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TRAFICANT ON TRIAL Bucci had choice: Sue or 'own' lawmaker



Published: Tue, February 26, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The congressman's fingerprints were not on the $24,500 in cash displayed in court.

By PATRICIA MEADE

VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER

CLEVELAND -- The investigation of U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. began in September 1999 when a crooked paving contractor told the government he'd done work at the congressman's horse farm in return for favors, according to testimony of an FBI agent.

That contractor, Anthony R. Bucci, a convicted felon, was to be the government's first witness today in U.S. District Court.

In January 2000, news spread that the congressman's office files and phone records had been subpoenaed the month before. He wasted no time in calling the investigation an FBI-IRS vendetta and predicting that he would be indicted.

Widely spread rumors had been that Charles P. O'Nesti, Traficant's longtime district director, supplied the flame that ignited the investigation of the congressman.

In 1998, O'Nesti cooperated with the FBI against his pals, mob boss Lenny Strollo and Phil Chance, former Mahoning County sheriff. Both are in prison.

O'Nesti died in February 2000 before being sentenced for racketeering crimes but had supplied an audiotape confessing that he kicked back part of his salary each month to Traficant for 13 years. Evidence of the tape didn't surface until recently.

Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, held fast to his vendetta theory as he left court late Monday, saying the investigation began long before Bucci. The congressman maintains that he has been a target since he won acquittal on bribery charges in 1983 when Mahoning County sheriff.

Seeks immunity for Bucci: Craig S. Morford, lead prosecutor, told U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells that Bucci would assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination today when he took the stand. Once that is done, Morford wants the judge to grant Bucci immunity from prosecution and compel him to testify.

FBI Special Agent Joseph A. Bushner testified Monday that a former assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting Bucci learned from Bucci about the work he was doing at Traficant's farm and passed the information on to the FBI in September 1999.

Bucci once operated Prime Contractors and Asphalt Specialist Inc. in Girard with his brother, Robert, who reportedly fled the country a few years ago.

Anthony Bucci is named in count one of Traficant's 10-count indictment, conspiracy to violate the federal bribery statute.

Anthony Bucci agreed to forgive a debt, roughly $11,000, that Traficant owed for work done at his horse farm in Greenford, the government said.

In return, Traficant interceded on behalf of the Buccis with federal and local prison authorities, Ohio Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Weathersfield Township trustees, Mahoning County engineer and a Youngstown bank, federal prosecutors said.

In May 1999, Anthony Bucci pleaded guilty to mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud the IRS. It doesn't appear from the criminal docket for his case that sentencing, which had been set for October 1999, ever took place.

A week before the sentencing date, the government filed a motion under seal and the federal judge granted it and filed his order under seal. Bucci had received a six-month sentence in 1992 for a crime related to his paving work.

Testimony about Sinclair: Bushner is a former Marine captain. He assisted other FBI agents when Boardman attorney R. Allen Sinclair decided to cooperate and admit that he kicked back $2,500 each month to Traficant while on the congressman's staff.

At first, Sinclair denied the kickbacks and said "I don't want to be part of 'getting Traficant,'" Bushner said, reading from an FBI document that recorded the Jan. 24, 2000, interview. A week later, Sinclair decided to cooperate but expressed concerns about his safety, Bushner testified.

Sinclair believed Traficant to be volatile and said he had firearms at his Boardman office, Bushner testified.

Based on a number of factors, a decision was made not to wire Sinclair and attempt to secretly record Traficant, the agent said.

Sinclair had described Traficant to the FBI as a "touchy feely person" who frequently hugged and slapped people on the back, and there was concern he would detect the wire, Bushner said.

The boiler room where Sinclair and Traficant often spoke at 11 Overhill Road -- Sinclair's law office and Traficant's district office -- had too much background noise. Bugging Sinclair's vehicle was rejected because Traficant would "talk in code" and reach over to put his hand over Sinclair's mouth, Bushner said.

"My main problem, I didn't think Mr. Sinclair could pull it off," Bushner said of wiring Sinclair. "He was very nervous about the congressman and doesn't have a poker face."

No fingerprints: As he sat on the witness stand, Bushner opened two packets that held $24,500 in cash, a letter, small sticky notes from Traficant and a piece of a restaurant place mat with a "to-do" list for the farm.

All the exhibits, which were passed among the jury, had been tested for fingerprints and none contained Traficant's fingerprints, Bushner said.

Sinclair had supplied all but the place mat fragment, which was given to the FBI by Anthony Bucci. The cash represented kickback money Traficant had returned to Sinclair, wanting the lawyer to tell the FBI that he'd made cash withdrawals and kept the money at home, testimony has shown.

Traficant, when he began cross-examining Bushner, asked if the agent had served in the Gulf War. Bushner hadn't.

"Thank you anyway for your service," Traficant said. Bushner thanked him back.

Traficant wondered if Sinclair had a code name with the FBI.

Ripples of laughter followed when Bushner said Sinclair's code name was Allen.

Traficant, acting incredulous, hammered away at the lack of an audiotape with his and Sinclair's conversations. The congressman wondered how we could put a man on the moon and not adjust an audiotape to a little boiler room noise.

Traficant asked if there were discussions at the FBI about how to trap him into a confession. Bushner said there weren't.

Repetitive questions: The congressman asked repeatedly if Sinclair had been concerned that his wife would be investigated because the Overhill Road property had been put into her name. Bushner answered no. Congressional staff members are prohibited from renting district office space to their boss.

The repetitive questions about Sinclair's wife finally got to Morford, and the lead prosecutor objected, saying: "This has been asked and answered."

"It has?" Traficant said, feigning skepticism.

"It has," Judge Wells chimed in.

Traficant wanted to know if Bushner was aware that, after Sinclair quit the congressional staff, he bought a $300,000 house and a new car and spent $50,000 in advertising. Bushner said he wasn't aware.

Traficant had Bushner read portions of the FBI report, specifically Sinclair's initial denial about kickbacks. The congressman asked that the portions be read slowly.

Objection: Although Morford did not object to the reading, he told Judge Wells at the end of the day, with the jury gone, that he will from now on. The FBI reports, Morford said, are to be used only to refresh an agent's memory or when an agent's testimony differs from the report.

With that, Traficant began shouting, "Their concern is that their case is starting to unravel!"

He said he won't be pushed and has a right to his own line of defense.

"You are not entitled to do whatever you want in the courtroom," Judge Wells said, anger in her voice.

Turning to Morford, Traficant continued his attack. "The truth is, you were very uncomfortable this afternoon," he said menacingly.

That did it for Judge Wells.

Judge's reprimands: "Congressman, you're not doing that here," the judge said, her patience gone. "This court is in recess."

The judge and Traficant had sparred most of Monday as she repeatedly explained the rules of evidence to him. She even gave jurors a brief course on what constitutes hearsay, statements made that are not subject to cross-examination.

Witnesses can testify only about what they said or have personal knowledge of, not things they overhead or others said.

Each time Traficant ventured into forbidden territory, Judge Wells stopped him cold and told him to move on.

The judge warned Traficant several times to stop trying to get his own statements in through questions he put to Paul P. Marcone, his chief of staff until November 2000.

The judge told Traficant he can get his statements in by taking the witness stand, which then subjects him to cross-examination.




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