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TRAFICANT ON TRIAL 'Round and 'round and 'round we go



Published: Mon, February 18, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The consensus is that mittens are warmer; something about the fingers touching one another.

By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

CLEVELAND -- Remember the movie "Groundhog Day?"

The movie starred Bill Murray as a curmudgeonly TV weatherman who wakes up each morning to find that it's Groundhog Day -- again and again and again and again.

U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.'s racketeering trial is much like that.

Each frigid morning, about 7:30 a.m., the first of the band of print, radio and TV reporters covering the trial begin showing up at the federal courthouse on Superior Avenue. The earliest arrivals are those who drive in from Youngstown.

Reporters staying in Cleveland arrive about 7:50 or so, greet their sufficiently chilled colleagues, and the huddle talk begins.

There's a scientific discussion of outerwear. The general consensus: Mittens are warmer. Something to do with allowing the fingers to touch one another.

"These wrap-around-the-back-of-the-head earmuffs are great, huh?"

"I can't feel my toes, can you?"

There's talk of ending up with hat, hood or headband hair.

The two smokers (cigarette and cigar) request shelter from the wind (usually a TV cameraman who could pass for an NFL linebacker) to light up.

Making his entrance: About 8:30, someone spots the red GMC Jimmy with the Trumbull County license plates swerving toward the curb.

Notebooks flip open. Frozen pens get their caps ripped off. TV video cameras, linked by umbilical cords to station-logo microphones, get switched on.Newspaper photographers bob and weave for a good angle.

Traficant hoisting himself out of the Jimmy's passenger seat is not a pretty sight. Think John Wayne with arthritis.

He cranes his neck to the cameras. He clutches official-looking documents in his right hand, the one with the bandaged index finger.

The motions du jour!

"I'm running late and I have motions to file relative to ...," Traficant says.

He's wearing some bell-bottom denim concoction and cowboy boots. His hair is, well, his hair.

He gives the scatological homily of the morning.

There's bears doing what they do in the privacy of their woods. Or there's the warning that he's taken a laxative (after consuming cheese) and will soon register 7-point-something on the Richter scale. Or there's a line with rectum, rectal or a--.

He ambles up the courthouse steps and, turning slightly, tosses out his daily complaint or prediction over his right shoulder.

Pick one: No jurors from his district. The judge is a nice lady, but she likes the government best. He's going to fight like a junkyard dog. He can't talk about the case, but --

He files his motions.

In court, U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells gears up for a day of saying: "Congressman, that's a statement, not a question"; "Mr. Traficant, please don't interrupt, it's not your turn"; "Oh, let's not go into that again"; "Go on to the next question"; "You're supposed to have copies of your exhibits"; "You're taking too long between questions"; and "If you can't remember what we went over during the last break, we'll go over it again at lunch."

Craig S. Morford, the lead prosecutor, gears up for a day of jumping to his feet, a silent signal to the judge that he has an objection.

Traficant gears up for a day of saying: "salient points"; "relative to"; "I didn't hear that"; "I thought I could -- "; "When did you start cooperating with the FBI?"; "Did you wear a wire to record me?"; "I'm not a lawyer"; "When did you start cooperating with the FBI?"; "Did you wear a wire to record me?"; "When did you start cooperating with the FBI?"; "Did you wear a wire to record me?"

After court, Traficant ambles down the courthouse steps to answer the onslaught of questions.

He denies taking kickbacks. No one understands his courtroom strategy. The jurors seem like fine people, but there are "technical" problems with their selection. He's just the son of a truck driver. The government is out to get him. He feels fine, how does he look?

Next day.

Here we go again: About 7:30 a.m., the first of the band of print, radio and TV reporters covering the trial begin showing up at the federal courthouse on Superior Avenue. The earliest arrivals are those who drive in from Youngstown.

Reporters staying in Cleveland arrive about 7:50 or so, greet their sufficiently chilled colleagues, and the huddle talk begins.

There's scientific talk of outwear. The general consensus: Mittens are warmer. Something to do with allowing the fingers to touch one another.

"These wrap-around-the-head earmuffs are great, huh?"

"I can't feel my toes, can you?"

There's talk of ending up with hat, hood or headband hair.

The two smokers (cigarette and cigar) request shelter from the wind (usually a TV cameraman who could pass for an NFL linebacker) to light up.

About 8:30, someone spots the red GMC Jimmy with the Trumbull County license plates swerving toward the curb.

Notebooks flip open. Frozen pens get their caps ripped off. TV video cameras, linked by umbilical cords to station-logo microphones, get switched on. Newspaper photographers bob and weave for a good angle.

Traficant hoisting himself out of the Jimmy's passenger seat is not a pretty sight. Think John Wayne with arthritis.

Next day.

There's scientific talk of outwear. The general consensus: Mittens are warmer. Something to do with allowing the fingers to touch one another.

"These wrap-around-the-head earmuffs are great, huh?"

"I can't feel my toes, can you?"

There's talk of ending up with hat, hood or headband hair.

Next day.

Oh, you get the picture.

Where will it end? Face it, at least with Punxsutawney Phil -- whether he sees his shadow or not on Groundhog Day -- spring will arrive in six weeks.

The Traficant trial, when it began Feb. 5, was supposed to last eight weeks, an estimate most reporters doubt and now look back on with longing.

For those who didn't see "Groundhog Day," by the end of the movie, Bill Murray's once-grumpy TV weatherman is a likable sweetheart.

Traficant could get out of the red Jimmy one morning with normal hair, wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and Bruno Magli loafers. He'd have no motions to file, not talk about bears' bodily functions, not mention rectum, rectal or a--.

If that happens, the press corps covering the trial would collectively faint.

meade@vindy.com




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