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Are rep's two new staff members doing job for which they were hired?



Published: Wed, July 24, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



One new staffer helped the congressman during his House ethics committee hearing and another drove him to confront a contractor.

By DAVID SKOLNICK

VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.'s two newest hires appear to be following in the tradition of staff members who did tasks for the congressman outside the scope of their official duties.

Lori Pesci, who earns $28,000 annually as a staff representative at Traficant's Youngstown and Canfield offices, spent last week assisting the congressman with paperwork during his U.S. House ethics committee expulsion hearing in Washington, D.C.

Rick Berger, who earns $16,000 annually as a part-time staff assistant at the same two local offices, said in an affidavit that he drove Traficant on Monday to see A. David Sugar Sr., a contractor who testified against the congressman at his federal corruption trial. In the affidavit, Berger states that Traficant specifically asked him to accompany him to locate Sugar and to witness a conversation they had in front of a Mount Jackson, Pa., business.

Pesci and Berger were hired by Traficant specifically to handle constituent services locally, said Charles Straub, Traficant's spokesman.

It is not known if Berger was supposed to be working when he was driving Traficant to see Sugar and purposely eavesdrop on their conversation.

D.C. staff cut

Traficant has reduced his Washington, D.C., staff in recent months because the workload there has diminished significantly. Traficant has not participated in a House vote this year. He stopped coming to Capitol Hill in late January to prepare for his federal corruption trial, which began Feb. 5.

After his April 11 conviction on 10 felony counts including bribery and racketeering, the House ethics committee warned Traficant to stay away from Congress, which he has done.

The ethics committee recommended the full House expel Traficant after it found him guilty of nine counts that he violated the House's code of conduct.

While his D.C. staff has shrunk, he has added staff locally. Pesci was hired April 16, five days after Traficant was found guilty in federal court, and Berger was hired April 23.

Pesci spent about six years as a Mahoning County sheriff's deputy before being fired in early 2000 by Sheriff Randall A. Wellington because she violated state law by running for sheriff while holding a public job. Pesci finished a distant third to Wellington in the May 2000 Democratic primary for the post.

Rejected by police force

Pesci was hired in January 1994 by then-Sheriff Edward P. Nemeth after she unsuccessfully tried for a job at the Youngstown Police Department in September 1993. That department rejected her based in part on a polygraph test that showed deception in her answers to questions about illegal acts and theft of money.

Berger wrote in his affidavit that, at Traficant's direction, he drove the congressman to see Sugar. Berger said that during Traficant's conversation with Sugar he heard Sugar say he lied during his testimony because of pressure from federal prosecutors. Sugar's attorney says his client denies the statements attributed to him in the affidavit.

Traficant may have violated the conditions of his $50,000 bond, which prohibit him from leaving northern Ohio for nonwork reasons and only after telling the federal Pretrial Services agency about it. Mount Jackson is about four miles from the Ohio border.

Testimony during Traficant's trial showed that Traficant's staffers have traditionally done work not related to their job responsibilities.

Traficant was convicted on one count during his corruption trial that he had three staffers -- Anthony Traficanti, George Buccella and Richard Rovnak -- do manual labor on his family farm in Greenford when they were on the clock as federal employees.

Danette R. Palmer, Traficant's district/D.C. liaison, served as the congressman's driver and assistant during the federal trial. That stopped about a month into the trial when Palmer said she was unnerved by an FBI agent who asked about her involvement in the case.

skolnick@vindy.com




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