up. "When I give them the finger, they'll be getting the finger," he said and held up the bandaged finger.
Traficant predicted that opening statements could begin Friday. But U.S marshals, who have been keeping a close eye on the press, said jury selection could go well into next week.
The trial is taking place in a very old and ornate courtroom.
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 during a hearing last year. 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.
Mindful of the ban on cameras in federal courts, three sketch artists, including one from The Vindicator, received press credentials. The artists 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.
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.
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 -- Morford, Bernard A. Smith and Matthew B. Kall.
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.