On tape, O'Nesti acknowledges kickbacks to Traficant, FBI says
The judge must rule on admissibility of the hearsay evidence.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
CLEVELAND -- There's a Jan. 6, 2000, FBI audiotape of Charles P. O'Nesti acknowledging that, for 13 years, he kicked back $1,000 each month to his boss, U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.
Disclosure of the tape can be found in a government brief filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court. In the filing, prosecutors inform U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells of their intention to call former congressional staffers to testify about conversations they had with O'Nesti, now deceased, and Atty. Henry A. DiBlasio, now under indictment.
The unidentified staffers will testify that O'Nesti and DiBlasio talked about kicking back part of their congressional salaries each month to Traficant, of Poland, D-17th. DiBlasio is accused of lying to a grand jury about the kickbacks.
Trial: Traficant's trial begins Feb. 4. Although he's not a lawyer, he will defend himself against charges of racketeering, bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion.
The federal prosecutors -- Craig S. Morford, Bernard A. Smith and Matthew B. Kall -- are seeking a pretrial ruling on the staffers' conversations to prevent the evidence from coming before the jury before the judge's review. They want Judge Wells to issue an order allowing the hearsay evidence.
The government points out that hearsay is admissible in certain circumstances. In this case, neither O'Nesti nor DiBlasio is available to testify, and the self-incriminating statements they made to colleagues took place well before any investigation involving them or Traficant ever began.
The government, without saying why, is not asking to have O'Nesti's audiotape admitted as evidence.
O'Nesti served as Traficant's district director in Youngstown from January 1985 until March 1998 and was earning $75,000 when he resigned. Shortly after resigning, O'Nesti pleaded guilty to racketeering crimes linked to his close confidant, mob boss Lenny Strollo.
O'Nesti was 71 when he died in February 2000 before being sentenced.
Expected testimony: According to the brief, a congressional staffer will testify that O'Nesti complained frequently about having to kick back a portion of his salary. O'Nesti, the staffer will testify, grumbled that he had to pay taxes on the money and, unlike DiBlasio, had to work hard for the income he was allowed to keep.
A second congressional staffer will testify about O'Nesti's kickback complaints and gripes from employees who had to perform duties supposedly assigned to DiBlasio, according to the brief.
The testimony of numerous former and current congressional staffers will show that O'Nesti and DiBlasio were two of Traficant's closest and most loyal associates, according to the brief.
When first questioned by the FBI, O'Nesti denied the kickback scheme, the government said. Then he ultimately admitted to the FBI that he gave back $1,000 each month, roughly $160,000 total.
DiBlasio, 72, of Riviera Beach, Fla., served as Traficant's administrative assistant from January 1985 to December 1998. He was earning $85,000 when he retired.
When questioned about kickbacks, DiBlasio acknowledged only that he cashed his congressional paychecks but could not document where the money went, the government said. The retired attorney said he spent $600 to $800 each month on lottery tickets, prosecutors said.
"DiBlasio confided his kickback secret first to a friend/colleague over lunch and later to a person he was grooming to fill his void as the overpaid, minimally tasked staff member who kicked salary back to the congressman," the government said in its filing.
It defies logic, prosecutors said, that O'Nesti and DiBlasio would risk the loss of their high-paying jobs, let alone criminal prosecution, by frivolously making false accusations about their boss to other congressional employees.
DiBlasio, the government said, placed his office building on Overhill Road in Boardman in another name to conceal the fact that he rented a district office to Traficant. As a congressman, Traficant is prohibited from renting space from a member of his staff.
Throughout his congressional employment, DiBlasio kept his full-time law practice, the government said. Prosecutors said a congressional staff member will testify that staffers from Traficant's Washington, D.C., and Youngstown-area offices complained often that DiBlasio did very little work to justify his salary.
Boardman attorney R. Allen Sinclair, who replaced DiBlasio, continued the practice of kicking back $2,500 each month to Traficant and took over the Overhill Road building, where the 60-year-old congressman continued to rent office space, the government said.
Sinclair is referenced in Traficant's indictment and Tuesday's filing by title only. Sinclair and Jackie M. Bobby of Poland are named in DiBlasio's indictment and will testify for the government.
Bobby worked for Traficant when he served as Mahoning County sheriff from 1981 to 1984, then joined his congressional staff in January 1985. She quit in June 1998, when Traficant hired Claire Maluso of Youngstown to fill O'Nesti's position.
Rumors: Meanwhile, rumors circulated Tuesday in Columbus and Washington, D.C., about Traficant's accepting a plea bargain and opting not to go to trial. Because of those rumors, Traficant took the unusual step of rebuffing speculation about accepting a plea.
"Jim Traficant is going to trial against the brightest and strongest team of government attorneys in the history of the northern district of Ohio and perhaps all of America," he said.