One of the congressman's longtime friends has pleaded innocent to perjury.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
CLEVELAND -- If jurors hear U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.'s rendition of why the government investigated him, they'll also get to hear a now-inadmissible FBI audiotape with Charles P. O'Nesti's kickback confession.
"He will open the door to essentially every bad act the government had knowledge [of] that factored into the decision to investigate and prosecute him, including the FBI's interview with O'Nesti," Craig S. Morford, an assistant U.S. attorney, said Friday in court papers. "Such background information is not hearsay and is admissible because it is not offered for the truth of the matter asserted but rather why federal authorities undertook what actions they did."
Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, wants the jury at his racketeering trial next month to hear his theory that the government, pursuing a vendetta, has considered him a "trophy" since he beat federal bribery charges in 1983 when Mahoning County sheriff. He also wants jurors to know the cost of the investigation and prosecution.
The government has asked U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells to prohibit Traficant from mentioning his 1983 trial and vendetta theory. The judge hasn't ruled on the government's request. The 60-year-old congressman's trial begins Feb. 4.
Objects to staffers' testifying: Morford's filing Friday was prompted by an objection Traficant raised to the government's 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.
O'Nesti, of Youngstown, served as Traficant's district director from January 1985 until March 1998, earning $75,000 when he resigned. O'Nesti was 71 when he died Feb. 29, 2000, before being sentenced for mob-related racketeering crimes.
The prosecution team, in a Jan. 8 filing, revealed O'Nesti's audiotaped confession but said they weren't attempting to have it introduced as evidence at trial. On the tape, O'Nesti admitted kicking back $1,000 each month to Traficant for 13 years, prosecutors said.
The government said the former congressional staffers will testify that O'Nesti and DiBlasio talked about kicking back part of their federal salaries each month to Traficant. Judge Wells must rule on whether to allow the hearsay testimony.
Morford said the O'Nesti audiotape was disclosed to allow the court to consider all information in evaluating the reliability of the statements O'Nesti made to co-workers. Traficant wants the judge to disallow the staffers' hearsay testimony, saying the most sacred right of an accused is the right of confrontation -- and he can't confront a dead man.
O'Nesti's sons: When the FBI audiotape made news last week, one of O'Nesti's sons, Gary, complained to the U.S. attorney's office about the effect the press coverage was having on him and his family, the government said. Gary O'Nesti alleged that his father had recanted the confession given Jan. 6, 2000, to FBI Special Agent Michael Pikunas, the government said.
Another son, Jeff O'Nesti, was present when Pikunas, who used his own money to buy a fruit basket for Charles O'Nesti, visited. At the time, Jeff O'Nesti said he had done an accounting of his father's finances and found that $1,000 a month or more remained unaccounted for, the government said in a letter to Traficant.
"After the taped statement had been provided, Gary O'Nesti arrived and was visibly upset that Pikunas had visited," the letter states. "As part of the effort to help Gary O'Nesti calm down, Jeff O'Nesti told Gary that their father had just wanted to get something off his chest."
The government, Traficant said in an earlier filing, knew O'Nesti had terminal cancer, likely would not be available for trial and wanted to die at home, not in a government medical facility. With that in mind, he said the government should have allowed him, as a defendant, to cross-examine O'Nesti through a deposition.
Traficant, however, was not a defendant when the audiotape was made. His indictment wasn't handed up until May 2001 -- 17 months after O'Nesti's taped confession.
DiBlasio pleads innocent: DiBlasio, meanwhile, pleaded innocent Friday to perjury, and Magistrate Judge Patricia A. Hemann released him on a $30,000 signature bond. He arrived in a taxi and, using a cane, was aided in and out of federal court by his Cleveland lawyers, James M. Kersey and David Grant.
DiBlasio was indicted Jan. 4 and charged with lying to the federal grand jury in March 2000. The government said he falsely denied kicking back part of his congressional salary to Traficant and lied about discussing the payments with other staffers, such as Jackie Bobby of Poland, who quit in June 1998.
DiBlasio served as Traficant's administrative assistant in Boardman from January 1985 through December 1998. The retired lawyer now lives in Rivera Beach, Fla.
The case has been assigned to Judge Wells.
If convicted, DiBlasio faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Kickback allegations: Traficant's indictment states that DiBlasio met in November 1998 with Boardman attorney R. Allen Sinclair and acknowledged that he, DiBlasio, had diverted a portion of his salary to Traficant and explained the kickback procedure. Sinclair, hired then as administrative counsel, was to cash his check each month, put $2,500 in an envelope and slip it under the door at 11 Overhill Road in Boardman, once a Traficant district office rented from DiBlasio then from Sinclair's wife.
Sinclair's kickbacks to Traficant began in December 1998 and continued until early January 2000, the government said.
DiBlasio, meanwhile, told the grand jury that he would convert his federal paychecks to cash and spend the money but that he could not document where the money went, the government said. The retired attorney said he spent $600 to $800 each month on lottery tickets, the government said.
Letter to Traficant: DiBlasio sent Traficant a letter in January 2000, lamenting coercion by the FBI and IRS to confess kickbacks.
Traficant filed the letter in U.S. District Court in August 2001, saying it was proof of the intimidation used on witnesses in his case.
"I was obviously contacted in their attempt to coerce me to agree to certain allegations that are absolutely not true," DiBlasio said in his letter, which is not a sworn statement. He said Pikunas, IRS Special Agent Charles L. Perkins and FBI Special Agent John E. Stoll visited him in Florida and "made it clear they were out to find information that could or would be used against you."
DiBlasio said the agents pressed him to admit things he did not do, such as give back part of his pay and part of the Overhill Road office rent to Traficant.