|From Roll Call 2-3-2000
Rep. Traficant Expects
To Be Indicted Soon
Flamboyant Member Living
Up to Reputation
By Damon Chappie
Normally, a Congressional office on the receiving end of a set
from mob-busting federal prosecutors seeking 15 years of financial
telephone records could reasonably be expected to try to keep
under wraps, particularly if a tough election is just around
But normal is not the word many would use to describe Rep. James
(D-Ohio), a flamboyant, eight-term maverick whose antics and
tirades on the
House floor frequently win national media attention.
So when Roll Call made inquiries to his office Friday afternoon
subpoenas for records sent to the House in December 1999, an
Traficant confirmed - without hesitation - that the subpoenas
linked to an ongoing federal prosecution of organized crime that
netted several top mobsters and numerous public officials.
A few hours later, Traficant's office issued a blistering press
announcing the subpoenas and declaring his innocence even as
he attacked and
denounced the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service
General Janet Reno.
It was vintage Traficant, railing against the forces of big, powerful
government and suggesting it was payback for his criticisms of
the IRS and
the Justice Department.
With Traficant facing his first serious primary challenge in years
month, newspapers in his district trumpeted the news on the front
Traficant upped the ante further at a Sunday candidate's breakfast,
he expects to be indicted in the near future.
That wasn't a misquote, according to Paul Marcone, Traficant's
staff and spokesman.
"He did say that, yeah," Marcone told Roll Call on Monday. "Whether
going to be indicted, only the U.S. attorney can answer that.
But from his
standpoint, they have gone this far, they kind of have to indict
justify all the subpoenas they have issued."
Marcone refused to elaborate on whether there are additional subpoenas
beyond the three issued to House administrative officials that
thousands of pages of payroll, telephone and billing records
At the same time, Traficant is facing the most serious contest
political life, with two Democratic primary opponents who are
as the symbol of the corruption they say has long dominated Youngstown.
a well-financed citizens' group, started by a number of business
labor officials fed up with the image of their region, has made
of Traficant from Congress its number one priority.
Residents of Youngstown, which was dubbed "Crimetown, USA," by
Evening Post in 1963, are now greeted daily with tawdry tales
mob hits and an immense web of bribery and conspiracy that has
nearly every level of government in the Mahoning Valley.
"Everybody is going to jail around here," said Eva Burris, regional
of the Youngstown office of the American Federation of State,
Municipal Employees. "It's really hard when you bargain in the
and you don't know who the boss is going to be the next day."
The FBI and the Justice Department's organized crime task force
the mob in Youngstown, long the battleground between warring
in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. The conviction and voluminous testimony
Youngstown boss Lenine "Lenny" Strollo last year has produced
a wave of
convictions and plea bargains, including that of Charles O'Nesti,
Traficant's top aide in the district for 13 years.
Tomorrow, another Traficant associate, George Alexander, a disbarred
attorney who counseled Traficant during his bribery trial and
fight in the 1980s, is scheduled to be sentenced for his role
attempted murder of a local district attorney.
Rick Porrello, a former Cleveland cop who has authored two books
Cleveland and Pittsburgh mafia families, noted that "one of the
powerful weapons that the government has used is mob informants
corroborating witnesses. And now because of all of the convictions
Youngstown, with plea deals that require them to tell everything
know, you have got all of these people who are connected to Traficant."
Traficant has faced allegations of ties to the mob before. His
bribery charges stemmed from his 1980 race for sheriff, when
alleged that candidate Traficant had taken $163,000 in bribes
"the Crab" Carabbia, a top Cleveland mobster.
But just weeks after Traficant's successful election as sheriff,
was called to a meeting with other mobsters at a local doughnut
next day, his car was found with the keys in the ignition in
Carabbia has never been seen again, according to James de Szigethy,
journalist who has written extensively about the case.
After Carabbia's disappearance, his wife stunned FBI agents by
hours of secretly recorded tapes of telephone conversations made
that included conversations with Traficant expressing his loyalty
On Aug. 9, 1982, the FBI indicted and arrested Traficant on bribery
evasion charges and played the Carabbia tapes for Traficant.
offered a full confession and turned for help to a law firm that
been mentioned in the tapes.
But the lawyers dropped Traficant and he ended up rejecting the
offer to serve as a corroborating witness, deciding instead to
act as his
Traficant explained the Carabbia tapes by arguing that he was
setting up an
elaborate sting operation, and that he took the money so he would
to arrest once he became sheriff. The jury acquitted Traficant
charges, propelling him into history as the only defendant to
ever beat the
Justice Department in a mob case without an attorney.
Traficant rode into Congress in 1984 as the only Democrat to unseat
incumbent Republican in a presidential election year that saw
trounce Walter Mondale.
But as Traficant built an eccentric reputation with one-minute
usually punctuated with his trademark "Beam me up," federal prosecutors
hunkered down in Ohio and with a network of wiretaps and surveillance
began a frontal attack on the Youngstown mob.
It was launched with a 1995 raid of a Super Bowl party at the
home of Dante
Strollo, the brother of Lenny Strollo, who, with Carabbia's disappearance,
had secured his hold on Youngstown with the blessing of the Genovese
family, according to de Szigethy.
Strollo's reign was marked by a wave of bloody violence that included
attempted hits on public officials, including a newly elected
attorney named Paul Gains. Strollo eventually testified that
a hit was
ordered on Gains because he had won a 1996 election against a
was already in the mob's pocket.
The evidence and documents that evolved from the Super Bowl raid
led prosecutors to strike a deal with Lenny Strollo, who was
February 1999. And Strollo fingered numerous public officials
participated in the mob's operation, including Traficant's district
director, Charles O'Nesti.
O'Nesti, who was paid $70,000 a year to handle all of Traficant's
affairs, pleaded guilty last March to racketeering and perjury
wiretaps revealed he delivered bribes and fixed public works
Traficant has said little about O'Nesti's conviction and last
him a "good friend" at an Ohio candidates' meeting.
But Strollo's testimony implicated other public officials as well,
judges, prosecutors and the man who took Traficant's place as
October, George Alexander, the disbarred lawyer who advised Traficant
his legal troubles, was convicted of racketeering and implicated
attempted murder of Gains. Alexander faces up to 71 months in
prosecutors have said his sentence will depend on his level of
In 1987, Traficant faced allegations that he placed two of Alexander's
daughters on his Congressional payroll after the daughters admitted
no actual work and that the arrangement was payment for help
provided to Traficant, according to news accounts at the time.
Marcone, Traficant's spokesman, denied the allegations and said
daughters recanted their statements and that nothing came of
Marcone also said Traficant has not spoken to Alexander in a
But speculation is rampant that Alexander is providing testimony
evidence against Traficant, according to Randy Walter, a real
developer who last year founded the nonprofit group Citizens
for Honest and
Responsible Government. The group has spent about $50,000 so
far on polling
and focus groups aimed at defeating Traficant and urging Youngstown
residents to clean up the corruption in their government.
"We are encouraged the FBI and the prosecutors are continuing
to do their
job, which is to clean up this community," Walter said in an
But Traficant may be benefiting from a field of primary challengers
destined to split the anti-Traficant vote, according to Bill
political science professor at Youngstown State University.
State Sen. Robert Hagan and Mahoning County Auditor George Tablack
vying for the reform-minded vote. Hagan appears to be the stronger
candidate, according to Walter and other observers. Tablack's
against Traficant in 1980 for sheriff and both men have refused
labor and a number of citizens' groups to bow out in order to
unified front against Traficant.
The news of subpoenas for Traficant "spices up the race," said
reminds everybody of all of the recent stories of what has been
here. But right now, he still wins the race, the primary, if
he doesn't get
The divided opposition combined with Traficant's core support
may very well
carry him past the March 7 primary. "But the question is," added
"is it the start of a long, downhill slide that ends up with
before the general election?"
That is a question Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and
leaders will face as they seek to take over the House in November.
strategists appear to have discerned early that Hagan could stand
chance of winning the general than a wounded Traficant.
In the days following Hagan's decision to enter the race in September
the leaders, mindful that the outcome in any one of a number
districts could make or break the party's chances for the majority,
the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to discuss the
according to sources who attended the meeting.
The leaders resolved they had to stick with Traficant, fearing
that would be set if they backed off an incumbent, however troubled.
policy at the DCCC says the committee must always back the incumbent.
Sources in the meeting described it as a "review" of that policy,
even if it
was clear that Traficant's situation had caused leaders to waver.
Hagan said he has had no contact with Gephardt or other national
leaders but he worried that the seat could be lost to Republicans
Traficant wins the primary and faces indictment down the road.
Marcone said Gephardt hasn't inquired about Traficant's situation
of the subpoenas broke. And he added that "given the Congressman's
record, Gephardt might be happy if he were gone. He's never been
player with the party."
Traficant's support of Republican positions has won friends across
and some Republicans have already leapt to his defense.
Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), whose district borders Traficant's,
Roll Call that if the subpoenas are politically motivated to
Traficant just before the primary, "then I think it's not only
it's outrageous and people should suffer some penalty, including
the loss of
their jobs. I think the timing right before the primary stinks."