THE TRIALS OF TRAFICANT:
By James Ridgway de Szigethy
The Postman rang a second time for James Traficant on the 30th of July, 2002 in the same Federal Courthouse in Cleveland where, a generation earlier, Traficant had walked out the building a folk hero, having beaten the government, acting as his own attorney in a Mafia bribery case; this second time around, a stunned and disbelieving Traficant was placed into handcuffs and taken away to jail after Judge Lesley Brooks Wells handed down an 8-year sentence for the crimes the former Congressman had been convicted of earlier this year.
An omen of Traficantís impending doom was the presence in the Courtroom of FBI agent Robert Kroner, who was part of the unsuccessful 1983 Prosecution of Traficant for accepting bribes from the Mafia. That trial relied heavily on the secretly-taped conversations of Cleveland Mafia Family figure Charlie "The Crab" Carabbia, who was murdered just days after disclosing to Sheriff-elect Traficant he was blackmailing Traficant's friend Ed Flask, the son of a prominent local politician, with "compromising photographs!" For Kroner, Traficantís sentencing was a moment the veteran agent had waited over 3 decades to witness.
During the Hearing Traficant was true to form, displaying his trademark erratic behavior. Traficant spewed off angry expletive-filled denunciations of the Prosecutors in the case, Judge Wells, and the myriad members of the alleged vast government conspiracy against him. Displaying a downward spiral in his ability to control himself, Traficant shouted allegations, threats, and obscenities throughout the proceedings.
Just one week earlier, the House of Representatives had expelled Traficant for violations of House Ethics Rules, only the second time since the Civil War that Congress has taken such action. The vote was 240 to 1, with Traficantís only supporter being Congressman Gary Condit, whom many Americans consider a suspect in the murder of his employee and lover, Intern Chandra Levy. In filings before Judge Wells, Federal Prosecutors had previously presented their evidence that Congressman Traficant was involved in a plot to murder Sandra Ferrante, an employee on Traficantís horse farm with whom Traficant was believed to had a romantic relationship. Ferrante had taken this story to the Media after the FBI played to her secretly-recorded tapes of Traficantís employee Clarence Broad, which detailed Broadís attempt to hire a hitman to murder Ferrante before she could testify before the Federal Grand Jury investigating Traficant and the Mafia in Ohio. Broad pleaded guilty, Traficant was never charged in this matter, and Ferrante denied having an affair with the Congressman but admitted having once slashed his tires with a knife.
These proceedings capped a month during which Traficant received his "15 minutes of fame," becoming the topic of discussion of millions of Americans nationwide. Traficantís often-bizarre appearances on television talk shows made the Congressman a much-appreciated respite of comic relief, something the American people eagerly embraced. The serious nature of the crimes Traficant was convicted of, not withstanding the pain Traficant and his associates had inflicted upon the many impacted by his various conspiracy theories, including the Pan Am 103 bombing and the case of the alleged Philadelphia serial killer, was overlooked as the Media focused on the humor potential Traficant provided; late night talk show hosts, editorial page editors, and Media humorists zeroed in on Traficantís bizarre hairdo, (now revealed to be a toupee), his 70ís attire, and his affinity for the outer-space TV show Star Trek. Even Judge Wells, in her controlled yet powerful condemnation of Traficant, admitted that the Congressman offered up to some "entertainment value!"
The Sentencing Hearing took a dramatic turn when lead Prosecutor Craig Morford argued that Traficantís bail be immediately revoked, citing the allegation that Traficant had violated his bail agreement by making a recent trip to Pennsylvania, where he allegedly attempted to convince one of the Prosecution Witnesses in his trial to swear out a false affidavit. Pennsylvania is the State in which resides the Mafia Family that has given Traficant thousands of dollars in bribes. Traficant had even placed one member of this Mafia Family on his Congressional staff for over a dozen years, but the Mafia associate died of cancer before being able to testify as to Traficantís Mafia connections. Despite the absence of this manís testimony in person, Judge Wells showed no restraint in describing what the evidence against Traficant had proved, that Traficant had operated a "racketeering enterprise." Judge Wells then revoked Traficantís bail and remanded him into custody. A hushed Courtroom watched the incredible scene in which Federal Marshalls handcuffed the former Congressman and led him away to a jail cell.
One witness to this historic event was Jeri Zimmerman, a juror in Traficantís Federal trial who became outraged after Traficant branded the jurors in his case as liars on national television. In reaction to Traficantís incarceration, Zimmerman tells AmericanMafia.com: "I think now maybe, just maybe he can reflect on a career wasted and the damage he has brought on himself, his family, his community, and his State!"
Zimmerman also expressed admiration for Federal Prosecutor Craig Morford and Judge Lesley Brooks Wells. Says Zimmerman: "These 2 people have shown a great deal of grace under fire. I have been very proud to serve my civic duty with these folks at the helm!"
There are others that many regard as heroes in this story. One is radio talk show host Louie B. Free, who was among just a handful of members of the Media who boldly spoke out against Traficant at a time in the 1990s when Traficant was enormously popular, as reflected by his re-election in 1996 with 98% of the vote. Freeís voice was temporarily silenced when a friend of Traficantís purchased the radio station upon which Free appeared and promptly fired the outspoken Traficant critic. Free took his growing audience with him to other radio stations, where he would once again be fired for speaking out against the Congressman. The message Free and a few others expressed as to the obvious ties between Traficant and the Mafia was not well received by most citizens of the area of Ohio that Traficant represented in Congress.
Public sentiment began to shift against Traficant and the Mafia after the Christmas Eve, 1996 shooting of Youngstown District Attorney Paul Gains. When first this "Untouchable" cop announced his candidacy for this important job, Gains was given little chance of winning that office and was pretty much ignored by the Mafia. However, after his surprise election, the Mafia in Ohio decided to murder Gains, as he could not be bought off to protect their operations. Gains was shot in his home and left for dead on a night Mafia hitmen believed Gains would likely let his guard down, Christmas Eve. Gains survived his wounds and an outraged Youngstown citizenry demanded that the authorities take action.
The citizens got what they demanded, and over the next few years over 70 people, including members of the Mafia, public officials, Judges, and crooked members of law enforcement, were convicted and sent to jail. Many of those convicted were associates of the Congressman from the city its residents refer to cynically as "Murdertown."
There are those who would argue that James Traficant, the "son of a truck driver," never had a chance, growing up as he did in one of the most corrupt cities in America. Young Traficant had sought a way out through his physical talents as quarterback of the local high school football team. Such talents propelled Traficant into a scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh, a national powerhouse on the collegiate football scene. Along the way, Traficant was subjected to a choice; accept the easy money the Mafia had to offer, or stand up against them.
James Traficant chose one path; Paul Gains, another. Traficant will likely spend the next 8 Christmas seasons in a Federal prison; Gains will likely spend those Holidays a free man, albeit in Murdertown, USA.
James Ridgway de Szigethy can be reached at JAMESDE@prodigy.net.