The Mafia and the congressman

Copyright © 1985, 2000 by Dan E. Moldea

     On May 4, 2001, in Cleveland, Ohio, Representative James Traficant (D-Ohio) was indicted on federal charges of racketeering, conspiracy to commit bribery, and taking illegal gratuities.

     The following is my article about Traficant, published on April 19, 1985 in the now-defunct Washington Weekly–not to be confused with the right-wing publication of the same name that is now available on the Internet.

     Question:  What did the people of Youngstown, Ohio, do when their sheriff was accused by the FBI of taking payoffs from the Mafia, signed a "confession," and then beat the wrap by defending himself in court?

     Answer:  They elected him to Congress.

    Since the early 1960s, Youngstown, Ohio has been known as "Murder City, USA," a reputation it gets from all the dead bodies the Mafia dumps into nearby Meander Reservoir.  "A lot of people would like to see me become part of the Meander," says James A. Traficant, a first-term Democratic congressman from Ohio.  "The Mafia owns nearly everyone in Youngstown including the police department and the politicians," he says, insisting that he's the Ohio mob's worst enemy.

     Three years ago, Traficant was indicted for accepting bribes from organized-crime figures.  Acting as his own lawyer, and without any legal training, he convince a jury that he was innocent.  Ever since, he claims, he's been on a one-man crusade against the Mafia.

     He's also become something of a folk hero to many people in Youngstown.  An unemployed iron worker paying a visit to Traficant's Washington office puts it this way: "We don't have much hope right now, and things are getting more dismal by the day.  But one of the few things we still have faith in is that guy over there, Jim Traficant.  We know he'll fight for us.  He is our blessing."

     In 1980, Youngstown found itself in the middle of a Mafia turf war.  At the time, the city had two major organized-crime factions.  One was the Carabbia brothers–Ron (who had been convicted of murder and was doing time in prison), Charles and Orland; their principal loyalties were to the Cleveland syndicate.  The other faction, aligned with the Pittsburgh mob, was led by James Prato and Joey Naples.  Charles Carabbia and Prato were the bosses of the two crime groups.

     Although Carabbia and Prato were rivals, they often worked together on certain operations, such as buying off local politicians.

     In the fall of 1979, Traficant, a former college football star who once tried out for the Oakland Raiders, decided to leave his work in a local drug program and run in the Democratic primary for sheriff.  The incumbent was known to have close ties with the Mafia.  While Traficant was running on a strong anti-drug platform, his cousin, a Las Vegas gambler, introduced him to Charles Carabbia.  "You had to know Charlie," Traficant says.  "He was a rough guy.  He'd pull a gun out and shoot you."  During their conversation, Carabbia offered to help raise money for Traficant's campaign; thus, hedging the mob's bets just in case the popular Traficant upset the incumbent.

     "I could have joined that fucking crew and been a wealthy man," says the tough-talking 43-year old Traficant.  "They would've run me for governor.  I recognized what they were doing.  The FBI made a statement that in 50 years they were not able to penetrate this corrupt, Mafia-controlled town.  You want to hear something?  Do you know how fucking long it took me?  I filed nominating petitions for sheriff, and I met every fucking [Mafia figure] in the valley. . . . Look, if you want to stamp out organized crime, and they offer you money, what are you going to say, "I don't want anything to do with it?"

     During the primary campaign, Carabbia "raised" $103,000 for Traficant.  "I used them . . . knowing that their intentions weren't honorable," admits Traficant.  "But it wasn't illegal for them to raise revenue for me."

     According to Traficant, two or three days before the primary, Carabbia told him that he wanted him to meet Prato.  Traficant agreed, and Carabbia took him to Prato's restaurant, the Calla Mar Manor in Youngstown.  After a brief conversation, Prato handed Traficant an envelope with $55,000 cash inside.  But that same night, Traficant says, he met Carabbia again, returned the envelope and all the cash, telling Carabbia to give the money back to Prato.  Traficant says that Carabbia was bewildered.  "He'd never seen a politician return money. . . .

     "When I brought the money back, I said, ‘Fuck it, forget it.'  I figured, hey, I don't want to get involved with these guys; I'm not going to win anyway."  But Traficant won the primary by a landslide.

     Traficant insists that he hadn't offered either Carabbia or Prato anything in return for their campaign help.  His Republican opponent in the general election reported to the FBI that he was approached by local mobsters and offered cash in return for not interfering with the Mafia's gambling, narcotics and prostitution operations–if he was elected.

     "Here's what I'm telling you," Traficant says.  "I was trying to win.  I used their money.  I didn't offer a goddamn thing. . . . After I won that [primary] is when the soul-searching came out with me.  And then I saw what could be done, and I set out to do it.  I wanted to use Charlie [Carabbia] to beat them.  The plan I ran, and the mistake I made, was this: I felt very strongly that Charlie was a Napoleonic-type guy and could knock out Prato."

     Traficant says he continued meeting with Carabbia and accepted his support, hoping that Carabbia would help him catch Prato.  Throughout their discussions, he says, Carabbia tried to get him to meet again with Prato.  But Traficant balked and stalled.  "This is when I realized that Charlie was just a messenger boy.  At that time, I knew that Prato was the boss. . . . Charlie's job was to get me to the old man [Prato], and Charlie couldn't do it."

     Unknown to Traficant, several of his meetings with Carabbia had been secretly tape recorded by Joseph DeRose, a mob ally of Carabbia, at Carabbia's request.

     To no one's surprise in the heavily Democratic Youngstown, Traficant was the easy winner in the November election.  Soon after Traficant's victory, Carabbia decided to play his trump card and asked Traficant to meet him and his brother, Orland.  "I didn't know they had a tape.  When they started to play [it] for me, I told Orland Carabbia in the basement of his sister's house to shove that tape right up his fucking ass."

     Traficant says that he was then told if he didn't play ball, the tape recordings would be turned over to the FBI.

     If that was Carabbia's intention–the tape would have implicated him as well as Prato and others–it backfired.  On December 13, 1980, Carabbia left his home and never returned.  His body was never found–in or out of the Meander Reservoir.

     "Carabbia had my money back, but didn't return it to Prato," Traficant claims.  "He had to deliver the sheriff to Prato and he couldn't do it. . . . Then he told Prato that he had these goddamn tapes.  That's the last you heard of Charlie Carabbia.  He could have broken up the mob in northeastern Ohio.  If Charlie had turned, it would've been all over.  You could go to Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh; you could've nailed the whole mob. . . . They had to hit Charlie, because they didn't know what I was going to do. . . . I got Charlie killed."

     Traficant officially became sheriff on January 5, 1981.  Within three months, Joe DeRose, the mobster who had recorded the conversations between Traficant and Carabbia, was also reported missing and presumed to have been murdered.

     Was Traficant–who carried a .38 in the waistband of his trousers–worried about a similar fate?

     "People still swear I'm crazy.  No one has ever fucked with me all these years in Youngstown.  No one ever came up to me in a bar and tried to pick a fight.  No one ever took a punch at me.  No one ever pulled a gun on me.  It's good to be
crazy. . . . "

     Acting on an informant's tip, according to Traficant, the FBI searched DeRose's home.  During the search, agents opened the breadbox in the kitchen and found some tape recordings that linked Traficant to the alleged Mafia payoffs.

     Shortly after the discovery, Traficant was confronted by the FBI.  "I sort of knew what was coming," he recalls.  "I listened to what they had to say, and then I said, ‘Yes, that's my voice.  They asked me if I wanted to hear more of it.  I said, ‘I didn't listen to it when the mob wanted to play it, and I'm not going to listen to it now.'"

     Traficant says that he made and signed a statement admitting that Carabbia had helped him raise money for his campaign, and that he had accepted $55,000 from Prato, but returned it.

     Traficant was offered immunity from prosecution–if he would resign as sheriff.  "I suddenly realized that they had targeted me," he says.  "I signed the statement so that they could go after the mob. . . . But the Feds told me, ‘You're bigger news than the mob.'" An Ohio law-enforcement official insists that the only case the government had was against Traficant.

     Traficant refused the government's offer of immunity, telling prosecutors, "I don't want immunity. I haven't done anything wrong."

     In August 1982, Traficant was indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with accepting bribes from Carabbia and Prato from September 1979 to November 4, 1980.  He pleaded not guilty, telling the press, "To all those politicians who want me to resign: Go fuck yourselves."

     He later announced that he was going to fire his attorney and represent himself.  If convicted, Traficant, who is married with two children, faced a 23-year prison term and a $30,000 fine.

    "It wasn't that I didn't trust an attorney to handle my case," he explains.  "It was that I couldn't afford an attorney. And I didn't see anyone articulating or even being able to conceive of what happened. . . . I wasn't a hood.  I didn't have a bad background.  I saved countless lives.  I worked with families for ten years.  I never had my hand out.  I was educated.  I never did a fucking thing wrong.  I didn't care whether I died or went to jail.  I was going to fight.  And I mean [fight] the feds and the mob.  The mob was trying to help the feds take me down."

     In an effort to win public support, Traficant attempted to have two dozen FBI agents imprisoned for dereliction of duty.  A federal judge overruled him.  He also accused Youngstown's mayor and finance director of the same charge.  Again, there were no convictions.  Then, Traficant was sentenced to 100 days in prison for contempt of court–for refusing to sign foreclosure notices against local citizens who lived in the economically-strapped Mahoning Valley.  He served three days in the county jail before bowing to the court.

     In the meantime, the head of the Mahoning County Democratic Party–an attorney who represented Prato–petitioned the probate court, trying to have Traficant committed to an insane asylum.  The request was denied.

     Traficant's bribery trial began in May 1983 in Cleveland.  The prosecution team, headed by Stephen Jigger, an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department's Strike Force Against Organized Crime, produced the tape recordings, Traficant's signed confession, and several witnesses who allegedly had knowledge of Traficant's activities.

     One witness, a Mahoning County sheriff's deputy, testified that Traficant had asked him no fewer than five times to give him a superficial gunshot wound–so that he could claim that he had been the target of a mob hit.

     Traficant now admits that he had made this bizarre request of the deputy–but only in an attempt to gain his trust.  "Yeah, I told him that," he says, insisting that had he been serious, he would have "had somebody in my family shoot me.  They wouldn't have testified against me."

    In his opening statement to the court, Traficant, wearing shirt-sleeves, said, "I fucked the mob."  Throughout his defense, he referred to himself as "my client," telling the jury that he had done nothing illegal by accepting Carabbia's money and that he had returned Prato's contribution.  He claimed that the tapes proved his innocence, and that the FBI had submitted as evidence a fraudulent "confession" he never signed.  Traficant never took the stand in his own defense.

     "It was a frustrating trial," says the Harvard-educated Jigger.  "There is no case harder to prosecute than one in which an intelligent, articulate, and aggressive defendant decides to represent himself.  In our view, the evidence of guilt was overwhelming, but Traficant, a skilled politician, was able to effectively divert the jury's attention from the essential issues of basic guilt and innocence."

     On June 15, 1983, after four days of deliberation, the jury returned to deliver its verdict. "Not guilty," the jury foreman said.  As Traficant jumped from his seat, there was a prolonged groan in the courtroom.  In the end, jury members said they questioned the reliability of the Carabbia/DeRose tapes, which contained several unexplained gaps.

     Traficant and his supporters were ecstatic.  When he returned to his home in Poland, a suburb of Youngstown, some 3,000 people participated in a post-trial victory celebration.  T-shirts lauding Traficant's acquittal were sold, with the proceeds going to his legal defense fund.  At his first press conference after the trial, he told reporters, "I'm telling the mob to move out of town.  If they don't, I'll run them out, legally or illegally."  People cheered him nearly everywhere he went.

     "People identified with me having the balls to stand up.  When you think about it, that's what it is: balls," says Traficant, relaxing in his U.S. House office.  He says that when he walked out of the courtroom a free man, he made the decision to run for Congress.  He defeated six others in the 1984 Democratic primary, and despite the fact he could only raise $15,000 for his campaign and wasn't even endorsed by his own party, Traficant defeated his Republican opponent, Lyle Williams, by nearly 20,000 votes.

     Since coming to Washington, he has sponsored legislation for, among other things, tougher drug control laws.  He insists that, "If you're afraid to go out to the edge of the limb, you shouldn't be here.  Politically, that's where I'm at."

     Traficant says he's in Washington to work.  "I want to do a good job," he says.  "I don't want to be a freak show."