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TRAFICANT TRIAL Ex-assistant takes the Fifth



Published: Wed, February 20, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The congressman will travel to Florida with prosecutors next week to question a witness.

By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

CLEVELAND -- U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. wanted an old friend to admit rough treatment by the FBI, but what the congressman heard was Henry A. DiBlasio invoke his Fifth Amendment right and add: "Sorry, Jim."

In an unusual, at times humorous, three-way phone conference Tuesday afternoon, DiBlasio declined to answer all but a few questions from his home in Riviera Beach, Fla. DiBlasio, under indictment and too ill to travel, was permitted to exercise his right against self-incrimination by phone.

From 1985 to 1998, DiBlasio, 72, was Traficant's administrative assistant and also rented office space to the congressman at 11 Overhill Road in Boardman. DiBlasio, a lawyer, is accused of lying to a grand jury about kicking back part of his salary to Traficant, of Poland, D-17th.

U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells permitted the phone conference in open court, with the jury not present. She satisfied herself that DiBlasio would refuse to answer questions if called to the witness stand.

She later permitted hearsay evidence related to DiBlasio's reported kickbacks -- a conversation he had with Jackie Bobby -- to be told to the jury. Bobby, Traficant's former longtime office manager, had already told jurors about conversations she had with Charles P. O'Nesti, now deceased, and his gripes about giving Traficant part of his salary each month when he served as district director.

Traficant's objection: The teleconference got off to a rocky start with Traficant shouting to Judge Wells that he objected to the three-way call. The congressman had been willing to accept a letter from DiBlasio that invoked the ill man's Fifth Amendment right.

"Evidently they want more press," Traficant said, waving his arms toward the prosecution team. "I told you I didn't want to put him through this. I didn't think we were going into a soap opera here."

Judge Wells said he could call it a soap opera if he wanted, but she had to follow case law and determine for herself DiBlasio's unavailability to testify.

"Can your honor hear me?" DiBlasio said, after asking everyone to wait while his answering machine cycled off.

The judge said she could hear him fine.

"What'd she say?" DiBlasio asked, directing the question to his lawyer, James Kersey, who took part in the teleconference from his Cleveland office. Kersey said the judge could hear him.

DiBlasio then read a statement that began, "On advice of counsel," and invoked his right to refuse to answer questions. When finished, he said: "Is that enough, your honor?"

Not quite.

Prosecution questions: Bernard A. Smith, an assistant U.S. attorney, announced himself to DiBlasio and said he would ask a few questions. Smith asked if DiBlasio had worked for Traficant.

"Yes -- everybody knows that -- for 15 years," DiBlasio said.

Know Jackie Bobby? Smith asked.

"Yes -- am I supposed to answer these questions?" DiBlasio said, asking Kersey in Cleveland for guidance.

Traficant, apparently under the impression that only questions about DiBlasio's health would be asked, fumed.

Shouting again at the judge, the congressman said: "Are you letting him [Smith] cross-examine? What are you doing?"

In a calm, controlled voice, Judge Wells said they were doing what she told him they would do.

Smith had at it again, asking DiBlasio if he'd told Bobby in the mid-1980s that he was paying Traficant back some of his congressional salary.

DiBlasio's answer was a question to his lawyer: "What should I do?"

Take the Fifth, came the reply from Kersey. DiBlasio did. Smith had no more questions.

"Can I ask some questions now?" Traficant shouted.

The judge, unruffled, said he could.

Traficant asked about DiBlasio's health and learned that his old friend had had five coronary and three angioplasty operations.

When the congressman wanted DiBlasio to confirm being pressured by the government, DiBlasio said he had to "take the Fifth," adding, "Sorry, Jim."

Building in their names: Two in-name-only owners of 11 Overhill Road testified today that they never had anything to do with the building DiBlasio placed in their name.

The first, Richard Jeren, said the building went into his and his wife's name in January 1985 so that DiBlasio could rent it to Traficant. As a congressional employee, DiBlasio was not permitted to rent to his boss. Jeren said he'd known DiBlasio since 1959 and got a real estate license and was associated with DiBlasio's Newport Realty.

In early 1992, Jeren said he started to feel uncomfortable about having the property in his name, and DiBlasio agreed to take it out of his and his wife's name. Jeren was shown a document from the county recorder's office that transferred the property, but said that he didn't recall signing it and that it didn't appear to be his signature.

The next owner, Nicholas Chuirazzi, a retired truck driver, said DiBlasio asked him to be president of Trumbull Land Co. The company was set up to run a rental deal for the building on Overhill in the early 1990s. As with Jeren, Chuirazzi said he had nothing to do with the operation or collecting the rent.

Chuirazzi said he didn't realize the building had been transferred to Atty. R. Allen Sinclair until he read it in the newspaper.

Traficant has tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce as evidence a letter he asked DiBlasio to write that complained of rough treatment by FBI agents at his Florida home during the investigation of the congressman. Judge Wells has called such evidence "staged and self-serving."

Traficant now says he has two audiotapes of DiBlasio that he wants to use as evidence. The 60-year-old congressman reasons that if it's OK for the government to get in hearsay evidence, why can't he?

When Judge Wells called the jury back into her courtroom, she commented on the climate change, which she has cautioned happens a lot.

"It's not that hot yet," Traficant grumbled.

Back on the stand: Bobby then took the witness stand and described a lunch with DiBlasio at a Niles restaurant -- sometime between 1985 and 1987. She said DiBlasio confided that he was giving back part of his congressional salary each month but she couldn't recall if he mentioned an amount.

Traficant, standing at the podium and flipping over pages on a yellow legal pad, asked if her testimony was that she met with an attorney who gave her information about a "felonious act."

"Yes," Bobby answered.

IRS agent: Craig S. Morford, lead prosecutor, then questioned IRS Special Agent Donald C. Semesky. Using flow charts, Semesky outlined how Sinclair, Traficant's administrative counsel for 13 months, withdrew $2,500 in cash each month after depositing his congressional paycheck.

Sinclair has testified that he gave that amount each month to Traficant.

Semesky also reviewed one of DiBlasio's bank accounts and said his congressional checks were processed for cash and not deposited.

The IRS agent said Traficant's account had some cash deposits but explained that there's no way to trace the source of cash.

In his cross-examination of Semesky, Traficant wasted no time in talking about his pet peeve.

"Are you familiar with my legislation that would abolish the IRS?" Traficant asked. Semesky said he wasn't.

Cash deposits: Earlier, Grace Yavorsky Kavulic testified that she would receive cash intermittently, typically $2,000 each time, in the inter-office mail and deposit it in Traficant's personal bank account. She identified Traficant's handwriting on the deposit slips.

Kavulic served as Traficant's scheduling secretary from 1985, his first year in office, until resigning on October 1998. Kavulic, as with Bobby and Sinclair, received immunity from prosecution in return for her testimony.

Kavulic said the cash was separate from Traficant's congressional paychecks, which she also would deposit.

Smith wondered if she ever asked Traficant about the source of the cash in the inter-office envelopes.

"No, sir. He wasn't going to tell me anyhow," Kavulic answered. "You knew what you could ask him and what you couldn't ask."

In describing her duties, Kavulic said she would sometimes type letters for Traficant to the American Saddlebred Horse Association.

Traficant has a horse farm in Greenford and shows his saddle horses. Morford has called the horses a very expensive hobby.

When it came to O'Nesti, Kavulic's testimony mirrored what Bobby told the jury -- that the district director complained about kicking back part of his salary. The women were in agreement, too, of O'Nesti's long-held reputation as a bag man, a person who ferries bribes.

Kavulic also recalled letters done for and phone calls from contractors, who the government said provided renovations to the farm in return for favors.

Staffers' whereabouts: As with Bobby, Kavulic also testified that two staffers, Anthony Traficanti and George F. Buccella were frequently not in the office but "down south," a term used to describe that they were at the horse farm. Traficant is accused of having Traficanti, Buccella and another staffer, Richard Rovnak, labor at the farm during regular business hours.

Kavulic, like Bobby, quit when Traficant hired Claire Maluso at the same salary they were receiving. Traficant asked the two women to train Maluso, who didn't know how to use a computer or type, Kavulic said.

Traficant, in more of a statement than a question, launched into an explanation that Maluso, in her 70s and a loyal volunteer for many years, needed a good-paying job to help build her retirement.

He asked Kavulic if she recalled him saying that about Maluso. Kavulic said she didn't.

At one point in Traficant's discourse, Judge Wells stopped him in his tracks. "Only one of you is a witness -- this is not a joint project," she said.

Explanations for cash: Traficant, in an effort to explain away the cash in the inter-office envelopes, suggested several scenarios to Kavulic.

She agreed that she didn't handle all his personal banking. She said she didn't know that he rented horse stalls at the farm.

Still attempting to explain extra cash, the congressman also went through a long explanation of how he is reimbursed for tolls and mileage each week for the trip to Washington, D.C. He said the reimbursement is between $600 and $800 per month. A look at Traficant's travel expenses during the past two years shows that during some months the congressman is reimbursed $3,000 for travel expenses and during other months he gets no reimbursements.

According to House Administration Committee rules, congressmen are reimbursed only by check and receive the payments after submitting travel vouchers. Official travel expenses include transportation (congressmen receive 36.5 cents a mile), lodging, meals excluding alcohol, parking fees and other "ordinary and necessary incidental expenses while on official travel status," the House Administration Committee rules read.

Traficant, meanwhile, will travel next week to Cape Canaveral, Fla. with prosecutors to take part in the deposition of Thomas Williams, a prosecution witness. Judge Wells is expected to recess court next Wednesday through Friday to accommodate the deposition.

The three-day recess might sound unusual on the surface, but the rules of criminal procedure and evidence permit the judge to make such a decision, said Roger M. Synenberg, a Cleveland defense attorney and former assistant U.S. attorney.

Williams is a former Ohio Department of Transportation inspector. He has cancer, is undergoing chemotherapy, and is unable to travel to Cleveland.

Traficant contacted Williams in 1995 and took steps to get him to "back off" paving contractors Anthony and Robert Bucci and threatened to have the ODOT official fired, the government said. Williams supervised paving contractors, such as the Buccis, who did work on state and county highways.

meade@vindy.com




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