A former staffer said the congressman talked in code while in the staffer's car for fear of wiretaps by the FBI.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
CLEVELAND -- The trial of U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. stopped for 35 minutes this morning while he and the judge argued over his abilities as a lawyer.
Traficant, who had resumed his questioning of a former staffer, repeatedly referred to an FBI document the judge had yet to allow as evidence.
Since the only copy was one with Traficant's handwritten notes, U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells told him to move on until clean copies could be made during the break.
She said he could not hand the witness the copy with the notes on it.
Ignoring the warnings, Traficant continued to refer to the document's contents. He also tried to make statements within his questions -- another mistake.
Calls for break: After 30 minutes, Judge Wells called for a break at 9:30 a.m. and dismissed the jury and the witness, Boardman attorney R. Allen Sinclair.
For the next 35 minutes, she instructed Traficant on the rules of criminal procedure.
He took the opportunity to rattle off a list of old complaints about evidence the government may or may not use, and other issues.
The judge, with a wave of her hand, told the congressman that she has already ruled on his motions and that he should go back and read her rulings.
"I'm not trying to argue the case," Traficant said.
"Oh, it seems like you are," the judge said.
During the exchange, Traficant stood with his arms outstretched and addressed the judge and the government in a very loud voice.
Questions to Sinclair: During his cross-examination of Sinclair on Wednesday, Traficant sought to have jurors wonder why the FBI didn't "wire" Sinclair to tape conversations he had with the congressman.
Wouldn't it have been a "sure-bang way" to convict Traficant of taking kickbacks? Wouldn't a secretly taped confession be a "real killer?" he asked Sinclair.
The Boardman personal-injury lawyer admitted on the witness stand that for 13 months he kicked back $2,500 of his congressional salary each month to Traficant.
Sinclair, clearly puzzled by the FBI-wire questions, eventually agreed that, "of course," a taped confession would have been a real killer.
Traficant, tugging to close the jacket of his snug black suit (with bell-bottom pants) and gesturing toward the trial's first witness, wondered if Sinclair found it strange that, as such a blockbuster witness, the government hadn't asked him to wear a recording device on his body.
The question brought the lead prosecutor, Craig S. Morford, to his feet.
Judge Wells told the congressman to move on.
Undaunted, Traficant wondered if the reason Sinclair didn't wear a wire could be that the recorded conversation wouldn't have helped the government's case.
Morford got up again.
Judge Wells, using a gentle scolding tone, put a stop to the line of questioning, telling Traficant he'd gone too far in his cross-examination. It was 4:30 anyhow, so she sent the jury home, then cautioned her high-profile defendant not to push it.
Sidewalk comments: Outside court, Traficant said the FBI secretly records everybody and if it thought it could have gotten him to confess to Sinclair, "They would have had wires up his rectum."
Traficant, his spiky hair lifted even higher by the wind, then alluded to a prosecution witness, Jackie Bobby, who could be called to the stand as early as today. Bobby left the congressman's Youngstown staff in June 1998, the same month he hired Claire Maluso as his Mahoning Valley economic development and community outreach representative.
On the courthouse steps, he talked about "a former staffer who may not like me because of who I employed." Bobby's testimony is expected to reveal conversations she had with Henry A. DiBlasio (under indictment) and Charles P. O'Nesti (deceased) about allegations that they kicked back part of their salaries to the congressman.
Sinclair, who received immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony, said he was aware of DiBlasio's kickbacks.
Describes relationship: During nearly three hours of direct examination Wednesday by Morford, Sinclair described the relationship he had with Traficant:
He said that he always considered the 60-year-old congressman eccentric but that that didn't begin to describe what happened once Traficant knew -- in early 2000 -- that Sinclair had been questioned by the FBI. Sinclair had hidden the contacts from Traficant for about three months.
Traficant, who thought Sinclair's car contained a listening device, talked in code during one of their private drives, Sinclair said. Then they switched to Traficant's pickup truck and the congressman pulled out plastic bags that held bank envelopes stuffed with cash.
They ended up in Sinclair's Newport Drive basement, he said, and Traficant began taking the cash out of the envelopes. He had Sinclair count the money and put it in piles of $1,000. The lawyer said he counted out $16,000.
Sinclair said Traficant was anxious, nervous and acting more erratic than normal.
The Boardman lawyer said Traficant told him to keep the money at home, in case the FBI asked about bank withdrawals of $2,500 each month. This way, Traficant reasoned that Sinclair could say about the cash: "Here it is, I have it at home."
The bank envelopes had notes on them, some written by DiBlasio, Sinclair's predecessor, and one marked J.J. Cafaro, of the shopping mall company. Sinclair said Traficant told him that the money inside that bank envelope had come from Cafaro.
Cafaro is expected to testify that he bribed Traficant.
DiBlasio is under indictment, accused of lying about the kickbacks. One of his Cleveland lawyers was in court Wednesday, eager to hear Sinclair's testimony.
Charred envelopes: Back to Sinclair's basement -- near the concrete washtub -- and a hastily hatched disposal plan for the now-empty bank envelopes.
Out came the propane torch.
Sinclair said that, with Traficant looking over his shoulder, he burned the bank envelopes.
"Did I catch on fire?" Traficant interjected from his seat at the defense table.
"Congressman," Judge Wells chided. Turning to the jury, she said: "Can you disregard that."
Sinclair testified that Traficant later handed him another envelope with $2,500 in it at the district office on Overhill Road in Boardman. Sinclair began to burn the envelope, changed his mind, doused it with water, then gave it and the other charred envelopes to the FBI.
The charred pieces, encased in 16 plastic covers, were circulated among the jury and five remaining alternates. One alternate who has a sick child was excused Wednesday and will not be replaced.
Lied about subpoena: Sinclair said he lied to Traficant about the date of a grand jury subpoena. Sinclair let the congressman think the subpoena was for March 2000, when DiBlasio had to go, but he'd actually testified a month earlier.
Sinclair described the deception by saying: "I was afraid of him -- afraid of what he would do."
Sinclair said Traficant coached him on what he should and shouldn't say to the grand jury, not knowing that Sinclair had already testified. "He said I could easily justify what I had done with the money."
The snag in the plan was that Sinclair had recouped only $16,500 of the $32,500 he'd kicked back. As they rode to a restaurant in North Lima, Traficant, still spooked about listening devices, showed another envelope and silently held up six fingers to indicate how much cash was in it.
Sinclair demonstrated for the jury by holding up six fingers. The lawyer said he turned the unopened envelope over to FBI Special Agents Mike Pikunas and Joe Bushner, who found $6,000 in it.
Wanted to end agreement: Sinclair, feeling the pressure of lying to Traficant, told the congressman he wanted to resign and wanted the congressman to move out of the Overhill Road office. Sinclair had bought the building from DiBlasio and had continued the rental agreement.
"Basically, he said 'No,'" Sinclair said of his initial efforts to resign and boot out his tenant. "He's difficult to talk to, dominates a conversation, he's very aggressive."
Sinclair said Traficant had an office on the first floor and a private, messy efficiency apartment over the garage with a kitchenette, bathroom, shower and separate entrance. The lawyer said Traficant, whose home is in Poland, slept at the efficiency a lot.
Sinclair said he was eventually able to persuade Traficant, who was concerned about getting bad press, to leave in April 2000. By then, The Vindicator had reported that Traficant's office records had been subpoenaed and he acknowledged being under investigation by the FBI.
What did Traficant say about the FBI investigation, Morford asked.
Sinclair answered that Traficant had considered himself a target since he won acquittal of bribery charges in 1983, representing himself.
"He had a canned speech -- I heard it 100 times -- about how he single-handedly defeated the government," Sinclair said from the witness stand.
"How are you, Allen?" was Traficant's opening question to Sinclair.
"Were you afraid of me?" Traficant probed with a hint of sarcasm.
"Yes, I was," came the quick reply.
"You're very unpredictable at times," Sinclair said.
Bank statements: Morford used an overhead projector to display Sinclair's bank statements that showed deposits of his congressional paychecks, then withdrawals of $2,500. Sinclair testified that he'd hand the cash to Traficant at the congressman's district office on Overhill or leave it on his desk or chair.
Morford also displayed notes Traficant had written to Sinclair and the envelope with $6,000 that he'd turned over to the FBI without opening. The items, smudged with black powder, had clearly been dusted for fingerprints.
Traficant has filed a motion objecting to the use of experts related to fingerprint evidence.