While protesters stood outside his Mar-a-Lago club Saturday night in Palm Beach, tuxedo-clad President Donald Trump and first lady Melania were being entertained by the organizers of the Red Cross Ball.
And among those cozying up to the world’s most powerful man was a convicted felon named J.J. Cafaro.
His crime? Bribery of a public official.
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Mall developer Cafaro’s wife Janet, who lives in a $20 million mansion down the street from the club, chaired Saturday’s event, officially named The Diamond Centennial Red Cross Ball.
In Palm Beach parlance, chairing a ball includes putting up some crazy money for expenses and/or having to convince a couple hundred socialites to spent $1,000-plus each to attend.
In essence, the chair is considered to be the host, and with Trump crashing the ball, the chairwoman and her family received unfiltered access to Trump.
Even if by any presidential standards, J.J. Cafaro might not be the kind of guy he should hang with.
In 2001, Cafaro pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe then-U.S. Rep. James Traficant, an Ohio Democrat who eventually served prison time for trading his political influence for money.
Cafaro admitted to paying for $27,000 in repairs to Traficant’s houseboat then buying the ratty houseboat for another $26,000. At the time, Traficant was quietly trying to get federal agencies to buy a laser guidance system manufactured by one of Cafaro’s companies.
Cafaro was sentenced to 15 months probation and fined $150,000, and blue-collar Youngstown, Ohio, politician Traficant was expelled from the U.S. Congress and served seven years of an eight-year sentence in a federal prison.
In June 2010, Cafaro was back in the sights of political ethics authorities in Ohio when he pleaded guilty to a charge of making illegal campaign contributions to his daughter, Capri Cafaro, a member of the Ohio legislature. Again, he wasn’t sentenced to any time behind bars but got three years of probation.
Cafaro and his wife gave tens of thousands in contributions to both Hillary Clinton and Trump during the presidential campaign.
Red Ball gala coordinator Jennifer Whitaker said that even if Cafaro was listed as a co-chair of the ball in some of the literature, he wasn’t. The invitations clearly listed Janet as the sole and only chair, she said.
“This ball is traditionally a ladies’ event,” Whitaker said. “The ladies host. The ladies write the checks.
“Why would anyone hold her [Janet] responsible for what her husband [of 40 years] has done? Her philanthropy is independent, and incredibly generous.”
When asked why the Red Cross would place Trump in a potentially uncomfortable situation, the organization’s chapter for Palm Beach and Martin counties reissued a statement that simply outlines the ball’s 60-year history.