Traficant Challenges Trial Arrangements As Case Begins

By THOMAS J. SHEERAN, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. complained about the courtroom arrangements and was warned by the judge to behave as his federal bribery trial opened Tuesday.

"This trial is not going to be a donnybrook," said U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells, using a term Traficant mentioned in a pretrial interview.

Traficant -- who is representing himself although he's not a lawyer -- objected to having the public and media watch the proceedings from another room via closed circuit television while the courtroom was filled with prospective jurors. He wanted everyone in the main courtroom, saying the television setup did not show "the ambience" of the proceedings.

The Youngstown Democrat also objected to a court requirement that a non-attorney whom he wants to take notes for him and be required to sit at the defense table.

Wells reacted quickly and stood by the courtroom arrangements.

"That's the way we do it," she said.

The nine-term congressman is accused of accepting gifts and favors from constituents in exchange for lobbying in Washington and of forcing his staff to make cash kickbacks to him or do favors for him at his horse farm. The Justice Department intends to show a pattern of corruption to support a racketeering charge.

If convicted on all charges, Traficant, 60, could be sentenced to 63 years in prison and fined $2.2 million. He would not automatically lose his congressional seat, but the House could vote to expel him.

After court recessed for the day, Traficant said he would vigorously contest the charges, but indicated he was sorry if the judge took the donnybrook comment as meaning the trial would be disrupted.

"There will be a legal donnybrook up there," he said, referring to the courtroom.

Traficant sat alone at the defense table before Wells while a team of government attorneys, led by prosecutor Craig Morford, sat along both sides of another table.

Morford raised the issue of Traficant's media interviews the past two days and said he was concerned that allegations of a prosecution vendetta were meant to influence potential jurors.

"We think it is inappropriate," he said.

"I am asked the question and I simply respond," Traficant told the judge in response.

Traficant had told ABC's "Good Morning America" outside the courthouse that he would prevail if he proved government wrongdoing in his prosecution. "I'm either going to jail or they're going to jail," he said.

Traficant has been barred from alleging during his trial that he is a victim of a vendetta or misconduct by prosecutors. He had planned to make that claim a centerpiece of his defense.

Wells, raising her voice, told Traficant that he had been warned that he must follow courtroom decorum if he represented himself.

"Lawyers do not talk about their pending cases," she said.

She warned Traficant, who stood before her with his hands folded in front of him, to behave inside the court and out.

Traficant, introduced by the judge as "defendant-congressman Traficant," stood and turned toward prospective jurors, smiled and said, "Good morning." Several jurors said good morning in return.

About 100 people are expected on the initial jury panel in a trial that could last about eight weeks.

A 45-page questionnaire given to potential jurors includes questions about family, jobs income, connections to anyone involved in the case, whether a juror had been audited by the Internal Revenue Service and whether they had an opinion, positive or negative, about Traficant.

It is the second time that Traficant has represented himself in criminal charges filed again him. His acquittal in 1983 on charges that he took $163,000 in bribes from mobsters and filing a false income tax return while Mahoning County sheriff ignited his political career as representative of northeast Ohio's blue-collar Mahoning Valley.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)