TRAFICANT ON TRIAL Judge to rule on former aide's testimony
The congressman said that if the prosecution is allowed to use hearsay evidence, so should he.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
CLEVELAND -- The public and press -- not the jury -- heard testimony about gripes two congressional employees reportedly made to Jackie Bobby that described kickbacks they made each month to U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.
Whether jurors hear Bobby's same testimony Tuesday is up to U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells. The judge must decide this weekend if the hearsay evidence is admissible and rule on some outstanding motions.
Traficant, to use one of his favorite catch phrases, fought "like a junkyard dog" to have the court closed Friday afternoon while Bobby recalled conversations she had with Charles P. O'Nesti and Henry A. DiBlasio.
"This is highly prejudicial," Traficant said when he realized the jury would be released and Bobby would still take the stand. "I object."
"You have to live with an open court system -- that's the one we have," Judge Wells told Traficant.
She refused his request to have Bobby questioned privately in chambers.
Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, is defending himself against charges of racketeering, bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison under the sentencing guidelines.
Parting shots: "I didn't receive any kickbacks," Traficant said as he left court. "Whatever they bring in, they bring in," he said of the hearsay evidence.
Snuggled between reporters and photographers, the congressman called admitting hearsay evidence a "two-edged sword," meaning evidence he has should be allowed, too. He said the judge will likely allow the government's hearsay evidence, but not his, which includes two audiotape recordings of DiBlasio.
Questioning: With the jury gone Friday afternoon, Wells gave Bernard A. Smith, an assistant U.S. attorney, the opportunity to ask Bobby several questions about conversations she had with O'Nesti and DiBlasio. All three had joined the congressman's staff in 1985, his first year in office.
DiBlasio, under indictment, and O'Nesti, deceased, were the highest paid staffers. DiBlasio is accused of lying to a grand jury about the kickbacks.
With the jury gone, Bobby said that, over the years, O'Nesti grumbled to her privately that he had to give back part of his salary each month to Traficant. She recalled O'Nesti mentioned once that the amount was $1,000.
To make it worse, O'Nesti griped that he had to pay tax on the money he gave the congressman, the Poland woman said. "He worked hard for his money and he thought he deserved it all," she said.
The government has a Jan. 6, 2000, FBI audiotape with O'Nesti's kickback confession. He died a few weeks after of cancer, before being sentenced in an unrelated racketeering case.
Prosecutors have said they would not try to have the tape introduced as evidence. They would, though, try to get it in if Traficant questions their motive in investigating him.
It wasn't the first time Bobby had to recall the O'Nesti-DiBlasio conversations. She also told FBI agents and, later, the grand jury that investigated Traficant.
Smith asked Bobby if O'Nesti was aware that Traficant was under investigation when the kickback conversations took place. She said he wasn't.
Bobby said O'Nesti mentioned that DiBlasio, who did little congressional work, was also giving money back. She recalled being at a restaurant in Niles with DiBlasio when he admitted he was, in fact, giving back part of his salary, but he didn't mention the amount.
Letter: One of DiBlasio's Cleveland lawyers sent a letter to the court advising that his client, who retired to Florida, is too ill to travel and exercise his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination on the witness stand. Judge Wells must decide if the letter is sufficient because witnesses are supposed to be asked questions before they refuse to answer.
Traficant said he wouldn't object to the letter because the travel could endanger DiBlasio's life.
"You are being thoughtful, but you are taking a position that eats away at the objection you made this morning," Judge Wells cautioned Traficant. The congressman had objected when Bobby, with the jury present Friday morning, began recalling what O'Nesti told her about his payroll situation.
Smith then altered course and asked questions about staffers absent from work a lot. Bobby said Anthony Traficanti and George F. Buccella would not show up for work at the congressional office but would instead do work at Traficant's horse farm in Greenford.
Work history: Until she moved to the district office in Youngstown in 1994, Bobby was the office manager for the congressional office on Overhill Road in Boardman, a building DiBlasio owned and where he maintained a law practice. DiBlasio's partner and successor on Traficant's staff, R. Allen Sinclair, swore under oath that he kicked back $2,500 each month to Traficant.
If the hearsay evidence gets in, Traficant could try to discredit Bobby by pointing out that she quit in a huff in June 1998, the month he hired Claire Maluso.
Bobby testified Friday morning that she had wanted O'Nesti's salary and title when he resigned in March 1998 and she sent a letter to Traficant, which he ignored. He called her one day to tell her -- before she heard it on the news -- that he had hired Maluso and wanted her to train Maluso.
Bobby had also been Traficant's office manager from 1981 to 1984, when he served as Mahoning County sheriff.
Office mail: Also Friday, Bobby explained how mail went back and forth between the congressman's office on Overhill Road and his office in the federal courthouse in downtown Youngstown.
There would be little notes attached with "give this to Grace" or "give this to Chuck" and so forth, she said.
One envelope with a little note that said "give this to Grace" contained a large amount of cash. Bobby said she didn't count it but gave it to Grace Yavorsky Kavulic, Traficant's secretary.
Kavulic deposited the cash in the congressman's personal account at Bank One. Envelopes stuffed with cash continued to show up and Kavulic continued to deposit them, Bobby testified.
Kavulic is expected to testify next week for the prosecution.