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Traficant Convicted of Corruption

Trial: The maverick Ohio congressman says he will appeal and refuses to resign. He faces 63 years in prison but is likely to get a far shorter term.

April 12, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CLEVELAND — Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio) was convicted Thursday of taking kickbacks from his staff and accepting bribes in exchange for political favors, bringing to a close a contentious 2 1/2-month trial marked by outbursts from the defendant as he argued his own case.

The nine-term congressman, who does not have a law degree, stood alone and uncharacteristically quiet at the defense table as U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells read the verdict.

"Guilty," she said after each of the 10 counts. Traficant shook his head or muttered "No" as she asked each time if he wanted the jury polled.

He faces up to 63 years in prison and more than $2 million in fines when he is sentenced June 27, but likely will receive a far shorter prison term under federal sentencing guidelines. The jury also ordered Traficant to forfeit $96,000 in gains he received from racketeering, less than the $159,000 judgment asked for by prosecutors.

The sequestered jurors had deliberated since Monday afternoon.

Defiant Lawmaker Says He Won't Resign

On Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) called for Traficant's immediate resignation. "At the heart of all public service is personal integrity," Gephardt said. "A member of Congress who breaks the law betrays the public trust and brings discredit to the House of Representatives."

Traficant, who was released on bond pending his sentencing, was subdued but defiant afterward.

"I will not resign and I will appeal," he said. "But I do not have that good of a chance on appeal. I'm not well-liked by judges."

If Traficant, who is midway through his term, does not resign, he could be expelled by a two-thirds vote of the House. The last congressman expelled was Rep. Michael Myers (D-Pa.) in 1980 after his conviction for taking a bribe from FBI agents disguised as Arab sheiks.

Traficant's conviction on charges of bribery, racketeering, witness coercion and filing false tax returns comes just short of 19 years after he won an acquittal on federal charges he had taken money from the Mafia.

It was on the steps of this same stately granite courthouse in 1983 that Traficant, then the elected sheriff from his native Mahoning County, clutched the jury foreman in a joyful embrace. He had successfully argued that he was caught on tape receiving $163,000 from organized crime only because he was conducting his own sting. He was later forced to pay income tax on the funds after he failed to produce the cash.

From this trial's opening, Traficant closely mimicked his previous effort. But his attempt to cast himself as the little guy fighting a too-powerful government failed to convince this time around.

He complained that none of his constituents were on the jury, arguing that people from the Mahoning Valley would understand him. His first jury included six members from the valley, but they are now excluded from juries serving in Cleveland because of the 90-minute commute.

Parade of Witnesses Dealt Severe Blows

Known for his bluster on Capitol Hill, Traficant approached the trial as though it were a sandbox scuffle, predicting it would be a "donnybrook." At one point late last week, he stood so close to the lead prosecutor--arms behind his back, his trademark hair giving him the look of a rooster--that Wells had to ask him to back off.

He shouted accusations at Wells and mocked the opposition, then apologized, saying they had forced him to act that way.

Jurors listened as prosecutors presented a case that included incriminating testimony from 55 of Traficant's employees, friends and business associates.

The allegations included that Traficant did political favors in exchange for free labor and supplies for his boat and farm, that he tried to influence the testimony of one of his congressional aides and that he asked his lawyer to burn the envelopes used to deliver his cash kickbacks.

The jury also heard extensive testimony that Traficant made congressional staffers on government time shovel manure and bale hay on his farm.

Traficant, who earns $150,000 a year, more than four times the average of his blue-collar constituents, still cut an oddly sympathetic figure in court.

He sat alone at the defense table, carried a single cardboard box of evidence into court every day and at times pulled documents from a plastic convenience store bag.

"I'm just the son of a truck driver," Traficant said often, reminding the judge and jury that if he made any mistakes it was because he was not a lawyer.

Though Wells ruled he could not argue the government had been out to get him for years, his so-called "vendetta defense," Traficant managed throughout the trial to hint at his theory.

He told the jury the Internal Revenue Service hated him because he has proposed ending the federal income tax. He warned them of the power of the FBI to "scare you, scare your wife, scare your family."

Traficant told the jurors Thursday, "I accept the verdict" and then complained about the trial.

"Quite frankly it was a very unfair process," he said.

He then gestured to law enforcement officials seated at the prosecution table.

"Not one of them offered testimony," he said, "because they were scared to death of my cross-examination."

Wells stopped Traficant from questioning jurors after he asked to speak to the 10 women and two men about their decision, telling him the jury had no responsibility to respond to his queries.

She dismissed them, thanking them for doing "an excellent job."

As jurors filed back into the room where they deliberated, some burst into sobs that could be heard through the closed door.

*

Times staff writer Nick Anderson in Washington contributed to this report.

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