Legal Ethics and Reform

Traficant Case Gives Glimpse of Corrupt Legal Process

Rep. James Traficant (D - Ohio) is a colorful, maverick Congressman from the Youngstown area. He formerly served as a Sheriff and had extensive dealings with both the mob and the FBI. He is known for his earthy humor (some say bathroom humor) and his memorable one minute speeches  on the House floor. Traficant's specialty was speaking truth to power. He criticized the IRS for its high handed way of taking people's assets before they were found guilty of anything; he also pointed out the undo influence that Israel and its friends enjoy in the US Congress.  The last time Congress organized itself, Traficant was the only Democrat to vote for the Republican Dennis Hastert for Speaker. The Republicans naturally expected that Traficant would soon be switching to the Republican party, but he stayed a Democrat. This maneuver left Traficant in no man's land. The Democrats refused to give him any committee assignments. The Republicans couldn't.

But back in Ohio things were even more interesting. In the spring of 2002, James Traficant was convicted in Federal Court on ten criminal counts, these included such things as taking bribes from constituents, using his office to solicit favors, and forcing a couple of  his office employees to kick back  part of their salaries to him. Traficant handled his own defense and this combined  with his maverick personality put him at odds with the trial court judge on several occassions. The jury found him guilty, and he will be sentenced in late July 2002.

Traficant's guilt is impossible to determine from the "reliable" facts on the record. Traficant vehemently denies doing anything wrong, and there is a complete lack of hard evidence against him. Traficant was convicted exclusively on the testimony of others. All the key witnesses had their own problems with the government, in each case they (or a  close relative) was in trouble with the government on other charges. There were no video or audio tapes catching the Representative in any illegal act, there were no documents pointing to his guilt, and there were no Traficant fingerprints on anything. In recent Congressional bribery cases the FBI has relied on video and audio tapes which have documented the crime(s), but in this case there are no such tapes even though the FBI built their case over a long, six year period.

Prior to the trial Traficant asked to have the case tried in his district at the Federal Courthouse in Youngstown OH. This courthouse serves the area where the crimes were supposed to have been committed.  The judge denied this request and moved the trial to Cleveland OH. Further the judge refused to allow any prospective jurors from the Youngstown district to be considered for inclusion in the jury pool. Later, after the trial ended, it came out that the judge's husband's law firm  was representing one of the chief witnesses against Traficant, a fellow named J J Cafaro.  The judge should have recussed herself from the case but failed to do so.

In opposition to this, Traficant produced nine telephone tape recordings which he had made while speaking with  various witnesses against him (or people close to these witnesses). Traficant also obtained affidavits from various parties saying they had first hand knowledge that the prosecutor, a lawyer named Morford, had pressured witnesses to lie. These tapes and affidavits revealed  that the US Prosecutor had threatened the witnesses with personal prosecution for various federal crimes unless they told a tale created for them by the prosecutor. The Congressman attempted to play these audio tapes and present these affidavits at his trial, but the judge denied his request. Additionally he wanted to call witnesses that would counter the testimony of the prosecutor's witnesses, the judge generally denied these requests as well. The judge allowed Traficant to cross examine the witnesses against him but without the tapes, affidavits, and/or countering witnesses, Traficant was unable to break the witnesses away from their stories. Traficant asked to question the FBI agents who had done the leg work building the case from 1996 to 2001. The judge refused to allow him to question these law officers. Not surprisingly the jury convicted Traficant.

Once the conviction was in place, the House of Representatives' Ethics Committee took up the question of whether or not to expel Rep. Traficant from the House of Representative. Even though the House of Representatives is less than 50% lawyers, this investigating committee was nearly 80% lawyers. This Committee did allow Traficant to present witnesses, and they allowed him to enter his nine audio tapes into the record. However,  there was no attempt to play these tapes and/or question Traficant about them.

One of the witnesses that had not testified in Cleveland did testify in Washington. This witness, named Richard DeTore,  said he had for years worked for and reported directly to J J Cafaro, one of the people who had testified against Traficant in Cleveland. DeTore, said that Traficant had behaved properly during his many encounters with Traficant. DeTore further said Prosecutor Morford had detained DeTore for nine hours a year ago and put pressure on him to give false testimony against Traficant. DeTore's attorneys had also been threatened. Mr. DeTore also testified that Cafaro had given false testimony against Traficant because Cafaro had been caught giving false testimony in a earlier Federal trial on a different matter and wanted to avoid prosecution on that charge. Traficant produced letters from  DeTore's attorneys saying they were outraged by the prosecutor's behavior. Mr. DeTore noted that Prosecutor Morford; was so mad at him that he had brought a frivolous Federal Prosecution against him. The case so far has cost DeTore several $100,000 in legal fees. The lawyers letters also supported DeTore's statement about the Federal case being frivolous. At this point it was clear that the US Prosecutor had played "hard ball" to get the testimony he wanted against Traficant.

The week of July 22, 2002 was the time when the Ethics Committee should have stepped  in, put a hold on the Traficant expulsion, and take a hard look at the legal processes being employed back in Ohio. But the Committee decided on a different course. They chose to recommend expulsion and scheduled no additional investigations. Evidently the lawyers on this committee did not believe the evidence before their eyes, or more probably they felt it was not the job of the legislature to bring the judiciary and Justice Dept. to heel. In America lawyers are taught that it is the judiciary and the Justice Dept. that brings the legislature to heel, not vice versa. These lawyers on the Ethics Committee had been thoroughly socialized into the  law by their law school professors. Late in evening on Wed. July 24th, the whole House of Representatives voted to expell Traficant. Over four hundred voted to expell, eight Representatives voted "present", there was only one vote against the motion.

Be clear about this current situation. Traficant's guilt or innocence is yet to be properly determined. The corrupt processes of at least one US Prosecutor has been exposed, and the Federal District Court in Cleveland has at least one judge that needs to be removed.

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