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Maverick Lawmaker Rests His Case in Corruption Trial

Courts: Ohio Rep. James Traficant's unorthodox self-defense highlights a legal saga as unusual as the man himself.

April 06, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CLEVELAND — In the last week of his trial on federal corruption charges, Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. has angrily dropped things on the floor, stormed from the courtroom, mocked the prosecutors and proudly proclaimed that he never opened the box of evidence they turned over to him.

Still, Friday morning he managed the seemingly impossible in his tangled, unpredictable, unlawyerly self-defense. The first words out of his mouth surprised even veterans of this nine-week trial who said they had come to expect almost anything.

"The defense rests," said Traficant, who chose to represent himself despite his lack of a law degree.

With that, he drew gasps from those watching the courtroom theatrics of the nine-term Democratic representative from a working-class district in northeast Ohio.

The day before, the self-described "son of a truck driver" seemed poised for a legal filibuster of sorts. He had run out of witnesses in five of the last eight days. Those he did call in his two-week-long defense were asked repetitious questions between long pauses. Some of his witnesses seemed to buttress the government's case, not his. By Thursday, even longtime supporters such as Bill Allen, a constituent and neighbor who drove an hour and a half to attend the trial, grimaced.

"He's stalling, sure he is," said Allen, shaking his head. "But he don't want to face the music on this one."

Traficant faces up to 63 years in prison and more than $2 million in fines if convicted on 10 counts of an indictment that includes charges of racketeering, tax evasion and accepting bribes and kickbacks. He is the latest target of a Mahoning Valley corruption probe that has led to the convictions of more than 70 people, including a now-deceased top aide to Traficant.

The allegations against Traficant include kickbacks involving a member of his congressional staff. Prosecutors say the staffer gave back to his boss half of his $2,500 salary in cash each month. There are charges that other staffers shoveled horse manure and baled hay at his Ohio farm on government time and that Mafiosi offered services in exchange for government contracts.

In his own way, Traficant has acknowledged the seriousness of the charges. "They're not trying to find out whether Ronald McDonald ate at Burger King here!" he said.

But that hasn't stopped him from raising a wide range of odd matters: his broken-down houseboat that has no working toilet, the anatomy of a horse, and this demand of nearly everyone he questioned or cross-examined: "Did I ever hug you?"

This week, U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells appeared to have had enough. She warned the 60-year-old congressman Wednesday that the next time he had no one to put on the stand he would either have to call himself or rest his case.

The possibility that the flamboyant congressman might question himself Thursday (the rules would have required him to begin each query with "Question:") had not only packed the ornate gilded courtroom where the trial is being held but also left people standing in the hallway outside the overflow room.

This, after all, is the same man who often closes his soliloquies on the floor of the House of Representatives with the words, "Beam me up, Mr. Speaker."

Instead, Traficant cobbled together another day of defense witnesses. Old acquaintances, who stopped in to wish him well, found themselves instantly subpoenaed and called to testify on behalf of Traficant's character.

They included Edward W. Nishnic, the son-in-law of John Demjanjuk, a man whom Traficant helped bring back to the U.S. in 1993 after the Israeli Supreme Court dismissed charges that he should be brought to trial for being the Nazi prison guard "Ivan the Terrible."

Nishnic offered kind words about the congressman, gamely trying to find new adjectives to describe the congressman's character after he was asked virtually the same question at least a dozen times.

"Don't stop," Traficant urged, as his witness looked to the judge for guidance once he had run out of things to say. "Keep going."

Traficant's amateur lawyering led him to base nearly every objection on the "Constitution of the United States" and throw legal jargon such as "double jeopardy" out at irrelevant moments.

Observers say he has been given far more leeway by Wells than would have been accorded any hired lawyer. Traficant, however, berated her repeatedly for siding with the prosecution. After resting his case Friday, he moved that the charges be dismissed on the grounds that she had violated his rights. Among other complaints, Traficant said she had erred by not allowing his "vendetta theory" defense that government prosecutors and law enforcement officials have been out to get him for 20 years.

"I have a bull's-eye on my back and vise on my chest," he said before offering a lukewarm apology for his "unusual" behavior.

Traficant, who worked without any formal legal assistance, seemed to be betting that the jury will see him as the little guy battling a powerful government.

The same strategy earned him an acquittal when, as an elected Mahoning County sheriff, he defended himself in 1983 against federal bribery charges. Then the government had him on tape taking more than $100,000 from known mob members--a fact he explained by saying that he was conducting his own undercover sting operation.

As late as Thursday he had held out the possibility that he would take the stand. Speaking just off the courthouse steps after the close of the day's session, a single strand of hair flapping loose from the shellacked salt-and-pepper concoction piled high on his head like a bird's plumage, Traficant had vowed to call at least five character witnesses.

Then again, he said, he could not be sure what he would do next.

Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday.

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