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TRAFICANT ON TRIAL Is unlisted and private office a misuse of taxpayer money?



Published: Tue, February 19, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The hideaway office in Canfield isn't listed anywhere, but taxpayers pay the rent.

By PATRICIA MEADE

and DAVID SKOLNICK

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS

CLEVELAND -- Taxpayers aren't supposed to pay for private offices or living quarters for members of Congress.

Over his nine terms, U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. of Poland, D-17th, has had taxpayers pay for both, records and testimony show.

Testimony in his racketeering trial revealed that, until April 2000, Traficant had an efficiency apartment with a separate entrance over a garage at 11 Overhill Road in Boardman. His district office for constituents was on the lower floor of the building, with law offices above it.

Traficant's residence is on Main Street in Poland.

Traficant stayed overnight at the over-the-garage quarters "many times," Boardman attorney R. Allen Sinclair testified. Sinclair referred to it as a "private office" and said only Traficant had a key. Rent at the Overhill office was $656 a month, according to congressional records.

Sinclair testified that he paid Traficant $2,500 a month in kickbacks while he worked as his administrative counsel.

Jackie Bobby, the congressman's longtime office manager, described to the jury how mail would be left in the hallway near the private quarters over the garage on Overhill. Staffers worked downstairs.

Canfield office: A few months after vacating the Overhill offices, Traficant began in August 2000 renting office space on U.S. Route 224 in Canfield. Traficant's rent for the Canfield office is $1,750 a month.

The secluded office at 4590 Boardman-Canfield Road is not listed in the phone book, city directory or on his Web site -- and don't expect to find it by looking for a sign out front. The free-standing marquee that faces the road does not give even a hint that Traficant can be found there.

The office is at the northeast corner of the modern-looking complex. Glass-block windows offer total privacy.

The Canfield office is not listed because Traficant has a walk-in office at the federal courthouse in downtown Youngstown for constituent use, according to Charles Straub, his spokesman. Traficant uses the Canfield office to house staff and do constituent work, according to Straub.

The General Accounting Office pays the rent, utilities and repairs for congressional district offices. Traficant also has district offices in Niles and East Liverpool.

Officials' opinions: Jim Forbes, spokesman for the U.S. House Administration Committee, said his belief is it is inappropriate for a congressman to use federally paid offices as living quarters. Because of Presidents Day on Monday, Forbes said he could not consult with the committee's legal counsel and give a definitive answer. The administration committee has oversight over the spending of House members for staffing and office expenses.

U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, a Lucasville Democrat, said it is inappropriate and not permissible for a congressman to live in a district office.

"I can't imagine it would be allowed," he said.

Traficant's predecessor in Congress, Lyle Williams, said it would not be proper for a member of Congress to rent a private office or private office that doubled as living quarters.

"It sure wasn't proper during my day. They don't pay for residences -- no way," Williams said of the GAO.

Williams, a health-care consultant in Washington, seemed perplexed to find that the Canfield office is not listed anywhere.

"You absolutely have to list the district offices; they're paid by taxpayers' money," he said.

Williams, who served three terms in Congress, said his three district offices were listed.

He noted that taxpayers are not expected to pay for private offices geographically separate from their district offices. He said each district office has a separate office within it so the member of Congress can meet privately with constituents away from staffers.

Regarding Traficant's Canfield office, Strickland, who has four district offices, said: "I can't see how that would be legal to have an office the public doesn't know about."

Role of staffer at trial: Another issue of concern is the use of Danette R. Palmer, a member of Traficant's staff, by the congressman during his federal trial.

Palmer, who for the past three years has served as Traficant's liaison between his district offices and Washington, D.C., office, accompanies the congressman every day to the federal courthouse in Cleveland.

Palmer, who is paid $36,900 annually, is continuing her role as liaison between Traficant and his staffers during the trial, Straub said.

"She is kind of my lifeline to the congressman right now," Straub said. "I'm staying in daily contact with her about what's going on in Washington, whether it be legislative affairs or constituent relations. The local office is doing the same thing."

But Palmer also sat next to Traficant during the jury selection process and was seen reviewing jury questionnaires. In addition, Palmer is driving Traficant to and from the courthouse.

U.S. House ethics rules state congressional staffers can be paid only for performing official duties such as assisting a Congress member with "legislative and representational duties."

Straub said he could not answer questions about anything else Palmer may be doing for Traficant in court because he is not there to see it for himself.

But her responsibility during the trial is to relay messages between Traficant and his staffers, Straub said.

Under normal circumstances, Palmer works out of Traficant's Washington office when Congress is in session serving as the congressman's liaison with his district offices and constituents, Straub said. When Congress is not in session, she spends time at Traficant's Mahoning Valley offices doing the same kind of work, Straub said.

Even though Congress is in session, Traficant is busy with his federal trial and missing House votes, so Palmer is not in Washington, either.

"This is kind of a unique situation where he's not in Washington when he'd like to be," Straub said.

meade@vindy.com

skolnick@vindy.com




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