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Traficant used more than two of his five hours to respond to the accusations.



Published: Tue, July 16, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Traficant used more than two of his five hours to respond to the accusations.

By DAVID ENRICH

STATES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.'s witness lineup today included an unabashed fan, a paid staffer and a woman once described as his girlfriend.

Traficant began his second day before a House ethics subcommittee today, after using two hours Monday of the five hours allotted for his defense. The panel is considering whether he violated House rules of conduct.

In Washington for the first time since January, Traficant spent hours Monday responding to 10 charges of misconduct that were laid out by lawyers for the House ethics committee, officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The charges mirror his conviction in U.S. District Court, where a jury in April found him guilty of racketeering, bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion.

Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, intended to call as defense witnesses Michael L. Robertson, a private investigator from North Canton; Linda J. Kovachik, a congressional staffer; and Sandra J. Ferrante, his former longtime horse trainer. Court testimony described Ferrante, who lived at his horse farm in Greenford for 17 years, as his girlfriend.

At trial in April, U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells denied Traficant's request to qualify Robertson as an expert. Traficant had wanted Robertson, a former Secret Service agent, to testify as to the methods used to investigate the congressman and what Robertson believed was lacking in the investigation.

An admitted fan

Robertson acknowledged that he is a fan of Traficant's and agreed to charge the congressman $1 to review bank records and grand jury and trial testimony of Boardman attorney R. Allen Sinclair. The private investigator said he generally charges $75 to $150 per hour for his services.

Sinclair, who served 13 months as Traficant's administrative counsel, testified that he kicked back $2,500 each of those months to the congressman.

At trial, Traficant asked why Robertson wanted to donate his time.

Robertson said because the evidence appeared to be "testimony, not physical evidence." He said his source of information was press accounts of the trial.

The judge said Traficant was "off on a side trip" with the witness, who was basing his testimony on news reports and an earnest desire to help.

Robertson's "hypothesis" was that he found nine deposits of $2,500 each go into Sinclair's lawyer account. The private investigator suggested that could explain the exact amounts allegedly given back to Traficant in 1999.

Craig S. Morford, lead prosecutor at trial, got Robertson to acknowledge that if each of the $2,500 deposits represented checks to Sinclair from clients or insurance settlements it would dismantle the hypothesis.

Checks presented

The prosecutor then produced 10 checks for $2,500 each that Sinclair was paid by clients and insurance companies in 1999 and asked, "What does that do to your hypothesis?"

Robertson said it "resolved the hypothesis." He said he didn't have much time to investigate and didn't have the checks to review.

"What you testified to was irrelevant?" Morford asked.

Robertson admitted it was. Kovachik testified at trial that Traficant did not give kickbacks to Charles P. O'Nesti, the congressman's former district director. Kovachik was supposed to say that O'Nesti did not give kickbacks to Traficant.

Ferrante's testimony may deal with what she knows about work done at the horse farm over the years. Traficant has steadfastly maintained that the farm does not belong to him.

During Monday's hearing, Traficant told the eight-member panel, "I understand the political dynamics of this. I'm prepared to be expelled. I'm prepared to go to jail, because I didn't do this."

Used trial documents

The committee's case against Traficant was based exclusively on the transcript of and evidence from the criminal trial. The committee has charged him with 10 counts of "egregious misconduct," including bribery, defrauding the U.S. government, income tax evasion and obstruction of justice.

"While each of the charges are separately and abundantly supported by evidence, taken together they demonstrate a pattern and practice of misconduct by a man who violated the public trust and traded his elected office for personal gain," Kenneth Kellner, one of the committee lawyers, said in his opening statement.

As he did in his criminal trial in Cleveland, Traficant alleged that he was being persecuted by federal law-enforcement authorities, led by former Attorney General Janet Reno, whom Traficant had accused of being a traitor to the United States.

"Evidence will show that part of the genesis of this trial was the vindictive nature of Janet Reno," Traficant said.

"The pressure in the government to get Traficant courses through every charge," he added. "I was their No. 1 target in the entire country."

He argued that the government's entire case in the trial was based on hearsay and that there was no concrete evidence that he ever accepted bribes or demanded kickbacks from his staff.

Witnesses' plea agreements

Traficant repeatedly noted that many of the government's key witnesses in the criminal trial had reached plea agreements with prosecutors or were granted immunity. That, Traficant said, provided them with an incentive to falsely testify against him.

Anthony Bucci -- who testified in the trial that he had forgiven Traficant's $13,000 in debt because the congressman agreed to help Bucci's asphalt company -- is a "damn liar," Traficant said. "I helped every company in my district."

J.J. Cafaro -- who said he gave Traficant thousands of dollars' worth of farm equipment, meals and other items in exchange for the congressman's arranging meetings with top government officials who could help Cafaro's aerospace company -- is "the biggest joke in history," Traficant said.

Sinclair -- who swore that Traficant had demanded $2,500 per month in kickbacks as a condition of employment -- actually "made me some small loans and I repaid them," Traficant said. "I had no gain."

Paul Lewis, the second ethics committee lawyer, responded that Paul Marcone, Traficant's former chief of staff, had acknowledged in the trial that Bucci's and Cafaro's companies enjoyed special treatment from the congressional office. Lewis pointed out that the former aide was not coerced and did not enter into a plea agreement.

'Bonding' experience

In response to charges that he required his staffers to help repair his boat in Washington, Traficant said: "It was sort of like a bonding thing. Hell, we drank more beer. We didn't do anything on the boat."

Traficant, who is not a lawyer and was not accompanied by any legal counsel at the committee hearing, at times seemed overmatched by the two committee lawyers. They brought laptop computers, dozens of binders, boxes stuffed with thousands of pages of evidence from the criminal trial, and several giant photocopies of documents that were displayed on an easel for committee members.

By contrast, Traficant came with one small box of documents and was accompanied by the legislative director of his Washington office. After the committee lawyers finished presenting their case, Traficant instructed an aide to get a large pad of paper so that he could draw diagrams and write important points on an easel as he presented his defense.

Traficant repeatedly sparred with the two committee lawyers, who on several occasions objected to Traficant's rambling testimony. "He's going way off on a tangent," Lewis said at one point.

Critical of committee

Traficant also verbally sparred with the chairman of the ethics subcommittee, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., whom Traficant accused of being biased. On several occasions, Traficant also scolded lawmakers for not listening closely or for smirking.

"Is there something funny with me discussing my life?" he asked Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat. Traficant later said that he and Berman "haven't gotten along all that well."

He also blasted the committee for not subpoenaing all 12 of the witnesses he had wanted to appear on his behalf. Most of his requests for subpoenas were denied because the committee thought the witnesses were either irrelevant or repetitive.

Members of the subcommittee briefly questioned the ethics committee lawyers. Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, a Madison Republican who is one of Traficant's closest friends in Congress, asked several questions that seemed designed to poke holes in the prosecution's case.

Addressing charges that Traficant accepted excessive amounts of money for his boat from Cafaro, LaTourette inquired about whether it was possible that Cafaro actually paid the fair market value.

No apologies

After the hearing, LaTourette shrugged off suggestions that his friendship with Traficant created the perception that he was biased.

"I really don't want to talk about perceptions," LaTourette said. "People have sat and judged people they don't like, so I don't think it means I am being automatically disqualified because I'm fond of people."

The hearing, held in the Rayburn House Office Building, was crowded with reporters, TV cameras, photographers and congressional aides. At the ethics committee's request, a plainclothes Capitol Hill police officer was stationed inside the room throughout the hearing.

"There was no specific intelligence about a threat," the officer said.

Despite Traficant's acknowledgment that he is prepared to be expelled and go to jail, he said he remained optimistic.

"If they put me in jail in Ohio, I just might be the first American to win a congressional seat when incarcerated," said Traficant, who is running for re-election this year as an independent. "Plans of my total demise I think are premature."

XContributor: Patricia Meade, Vindicator crime reporter




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