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Nation

Traficant struggles for defense

| Thursday, March 28, 2002

CLEVELAND — U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. called four members of his Youngstown office to his defense Wednesday, but the judge continued to block secondhand statements that suggest the congressman's innocence.

U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells also rejected Traficant's request to play four audiotapes he made of conversations he had with various parties in his corruption trial.

The tapes include witnesses suggesting that government agents pressured them into testifying.

The congressman said last week that if the judge denied him the right to play the tapes for the jury, "I believe you will be denying me the best evidence in my defense."

Although he's not a lawyer, the nine-term congressman is defending himself against charges that he took kickbacks from staff members, accepted gifts and free labor from businessmen for his political help and filed false tax returns.

Traficant faces up to 63 years in prison if convicted of all 10 counts; however, he probably would receive a much shorter sentence because of federal sentencing guidelines.

After seven weeks of prosecution witnesses, Traficant has mounted a disjointed defense. He said he will conclude his defense next week.

He has given the judge little advance notice of his witnesses and admitted Wednesday that he was uncertain which witnesses and documents he will present Thursday.

Dennis Johnson, Traficant's district director, testified without the jury present Wednesday that he met with Charles O'Nesti, Traficant's former district director, shortly before O'Nesti died in 2000.

Traficant has been accused of forcing O'Nesti to pay the congressman kickbacks from his congressional paychecks.

Johnson said O'Nesti told him that "Jim did nothing wrong," and the government "wants me to say some things that are not true."

Wells said Traficant can't bring Johnson before the jury until he can show why those statements are not barred by hearsay rules.

Staff members Robert Barlow and Anthony Traficanti both testified that Traficant's former administrative assistant, Henry DiBlasio, worked hard for the congressman despite keeping a private law practice going during his 14 years on the congressional payroll.

The prosecution alleges that DiBlasio did little congressional work for Traficant and kicked back a portion of his salary to Traficant each month.

Under cross examination, both Barlow and Traficanti admitted that they had limited contact with DiBlasio and could not say for certain what he did all day while he was serving as Traficant's most senior aide.

Wells stopped staff member Linda Kovachik from testifying that O'Nesti denied ever kicking back money to Traficant, again saying that such a statement would be hearsay.

Traficant also tried to elicit testimony from Russell "Champ" Saadey Jr., a businessman who has been convicted but not yet sentenced on charges of conspiring with a local prosecutor to fix court cases in exchange for bribes.

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