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Expert: Rep needs a lawyer



Published: Fri, February 15, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The congressman is not endearing himself to the jury, a lawyer says.

By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

CLEVELAND -- If U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. intends to call one of his congressional staffers to discredit the testimony of a former staffer, there could be a problem.

Robert W. Barlow sat in an overflow courtroom below the Traficant trial Thursday to watch and hear on closed-circuit TV the testimony of Boardman attorney R. Allen Sinclair. Barlow is Traficant's campaign treasurer and has been a staff member for 10 years.

Traficant had asked for a separation of witnesses, and U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells granted the request. The separation means witnesses who will be called to testify cannot hear any trial testimony before they take the stand.

Testified of kickback: Sinclair testified that he kicked back $2,500 of his congressional salary each month for 13 months. His testimony began Wednesday and concluded Thursday afternoon.

Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, repeatedly asked Sinclair if, in early 2000, he'd complained to another staff member about negative press coverage. At the time, the investigation of the congressman was in the news, as was the questionable rental agreement he had with Sinclair for a district office at 11 Overhill Road in Boardman.

Traficant, who stayed in an efficiency apartment above the garage at 11 Overhill, asked if Sinclair had been in the apartment, complaining to Barlow about the press coverage.

Sinclair recalled being in the hideaway apartment -- while Traficant was in Washington, D.C. -- because of a water leak that drenched some of the congressman's clothes. The lawyer did not recall complaining about bad press to any staffer or Barlow's being in the apartment.

The congressman asked a variation of the question several times during the two days Sinclair was on the stand, always getting the same response.

It's not clear what Traficant hoped to bring out in his line of questioning.

If Traficant tries to put Barlow on the witness stand, "he will probably have a problem -- the guy's been tainted," because he heard the testimony, said Roger M. Synenberg, a Cleveland attorney and former federal prosecutor.

"The government could make a persuasive argument to the judge," Synenberg said. "If she allows [Barlow] to testify, she may allow the government to impeach him," meaning that the prosecution could try to discredit his testimony by showing that Barlow had listened to Sinclair's testimony, Synenberg said.

At grand jury: In October 2000, Barlow testified at the grand jury investigating Traficant. The congressman's 10-count indictment includes racketeering, bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion.

If Barlow testifies and impeachment is allowed, the government could ask about Barlow's being in the overflow room for Sinclair's testimony.

Synenberg said Judge Wells would probably not allow Traficant to call Barlow if it appears the congressman, by design, had Barlow sit in the overflow room to see and hear Sinclair's testimony.

"Did Mr. Barlow attempt to arrange several meetings between you and me?" Traficant asked Sinclair.

Many times, Sinclair said, related to congressional business.

"Relative to this case," Traficant said.

"No, sir," Sinclair answered.

"Didn't he try?" Traficant asked again.

"I don't believe he did," Sinclair said.

For most of Traficant's performance as his own lawyer Thursday, he appeared ill prepared, ill at ease and forgetful.

He asked the same questions over and over. He took extraordinarily long pauses between questions while he fumbled with documents or fished documents out of a thick manila folder.

Problem with exhibit: One exhibit Traficant had previously given prosecutors contained three pages, but Traficant's copy, which he used Thursday, contained 30 pages. Craig S. Morford, lead prosecutor, noticed the discrepancy and alerted the judge.

Judge Wells patiently explained that she and the government must have copies of all exhibits. Traficant said he thought he'd supplied the government with the full exhibit, which turned out to be the draft of a lawsuit Sinclair had prepared.

The draft was an attempt by Traficant, later aborted, to sue the government for $1 million.

"Did you say I had a good case?" Traficant asked his former staffer.

"No, I thought it was ridiculous," Sinclair answered.

More than once, Judge Wells, conscious of long gaps between questions, told Traficant to move it along.

How does lack of preparation and legal expertise affect the jury? "For a trial that's going to be this long, it can only hurt him -- that's why he needs a lawyer," Synenberg said.

The trial, which began Feb. 5, is expected to last eight weeks.

If Traficant's fumbling, slow-shuffle is an act, it's not a good act, Synenberg said. "It's annoying, and you don't get points if you annoy."

After court, Traficant told reporters that he doesn't want FBI agents sitting through the trial. "They should get their ass out of the courtroom," he said, walking down Superior Avenue with reporters and photographers trailing alongside.

Earlier, when Traficant voiced his objection in court to Judge Wells during a break, she seemed puzzled, saying he had changed his position. The judge reminded Traficant that, before the trial began, he had agreed to the agents' being in court.

Now he says he doesn't want them to be in court, then called as witnesses.

The government has said it would not call the agents unless Traficant talked about his vendetta theory or the cost of the investigation. If the congressman raises those issues, the agents would be called to testify about what led them to investigate him.

Jackie Bobby, another former staffer, was in the courthouse Thursday, waiting to testify, but time ran out. She was due back today.

What's expected: Bobby's testimony is expected to reveal conversations she had with Henry A. DiBlasio (under indictment) and Charles P. O'Nesti (deceased). The government said O'Nesti and DiBlasio told Bobby about kicking back part of their salaries.

DiBlasio and Sinclair formed a partnership, and DiBlasio, when he retired to Florida in late 1998, sold Sinclair the Overhill Road property. Traficant rented first from DiBlasio, then Sinclair's wife.

Although Traficant thought he could damage Sinclair's credibility by showing how much money -- $100,000 to $400,000 -- Sinclair owes DiBlasio, the actual amount never surfaced. Traficant never asked for the balance due and accepted Sinclair's response that he owes "an amount."

Traficant also tried to link Sinclair in a sinister way to Edward A. Flask, the former Mahoning Valley Sanitary District director convicted of misuse of funds. Sinclair explained that Flask rented office space at 11 Overhill and, after his indictment, was asked to leave by DiBlasio.

"Mr. Flask, even though convicted, happens to be a friend of mine," Traficant said in court.

meade@vindy.com




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