A former chief of staff called work done by staffers on the congressman's houseboat 'team building.'
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
CLEVELAND -- Richard A. Rovnak of Struthers, a former part-time worker for U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., testified today that he worked almost exclusively at Traficant's horse farm in Greenford, sometimes putting in 16-hour days.
He said he thinks the time was shown as vacation or sick time.
Rovnak was on Traficant's payroll from Oct. 1, 1990 to July 31, 1992, and was supposed to work at the congressman's Overhill Road office in Boardman, earning $8,800 annually. Rovnak served as a reserve deputy when Traficant was Mahoning County sheriff in the early 1980s.
Rovnak recalled hearing Charles P. O'Nesti yelling at Traficant that Traficant would get in trouble for having Rovnak work exclusively at the farm.
Rovnak sent a letter to Traficant with a list of the work he had done and what he said was a fair price for the work but never got a response. He said he also traveled to Washington and worked on Traficant's boat.
In questioning today, Traficant asked Rovnak when he quit as a congressional staffer. Rovnak said he didn't quit, he was terminated when he no longer wanted to work at the farm.
"Was I there?" Traficant asked.
"Yes, sometimes we slept out there," Rovnak said.
"Same bed?" Traficant asked.
Rovnak responded, "No, Jim."
Rovnak said he never knew when congressional staffers were to report to work -- because he was never in the office to know.
He said that he did eventually get an office desk, but not until after he quit at the farm and started to work on a few cases. He said he doesn't think he finished any of the cases.
Rovnak said O'Nesti found him a job with Gilbane Co. at the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District. When Traficant asked if Gilbane was part of a criminal investigation, the government objected, citing relevance, and the judge told Traficant to go on to another question.
Former chief of staff: During testimony Wednesday and today, H. West Richards, former Traficant chief of staff, characterized work done by staff members on the congressman's houseboat as a "team-building exercise."
Federal prosecutors are calling the work a crime because employees did it while receiving federal paychecks.
Richards, whose parents still live in Youngstown, served as Traficant's chief of staff until September 1993. He resigned, on good terms, to become special assistant to the president of Georgia Tech.
Richards acknowledged that his testimony at Traficant's racketeering and bribery trial in U.S. District Court was difficult. In 1985, Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, launched Richards' career and gave him the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill while in his early 20s.
Just hours before his testimony, Richards sought and received immunity from prosecution, the fourth to do so in the congressman's trial. An attorney friend told Richards that if other former staffers testified under immunity, he should, too.
Lead prosecutor Craig S. Morford asked Richards who described working on the houseboat as "team building." Richards couldn't recall if he or Traficant did. The congressman lived in the houseboat while Congress was in session.
Low morale: It was the congressman's idea, though, to get everyone outside, on the boat, in the fresh air and build morale, Richards said. Morale was low, partly because of the high salary Henry A. DiBlasio, Traficant's administrative assistant, earned for doing little work at the district office in Boardman, he said.
Morford wondered if sanding and scraping paint off the boat in 1991 built morale.
"Probably not," Richards replied. Looking back, it was demeaning work, he said.
Having your boss ask you to do something is a primary motivation, he said of scraping paint off the boat, a 20- to 25-foot wooden craft.
Richards, whose halting testimony was peppered with "um" and "uh," admitted that Traficant, on occasion, would have him "round up some of the guys [in the office] and head down to the boat."
Conflicts: As chief of staff, Richards said, he overlooked a "touchy" conflict of interest DiBlasio had by being a paid staff member and renting space to Traficant for the district office on Overhill Road in Boardman. Richards said he also heard from staff members confused about DiBlasio's limited role and high pay and listened to George F. Buccella's complaints about having to work at the congressman's horse farm in Greenford and not in his paid job as a district staff member.
Richards said Traficant told him not to be concerned with the district staff issues.
DiBlasio, a retired lawyer, is under indictment, accused of lying to a grand jury about kicking back part of his salary to Traficant. DiBlasio was earning $86,538 a year when he retired in late 1998.
Richards said DiBlasio was the only attorney on staff and the highest paid congressional employee. "My sense was that Mr. DiBlasio, although an excellent resource, was not as active as he should have been," Richards said.
Joseph Altiero testified that when he worked for Prime Construction, his bosses sent him to work at the farm and, while there, he worked alongside Buccella. Altiero said that Traficant never paid for the work and that he received instructions from Sandy, the congressman's "former girlfriend" who lived at the farm for 17 years.
After court, crushed between reporters, Traficant grinned when asked about Sandy -- Sandra J. Ferrante: "I have friends, some are boys, some are girls. I think you should ask the guy who said that."
The farm was Traficant's sanctuary, a place where he could go and decompress from the rigors of a fast-paced schedule, Richards said.
Richards' explanation for overlooking concerns he had about DiBlasio and about staff workers' doing personal chores for Traficant was to say that Capitol Hill is different from anywhere else.
"It's an honor to be there, and it's made up of staffers who hold members of Congress in high esteem," Richards said. "To me, the congressman was a strong authority figure and mentor -- an incentive to not get into difficult conversations."
Government's allegations: The crime allegations associated with the houseboat and farm labor fall under Traficant's mail fraud racketeering acts.
Morford, whose focus has been to demonstrate the diverse ways Traficant allegedly abused his power, tossed out a few names to determine Richards' role in their particular circumstances.
Bucheit case: Bernard J. Bucheit of Bucheit International, for example, traveled to the Washington, D.C., office several times, accompanied by Leo Jennings Sr. Jennings' daughter, Lynn Jennings, was on Traficant's staff at the time, Richards said. Bucheit's company had built a strip mall in the Gaza Strip and had trouble in 1990 collecting $11 million from a Saudi Arabian prince for the project.
Traficant interceded on Bucheit's behalf and eventually, in 1992, an undisclosed settlement was reached with the Saudi government.
Richards identified a government exhibit as a scathing letter Traficant sent to James A. Baker, secretary of state at the time, regarding the Bucheit case.
Bucheit is charged with conspiracy to violate the federal bribery statute, giving an unlawful gratuity to Traficant and lying to a grand jury. He is accused of doing contracting work in the early 1990s worth more than $30,000 at the horse farm and not requiring payment for a deck replacement, electrical work, elaborate railings and latticework, a gazebo, enclosure of an addition, siding, windows, drywall and finishing work.
J.J. Cafaro: Morford also asked Richards about multimillionaire J.J. Cafaro, whose family builds shopping malls. Cafaro once owned the now-defunct Avanti Motors, makers of stylish sports cars.
Richards identified a photograph of a black Avanti, saying Traficant "road-tested" it a few times by driving it to Washington.
Traficant "viewed J.J. like a successful business figure. He wondered about Mr. Cafaro's political ambitions overall. He respected Mr. Cafaro," Richards said.
Cafaro admits that he gave Traficant an illegal gratuity -- $13,000 in cash and more than $20,000 in repairs to the congressman's houseboat. Cafaro, who reached a plea agreement with the government, will testify against Traficant.
Cafaro's sentencing, which had been set for next week, has been reset to June 4.
Cross-examination: Traficant, when he began his cross-examination, greeted Richards with: "How ya doing, West?"
"I've been better," his former chief of staff answered.
Traficant asked if Richards had great respect for Paul P. Marcone, who resigned as chief of staff in late 2000.
"Absolutely," Richards said with enthusiasm.
"Did you have great respect for me?" Traficant asked.
"Yes," Richards said. No enthusiasm this time.
"You didn't say 'absolutely,'" Traficant coaxed.
"I did not, no, sorry. OK, absolutely," Richards said.
"That wasn't intimidating, was it?" Traficant asked.
"No," Richards said, smiling.
Muffled laughter filled U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells' courtroom.
It was Traficant's way of poking fun at Morford, who had asked Richards if the government had ever threatened him or tried to mold or shape his testimony. Richards answered "no." Traficant has accused the government of pressuring and threatening witnesses in an effort to frame him.
Richards answered "no" when Traficant asked if he felt Richards had done anything wrong.
Under pressure? Today, Traficant asked if anyone was forced to work on the boat, and Richards said "no." The congressman also asked if any staffers chose not to work on the boat, and Richards said "yes."
Morford asked if Richards thought Traficant's decision to have staffers scraping paint was the best decision for the office. Richards said "no."
Morford asked if staffers felt pressured to work on the boat, and Richards said, "Yes, I would say it could be perceived as pressure from the congressman."
With the jury gone for the day Wednesday, Morford cautioned Traficant that by asking open-ended questions about certain tactics he used, such as pressuring the Saudi government in the Bucheit case, he could be unwittingly waiving his immunity under the U.S. Congress' speech or debate clause, something Traficant has fought so hard to maintain.
The clause grants protection for, among other things, legislative acts, and Morford said he has cautioned government witnesses, such as Richards, to not talk about legislative acts.