The congressman's ex-chief of staff said his boss was fun to be with and has a good heart.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
CLEVELAND -- Thinking his office was bugged, U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. steered Paul P. Marcone to an elevator to coach his chief of staff on grand jury testimony.
"It bothered me in the sense that I would have preferred he said, 'Just go in there and tell the truth,'" Marcone said today in U.S. District Court.
Craig S. Morford, lead prosecutor, used a transcript of Marcone's April 2000 grand jury testimony to refresh the man's memory.
Marcone testified to the grand jury about a week after his hallway conversation with Traficant.
The congressman, Marcone said, wanted him to tell the grand jury that both of Traficant's staff lawyers had worked hard. Traficant had received complaints over the years about having a lawyer on staff.
Questions of ethics: Morford may have Traficant's jury wondering if the congressman and his Youngstown staff pushed the House ethics manual into a shredder before they read it.
Marcone said he faxed to the Youngstown office sections of the manual that dealt with full-time staffers' work requirements (30 hours, in the office); the prohibition of a staffer's renting office space to his boss; and the touchy part of having a lawyer on staff.
Marcone, who earned $109,195 a year at the end, served as Traficant's press secretary/chief of staff in Washington, D.C., from 1985 to 1989 and 1993 to November 2000. He's now a lobbyist for Russ Reid, a marketing and government relations company in Washington, D.C.
The congressman's 10-count indictment was handed up in May 2001. It includes charges that he directed staffers to work at his horse farm in Greenford, accepted kickbacks and bribes and cheated on his taxes.
Setting the stage: Morford, lead prosecutor, has been piecing together the picture of a dysfunctional congressional office in Youngstown. Testimony has shown that Traficant employed unqualified people, others at large salaries for little work, treated some as farm workers and had three employees kick back part of their salaries.
Traficant has asked the less-hostile witnesses if they still like him, if they would work for him again, if they felt forced to work on the 76-acre farm, and if they think he's done anything wrong. Most said they still like him, would not work for him again, didn't feel forced to work at the farm and don't think he did anything wrong.
Marcone said he trusted Traficant and considered him a good friend, a mentor, someone who was fun to be with and had a good heart. He also knew not to argue with his boss about concerns filtering back from Youngstown.
"One of the hardest things I've ever had to do," Marcone said of testifying against his former boss. Traficant, cracking his neck from side to side, occasionally looked up at Marcone from his solitary spot at the defense table, but mostly made notes on a legal pad during Morford's direct examination of the witness.
Concerns about lawyer: When Morford quizzed Marcone about House ethics, Marcone said he'd expressed concern to Traficant about having a lawyer on staff, especially when the lawyer also rented office space to the congressman. Staff lawyers, he said, must earn below a certain threshold in their practice, not practice in federal courts, and not do congressional work in their law office.
Until early 2000, Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, always had a lawyer on his staff -- Henry A. DiBlasio, then R. Allen Sinclair -- and each rented space to the congressman for his district office at 11 Overhill Road in Boardman.
DiBlasio's law office, where he stayed during business hours, was one floor above the congressional office where staffers worked. Traficant's efficiency apartment, referred to as his private office, was above the garage.
DiBlasio arranged to have other people take over ownership of the building in name only to disguise DiBlasio's true ownership, and Sinclair, when he bought the building, put it in his wife's name, testimony has shown.
Marcone had believed that DiBlasio, if he billed clients 40 hours a week, would have difficulty showing that he devoted 30 hours to congressional work. He voiced his concerns to Traficant before DiBlasio was hired in 1985, the congressman's freshman year in Washington. Marcone testified that he later expressed staff members' concerns to Traficant that DiBlasio did little work, but he "let it go" when the congressman told him that DiBlasio worked hard and unusual hours.
Staffers' complaints: Staffers had complained to Marcone that DiBlasio made a lot of money for doing nothing. "I had no way of knowing what kind of hours Henry worked," Marcone said.
"Congress polices itself," he said, noting that the member of Congress hires, sets the salary and signs off on employees' hours, and there's no audit, no checks or balances.
Marcone said DiBlasio's title of administrative assistant was synonymous with chief of staff. DiBlasio did not, however, do the work, Marcone testified.
Morford asked if he did constituent service.
Not the traditional kind, Marcone said. "Not the helping old ladies with Social Security checks."
DiBlasio, now under indictment on charges he lied about kickbacks to Traficant, earned $86,538 his last year on the congressional payroll in 1998. DiBlasio invoked his Fifth Amendment right and refused to testify, via phone from Florida.
The real power in the Youngstown office, Marcone said, was Charles P. O'Nesti, who held the title of district director. Two former staff members have testified that O'Nesti, now deceased, had grumbled about giving back part of his salary each month to Traficant.
Raised more issues: When Sinclair, DiBlasio's law partner, first came on the scene as staff lawyer and landlord, Marcone was against it, saying that he didn't think it a particularly good idea. The high salary, rental agreement and work hours echoed concerns he'd had about DiBlasio.
Marcone said Traficant told him to confine his worries to the Washington office and not focus on the district office. With hundreds of things "on his plate," Marcone didn't push it.
Sinclair, who went on the payroll when DiBlasio left and earned $60,000 a year, testified last week that he kicked back $2,500 a month to Traficant.
The ethics manual prohibits personal work during regular business hours, Marcone said.
Worked on farm: "I worked my a-- off," George F. Buccella said of the time he spent laboring at the congressman's horse farm on federal time. The Trumbull County Board of Health administrator estimated that he worked at the farm 100 to 300 times during the 15 years he collected a federal paycheck,
Buccella recalled the jobs he did at the farm as baling hay, doing carpentry work on the deck and barn and converting a corncrib to a one-room toolshed. He repaired and built horse stalls and constructed a ring out of telephone posts to encircle the horses.
Buccella, who owned a pizza shop and had to deliver to schools one to three days a week, was allowed to come in late to the congressional office on those days. When headed to the farm (south of Youngstown), he'd call the office and say he was "going south."
"Did you do anything wrong?" Traficant asked.
"I don't believe so," Buccella answered.
"Ever see me do anything wrong?"
"Not to my knowledge," came the answer.
Later, Traficant asked if Buccella recalled saying he appreciated the exercise he got at the farm. Buccella said he did.
At this point in the questioning, a woman juror, her head in her hand, slumped in her chair, starting to nod off.
Most of the nine-woman, three-man jury pays rapt attention to both sides.
Traficant got Buccella to say that he never asked to be paid for the work he did at the farm. In an apparent attempt to show some form of payment, the congressman got Buccella to agree that they'd gone out to dinner -- his treat.
Bernard A. Smith, an assistant U.S. attorney, after listing all the farm chores Buccella admitted doing on congressional time, asked if he'd done any constituent work at the farm. Buccella said he hadn't.
Richard Rovnak of Struthers testified that he worked nearly full time at the horse farm while a part-time staff member from Oct. 1, 1990, to July 31, 1992. Rovnak, using a cane, moved slowly to the witness stand, explaining that he has a bad back, one of the reasons he couldn't stack hay, as Traficant wanted him to do at the farm.
Two offices: After the federal courthouse opened in Youngstown in 1994, Traficant wanted to keep the Overhill Road office, about 5 miles away. Marcone said he wondered why, fretting over the cost and what he would say if reporters questioned the need for two offices so close together.
The time was December 1993 and annual rent at the federal building downtown for 1994, the year of congressional cutbacks, would be $27,840. Marcone thought the $10,500 yearly rent for the Boardman office, plus utilities and cleaning, would put an unnecessary strain on the budget.
Running out of money, he said, is "a movie you never want to be in." To keep the Overhill office, plus spend $30,000 to $35,000 for new furniture and phones downtown, would mean open staff positions would go unfilled and year-end bonuses would be reduced.
DiBlasio, in a memo to Marcone shown in court, said Traficant "feels a small presence is absolutely required in Boardman."
Marcone then said Traficant thought it would be difficult for constituents to travel downtown.
Wasn't Traficant the one responsible for the federal courthouse downtown? Morford asked. It would not have been built without him, Marcone answered.
Where would the congressional staff be? Morford asked.
Downtown, Marcone said. This is where he pointed out that he'd learned not to argue with Traficant.
Unlike other former Traficant staffers, Marcone did not request immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony.
How it's going: In court Thursday, before proceedings got under way, the congressman said he thinks he's doing a good job defending himself.
U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells, though, said that she's been more lenient the past two weeks than she intends to be from now on.
She said Traficant is used to following the rules in the House or on the football field. He's a former high school and college quarterback.
"He's doing a good job, but I'm concerned," the judge said.
Judge Wells said she doesn't want the jury to be dismissed while she goes over procedures she's gone over before and said the legal work -- mostly instructing Traficant on the rules of criminal procedure -- can be put off until a regular break or the end of the day after jurors go home.