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Outrage Over Traficant, but Not at the Crime

Loyalty: In Mahoning Valley, Cleveland-area jurors--outsiders--are blamed for conviction.

April 14, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — It's Friday morning, the day after their congressman became a convicted felon, and a steady stream of furious callers are venting to local radio legend Dan Ryan.

The anger, however, is not directed at Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., the Democrat voters here elected nine times to represent this working-class region in Congress.

The people of the Mahoning Valley are mad at the jurors--10 women and two men from the Cleveland area, 75 miles to the northwest--who found Traficant guilty on all 10 counts of a federal indictment that included charges of bribery, racketeering and taking kickbacks.

A caller tells Ryan--whom Traficant sat in for on WKBN-AM before jury selection--that the government shouldn't have been wasting its time on "peanuts" when "trillions" have been stolen from the defense budget.

Another man says that, even if Traficant took bribes--which he didn't necessarily believe--it wasn't anything that lots of other politicians weren't doing themselves. Traficant, with his outlandish wardrobe, loud mouth and self-styled "junkyard dog" persona, just made an easy target.

They like him. They'd vote for him again, even if he has to run from a prison cell.

"This is utterly insane that people think like this," an exasperated Ryan said on the air.

Welcome to the Mahoning Valley, a place known for organized crime, strong-arm labor tactics and an intense belief that Washington stood by uncaring as the region lost tens of thousands of good manufacturing jobs.

The result has been something known as the "Youngstown Way," a culture permeated by ticket-fixing, back-scratching and crooked politicians that local reformers have been trying to change for 20 years.

Most people here, even the ones who believe Traficant couldn't be guiltier, never expected him to go down on all 10 counts. And no one here, most emphatically Traficant himself, believes that he would have been found guilty on any charge had Mahoning Valley residents been on the jury.

Traficant, who represented himself despite lacking a law degree, complained about the jurors just minutes after the verdict. "Very few people on this jury really knew Jim Traficant or had an understanding of Jim Traficant," he said. "I think that would have made a big difference."

After all, when he represented himself in 1983 at the same Cleveland courthouse, a jury that included six people from the Mahoning Valley acquitted him on federal charges of taking $163,000 from organized crime. Traficant, then the elected sheriff, convinced jurors that the money, which he was caught taking on tape, was part of his own undercover sting.

He tried unsuccessfully to have his latest trial reassigned to the federal courthouse in Youngstown, because valley residents no longer are part of the jury pool in Cleveland.

At the Classic Cafe in Washingtonville, near the farm where Traficant used congressional staffers to shovel manure on government time, Tari Altenburg said Saturday that those who live elsewhere should not have sat in judgment.

Traficant, who once regularly earned more than 90% of the vote in his district, has served as a thumb in the government's eye for local residents. They say he has been effective for the region. His support has ebbed, but even after he warned voters in 2000 that he would soon be indicted, Traficant was reelected with about 49% of the vote, more than twice that of his nearest opponent.

Though his district has been reconfigured, the consensus was that he could win again if he had beaten the indictment. Now, Democratic Party leaders are calling for his resignation, and he faces expulsion from the House if he does not step down. Traficant has vowed to run again as an independent.

"We know him, everyone here likes him, everyone here would vote for him again," said Altenburg, who served the congressman a breakfast of eggs and tomatoes Friday morning. "They didn't even know him up there. That's not a jury of his peers. His peers are here. The construction workers and the road crews--those are his peers."

At the Hub, a Youngstown diner frequented by the mayor, police chief and other elected officials in this small city's fading downtown, Domenic Paolone Jr. said the verdict made him "sick to his stomach."

"They made him out like he's shaking people down and that's not it at all," said Paolone, who testified for Traficant at the trial. "He does things for people that are nice and then they want to throw him a little something. People here would've understood that."

Nabeel Kandah, who runs the restaurant, also still believes in Traficant. "Look, if the whole town is corrupt, then that's what you've got to work with," Kandah said.

The town's pervasive corruption got the whole investigation going in the first place.

Smoking a cigar on a street corner across from the Mahoning County Courthouse, where he has been the prosecutor for six years, Paul Gains believes he can pinpoint the moment that Traficant's downfall began.

"It all started when I got shot," he said Friday.

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