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TRAFICANT ON TRIAL Down on the farm, making hay requires the right conditions



Published: Sun, February 24, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

CLEVELAND -- Anyone who wants to learn how to bale hay should sit in on U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.'s racketeering trial.

So far, we've learned how Farmer Jim, on a tractor, mowed it down in neat straight rows.

It can't be too wet! Remember that.

Wet hay, when smashed into a bale, means trouble. Can we say spontaneous combustion, after it dries?

It can't be too dry, either! Why hasn't been fully explained yet.

It's got to be hot outside to mow and bale, and everyone knows that only happens on weekends, when highly qualified congressional staffers can help out their beloved boss.

Farmer Jim made sure his staff members didn't bring supersecret confidential constituent case files to the horse farm in Greenford. Cripes, even he knows that's a federal crime.

Not to mention the risk of having the files accidentally baled with the hay -- or worse.

Think of the scandal if old Mrs. My-Social-Security-Check's-Late file got baled and eaten by one of Farmer Jim's saddle horses.

Relevance, schmelevance -- this is the defense Farmer Jim says no one understands yet, but him.

Appreciation: If you attend the trial, you'll learn that the staff members liked the hot, back-breaking baling and they appreciated the exercise.

Except the one who had a bad back.

Mr. Bad Back, you see, was extraordinarily qualified to be a congressional staff member.

He needed a job, any job. He had no medical insurance. He knew how to cut hay. He was a pretty good handyman, too, able to fix stuff at the farm.

Here's the clincher: Mr. Bad Back agreed to not sleep with Farmer Jim when staying overnight at the farm.

As a bonus, Mr. Bad Back also was willing to travel to Washington, D.C. While there, he got to show off his paint-scraping skills aboard Farmer Jim's decrepit houseboat barely afloat on the Potomac River.

Let's digress to the houseboat for a second.

It was messy and had an odor, much like Farmer Jim's office in Washington.

Farmer Jim's chief of staff had checked on his job application: "Willing to leave the office and make sure the congressman's houseboat didn't sink overnight."

Back to the hay-baling instruction, er, cross-examination of prosecution witnesses.

Farmer Jim, his arms folded over his denim-encrusted stomach at the podium in U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells' court, turns his head to the jury. He gives one of those "I'm-a-great-guy, huh?" smiles and checks out who's taking notes.

One juror in the back row nodded off somewhere between the straight rows of cut hay and supersecret confidential constituent case files.

No matter, she paid attention to Mr. Pizza Shop, one of the congressional employees who appreciated the exercise at the farm.

Mr. Pizza Shop reported late to the congressional office on the days he had to deliver pizzas to schools.

Wonder if he ever got confused when actually working in the congressional office?

Did he answer the phone: "Congressman's Traficant's office, with or without pepperoni?"

Qualifications: Mr. Pizza Shop's outstanding qualifications to be a congressional employee?

Let's see, aside from baling hay, there was his carpentry skill -- someone had to convert that corncrib to a toolshed and make a ring for the horses out of telephone poles. Yeah, he was good with a hammer -- check out the deck and barn.

Ah, Farmer Jim, you could pick 'em.

Aside from the House ethics guys, who could question the wisdom of putting an attorney on staff in 1985 who just happened to have space to rent for a district office.

Mr. First Attorney offered such a deal. The two-for-one taxpayer-paid rent included the basement office for staffers and a hideaway efficiency apartment above the garage for Farmer Jim.

Farmer Jim explained how Mr. First Attorney put the building in someone else's name. That made it OK, even though Mr. First Attorney still collected the rent, right? Right?

Bad luck about the roof leak in the hideaway apartment and all Farmer Jim's denim bell bottoms getting wet. No problem, the General Services Administration pays for repairs to secluded living quarters, er, district offices.

It's not like Farmer Jim didn't make Mr. First Attorney work hard!

Didn't the jury hear that he did 1 percent of the work while everyone else did 99 percent?

What more could anyone expect from someone being paid $86,538 a year?

(Way back, Mr. First Attorney, taking a stab, told the grand jury investigating Farmer Jim that cash slipped under Farmer Jim's door was, uh, maybe from the sale of fund-raising tickets? Mr. First Attorney also had a good reason for converting his congressional paychecks to cash. How else could he buy tons of lottery tickets? Good grief, no, he didn't use the cash to kick back part of his salary.)

The jury won't hear from Mr. First Attorney. He looked up Fifth Amendment in his law books and, being too sick to travel to Cleveland from poolside at his Florida home, phoned in his refusal to take the witness stand.

Sorry, Farmer Jim.

Mr. Second Attorney was eminently qualified to be a congressional staffer.

He'd bought Mr. First Attorney's building -- the one with Farmer Jim's district office and secret apartment -- when Mr. First Attorney decided to retire in late 1998 and head south.

Mr. Second Attorney put the building in his wife's name. That made it OK, even though he still collected the taxpayer-paid rent, right? Right?

On his congressional job application, Mr. Second Attorney, a personal injury lawyer, checked all the key boxes:

U I am not qualified.

U I have no interest in politics -- especially Washington politics.

U I don't keep up with current affairs.

U I'm not a very good personal injury lawyer and I really, really need Farmer Jim's taxpayer-paid rent.

U No kidding, I really need the rent.

U I understand Farmer Jim owes the IRS a lot of money and, on his $150,000 annual salary, can't make ends meet.

U Because of all the above, I'll give Farmer Jim $2,500 back each month from my congressional paycheck.

Mr. Second Attorney, the jury learned, wasn't paid very well, only $60,000 a year. Because of the reduced salary, he didn't have to work as hard as Mr. First Attorney.

Dollars and sense: Where's the calculator? If 1 percent of the work paid Mr. First Attorney $86,538, the jury has to be able to figure out how much work Farmer Jim required Mr. Second Attorney do for a measly $60,000.

The jury learned that, for a salary that reached $75,000, Farmer Jim had himself a fine Mr. District Director.

Mr. District Director had impeccable qualifications: He was probably Farmer Jim's closest friend.

The jury won't be able to overlook Mr. District Director's managerial skills. He kept tabs on reserve deputies at the Mahoning County Sheriff's Department when Farmer Jim was Sheriff Jim.

Mr. District Director also made a decent chauffeur to Washington and 90 percent of Farmer Jim's speaking engagements at home. Farmer Jim likes to get out of passenger seats.

If Mr. District Director had one flaw, it had to be his bad habit of complaining about his congressional "pay situation" to two colleagues. They listened sympathetically to his predicament -- giving back part of his salary each month to Farmer Jim and still having to pay taxes on it.

That mean old IRS.

The jury, by now, knows that women in their 70s who volunteer to do stuff for Farmer Jim -- for at least seven years -- qualify as a congressional staffer, in charge of economic development.

There's a crucial requirement, though: They must need a good salary to ensure a decent retirement.

Is that making hay when the sun shines, or what?

meade@vindy.com




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