The government's first witness testified that Traficant told him he couldn't live on a congressional salary.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
CLEVELAND -- The government fired its first shot today in the case against U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. by putting on the witness stand a lawyer who said he kicked back $2,500 each month to the congressman.
R. Allen Sinclair said that he went for a ride with Traficant in the fall of 1998 and was offered the position of administrative counsel. Sinclair said he was not qualified for the position and had no interest in politics, especially Washington politics, and didn't keep up with current events.
Traficant rented office space at 11 Overhill Road in Boardman from Sinclair's wife.
When asked what he was expected to do in return for the $60,000-per-year congressional job, Sinclair said, "Yes, he explained to me that, uh, he can't make ends meet with his congressional salary and a requirement of the job was that I give him back $2,500 of my salary each month."
Sinclair was an attorney on Traficant's staff from December 1998 to early 2000.
Opening statement: Before Sinclair's testimony, Traficant told jurors today that the federal government was out to get him.
Traficant needed no microphone when he addressed the jury for the first time in his federal racketeering trial. He started screaming out his position that the government has been after him since he walked out on the courthouse steps here in 1983, after being acquitted in a bribery case.
Traficant said his colleagues warned him, "'Jim, watch out, you're going to be targeted,' and I sure as hell didn't watch out.''
In response to the opening remarks of lead prosecutor Craig S. Morford, in which he said the evidence will show staffers did work at the congressman's horse farm in Greenford Township, Traficant yelled, "I never forced anyone to work on that farm."
He said later that some who came to the farm just wanted to see him, to talk to him, or maybe wanted exercise.
Traficant rattled off the names of contractors who Morford said provided repairs or remodeling at the farm and offered explanations for each. He said the witnesses in this case have been threatened, and he asked that jurors pay close attention to the government witnesses -- who have something either great to gain or great to lose.
U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells stopped him at least three times to put him back on track, saying he had to stick to what the evidence will show.
Each time she did that, he asked if that took away time from him -- and each time she said no.
Prosecution's case: Morford, in a calm and deliberate manner, told jurors that this case is about abuse of power, that it's about a U.S. congressman who used people for his own selfish gain. The prosecutor said that in the "dominion" of Youngstown, Traficant was a "political Goliath."
"It was as though he was a king and congressional staffers were his personal servants," Morford said.
The judge gave Morford and Traficant 30 minutes each to tell jurors what the evidence will show in the coming weeks. The jury of nine women and three men, plus six alternates, was impaneled late Tuesday, the sixth day of selection.
Traficant had accused the government of trying to seat an all-white jury and the judge of going along with the plan. There are four minorities on his jury.
MyCounsel.com, meanwhile, offers this overview of opening statements:
"What a lawyer says in the opening statement is crucial in the court proceedings. Some go as far as saying an opening statement can single-handedly make or break the case.
"An attorney tries to accomplish two things: Make a strong case to sway a juror's opinion of the defendant's guilt at the onset, and build a rapport with the jurors. Your lawyer wants the jury to like him or her and to feel sympathetic toward you."
Because Traficant is his own lawyer, the "your lawyer" and "toward you" apply to him.
Judge's warning: Once the panel had been sworn in and excused late Tuesday, Judge Wells cautioned the 17th District congressman that opening statements fall into a very narrow slot. They must be a preview of the evidence to come.
They are not an occasion for argument, she stressed.
Morford voiced concern that Traficant would venture into areas that the judge has already determined are off-limits. The prosecutor mentioned the 60-year-old congressman's vendetta theory and allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
"I object to that!" Traficant said, rising to his feet. "If the evidence shows motive ... I should be able to show obsession. I may not scream vendetta, but the government doesn't like me!"
Traficant's demeanor had changed from the polite, soft-spoken man with the bandaged finger whom jurors had seen all day Tuesday. Out of their view and earshot he appeared combative, agitated and surly.
Judge Wells said matter-of-factly that issues she has ruled are off-limits "will not come in." The judge's denial of Traficant's evidence the past few months contained a critique that what he supplied -- audiotapes, letters and affidavits -- appeared "staged and self-serving."
Traficant, still pushing to see how far his opening statement could go, wondered if he could say that threats had been made against him by FBI agents.
"If you can say the evidence will show that -- ," was all Judge Wells was able to say before Traficant cut her off.
"Then it's allowed?" he asked. "I do plan to show FBI agents made threats against me."
Judge Wells said she wouldn't rule in advance.
Traficant then resurrected his request to supply evidence that the judge had rejected.
"Oh, let's not go into that," Judge Wells said with a discernible sigh.
"I will offer witnesses that will testify to that," the congressman said, having the last word.
Appeal dismissed: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit dismissed Tuesday an appeal of the ruling on a Traficant motion. The appeal contested Judge Wells' decision to permit documents the congressman says are privileged under the U.S. Constitution's Speech or Debate Clause. The court of appeals dismissed the case "for lack of jurisdiction." Federal prosecutors had opposed Traficant's appeal asserting the court did not have jurisdiction over the matter.
Traficant believed the documents were protected by the clause, which allows members of Congress immunity from legislative acts, statements made on the House floor or inserted in the Congressional Record.
Traficant had contended Judge Wells rewrote the Constitution by allowing the documents as evidence at his trial.
Although prosecutors supplied a list of more than 120 names of people who could be mentioned in the trial or called as witnesses, Traficant supplied none. Judge Wells read the names in open court to see if any prospective jurors had a connection to those on the list.
Complaints about jury: Before opening statements today, the judge was expected to deal with a problem Traficant brought to her attention after jurors left Tuesday. He said he wants a juror to be removed and grumbled that he had "saved a strike" to do it.
The congressman was permitted to eliminate 13 jurors without giving a reason. The government had nine strikes.
"He could have stood up and asked for a sidebar," Morford said, challenging the congressman's after-the-fact complaint. "To wait until the jury is sworn in is late in the day."
The judge told Traficant to file a motion if he wanted.
Rethinking that, she said, "Maybe we can clear it up at 8:30 [today]," her tone a bit weary.
Traficant arrived about 8:30 and filed two motions, one objecting to the juror he wanted to strike, and another again asking that his indictment be dismissed.
The second motion will be filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Traficant said he was renewing the motion he filed asking that his indictment be dismissed, based on the absence of jurors from his congressional district. He maintains the rule that draws jurors by courthouse location was enacted a month after his original indictment in May 2001.
His superseding indictment was handed up in October 2001.
After court Tuesday, Traficant complained that the government removed prospective jurors who had even the thinnest link to Youngstown. His home is in nearby Poland.
During the challenges for cause (good reason), Traficant tried to exclude those who had any connection to the FBI, IRS or any law enforcement agency.
Of one prospective juror whose brother-in-law works for the IRS, Traficant said, "I can see a family doing on a Sunday and at the table the IRS agent, with a smirk, saying, 'You're on the Traficant trial.'"
The judge excused the juror.
The congressman also zeroed in on jurors who answered that defendants should have to prove their innocence.
Traficant, not amused, wanted a juror gone whose family has made jokes about him.
Morford said the jokes weren't about things Traficant had done, the jokes were about the congressman's hair.
The juror was not excused for cause but was not selected for the final jury.
The government challenged for cause -- but Traficant wanted to keep -- a 30-year-old salesman from Avon Lake whose friends told him this about the congressman: "This guy's cool -- he must be Italian." The judge didn't excuse him as a juror, but the government obviously used one of its strikes because the man didn't make the final cut.
Words of advice: Jurors were told to be ready to take their seats at 9 a.m. today. Judge Wells said they should dress comfortably and bring reading material for down times.
"This beautiful but old courtroom goes hot and cold, we never know," she said from the bench of her ornate workplace, unchanged since 1910. She then offered advice on what to wear to accommodate erratic changes in temperatures: "As my grandchildren tell me, 'Layer, layer.'"