Published: Sunday, February 26, 2006
Debate focuses on pros, cons of Traficant
Two Republicans had good things to say about the convicted congressman.
By SEAN BARRON
YOUNGSTOWN He may be sitting in a Rochester, Minn., federal prison hundreds of miles from the area he served for more than two decades, but former U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant is anything but far from the minds of many Mahoning Valley residents.
The ex-congressman symbolically took center stage as more than 300 people came to the Chevrolet Centre on Saturday to attend a town-hall-style debate, "Jim Traficant: Saint or Sinner?" It focused on whether the former nine-term congressman has been good or bad for the region.
A standing-room-only crowd filled the upstairs lounge area of the downtown convocation center to hear both sides and to offer questions and comments.
The two-hour forum, sponsored by vindy.com and WFMJ Channel 21, and moderated by Vindicator columnist Bertram de Souza, pitted Traficant supporter John Brown, who calls himself a political independent, against Democrat Robert Fitzer, who spoke against the former congressman.
A panel of journalists from Channel 21, who covered Traficant from the time he ran for Mahoning County sheriff to his April 2002 federal conviction and subsequent sentencing, answered questions and offered their interpretations and recollections. A five-minute video showing clips of Traficant opened the event.
Brown, a Steelworker for Thomas Steel of Warren and recording secretary for United Steelworkers Local 3523, credited Traficant for getting behind or helping to fund several local projects, including more than $26 million for the Chevrolet Centre, money for the state Route 711 Connector, the sanitary-sewer project near Lake Milton and the Kaufmann's warehouse in North Jackson. Traficant also was instrumental in opening Federal Street downtown; securing $2 million to widen U.S. Route 422 near Eastwood Mall; doubling the size of the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna; building a federal courthouse in Youngstown; helping to settle various teachers' strikes; and providing money to build Eastwood Field in Niles, he added.
Brown said he got to know Traficant better in the late 1990s when the home of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers was being built. Besides being an asset for the Valley, Brown continued, Traficant was there for those who needed him.
"Jim would help anybody who needed help," Brown said. "It didn't matter whether they were a friend or an enemy."
Brown added that he felt Traficant was "railroaded" during his federal trial in Cleveland when he was convicted on all 10 criminal charges against him, including tax evasion, bribery and racketeering, and sentenced July 30, 2002, to eight years in federal prison. The case should be reopened, in part, because several witnesses who testified against him were pressured to lie, Brown contended.
The other side
Traficant may have brought many projects to the Valley, but such accomplishments don't mitigate the severity of his criminal behavior and its impact on the area, countered Fitzer, a clarinet studies teacher at Youngstown State University.
Fitzer, who also serves as a member of the Citizens League of Greater Youngstown, a local government watchdog group, and who was instrumental in the Mahoning County Democrats for Change movement, said Traficant took bribes from the Cleveland and Pittsburgh factions of the mob and consistently lied about his actions. Others he took bribes from, Fitzer contended, were mall developer J.J. Cafaro and Atty. R. Allen Sinclair, a Traficant staff attorney.
"Traficant was a salesman for bribery. He took office with one hand on the Bible and one hand in your pocket," Fitzer told the audience.
As a result of these and other actions, Traficant made Youngstown one of the last places people want to move to, he added. Other comparable cities such as Akron that also have struggled economically have moved forward over the last 20 years, while Youngstown has regressed under Traficant and the culture of corruption he was part of, the YSU professor continued.
For his corrupt actions and the harm they have caused the Valley, Traficant is where he belongs and has no one but himself to blame for his predicament, he concluded.
"I think it's time [for the city] to move on," Fitzer said. "A new day is here; let's embrace it."
The panel of journalists, which consisted of Channel 21's news director, Mona Alexander, as well as veteran reporters Dick Skelton and Glenn Stevens, were asked two questions: Did you ever think Traficant would one day be incarcerated, and do you think, upon his release, Traficant could be re-elected to office?
Stevens and Skelton said they were surprised when Traficant was sentenced and didn't think his career would go in that direction. Skelton added that he thought the former congressman would go to prison the first time, referring to Traficant's 1983 trial, and be acquitted the second time.
Alexander said she recalled the cartloads of evidence FBI agents hauled into the courtroom during the first trial, as if to represent to the jury the massive amount of evidence they had against him. She also recalled people's "chaotic" reactions after Traficant was found innocent. Nevertheless, Alexander said, she left with a feeling "that this is not over."
All three said they believed Traficant could be re-elected if he decides to run for office, partly because of his local appeal and continued popularity.
Several people spoke afterward, including Canfield lawyer Dave Betras, who said it was a "travesty" that the Chevrolet Centre hasn't included Traficant in its name.
Others included Leo Glaser, who served on the jury at Traficant's federal trial. Glaser said some jurors were predisposed to convicting Traficant and said he "found out things after the trial" that would have caused him to vote to acquit the congressman.
Alex Mangie, a YSU sophomore and vice president of YSU's College Republicans, praised Traficant for the infrastructure improvements and other projects he brought to the area. Last summer's two strikes at the university would probably have been resolved faster had Traficant been part of negotiations, Mangie speculated.
Another notable Republican in the audience, Dr. Bill Binning, said he thinks Traficant should no longer be in prison. Binning, who is chairman of YSU's political science department and former longtime chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party, said the length of Traficant's incarceration has far outweighed whatever crime he committed.
Maurice Hurley of Clifton, Va., who is a neighbor of Richard Detore's, said he started a Web site, www.traficantupdate.com, to investigate what he believes was prosecutorial misconduct in Traficant's federal trial. Detore was threatened and pressured not to testify, which could have helped Traficant, Hurley said.
Detore, a pilot, was found innocent at his 2003 trial on charges of channeling illegal gifts to Traficant in the late 1990s and of violating the federal bribery statute. His trial, which started June 16, 2003, focused on Cafaro's now-defunct USAerospace Group in Manassas, Va.
Saturday's forum also included a small display of Traficant's artwork painted in prison and sent to New York artist Sybille Oelschlager, a Traficant pen pal. The artwork was brought to the forum by Oelschlager's friend Jayne Moore, who operates www.beammeupart.com.