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Traficant Faces Uphill Fight to Keep House Seat

Politics: Precedent is working against the Ohio lawmaker found guilty of corruption.

April 13, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Convicted of bribery, racketeering and other crimes by a jury of 12, Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. now awaits the verdict of a jury of 434.

The question of whether his House colleagues will let him stay in office could come up in a matter of days, but the nine-term Ohio Democrat remained defiant Friday, declaring that he would seek reelection this fall as an independent and reiterating that he would not resign.

"I will not allow the government to get rid of Jim Traficant without a fight," he told reporters in Cleveland, one day after a U.S. District Court jury found him guilty on 10 federal charges. He has vowed to appeal.

Traficant's defiance has put him on a collision course with other House members.

Most had kept silent while the outcome of his trial was pending. But now they appear ready to mete out harsh discipline. As a result, Traficant could become the first member expelled from the House in 22 years, and just the second since the Civil War's end.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has announced it will review Traficant's case. The 10-member ethics panel, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, can recommend a range of punishments, from reprimand to expulsion.

A source familiar with the committee predicted a quick review of Traficant's case. The panel already has begun assembling the trial record.

Under the Constitution, the House is the final arbiter of its membership. It may expel a representative on a two-thirds vote.

While the ethics panel's recommendation would carry great weight, Traficant could face House expulsion as soon as the chamber reconvenes Tuesday. House rules permit any member to bypass the committee and bring a resolution for expulsion directly to the floor.

House bylaws require that such matters dealing with the "dignity and integrity" of the House take priority over all legislation, forcing Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to schedule a debate and vote within two legislative days.

Under House rules, it appears possible for a convicted felon to continue to cast votes. The rules say only that a member convicted of a crime carrying a possible sentence of at least two years' imprisonment "should refrain" from voting in the House--until the member regains a presumption of innocence or is reelected.

Traficant faces up to 63 years in prison and more than $2 million in fines.

Precedent and politics indicate that Traficant faces an uphill battle to defend himself in the House.

The last member expelled, Rep. Michael J. "Ozzie" Myers (D-Pa.), also was convicted of bribery--a crime that lawmakers say strikes at the heart of the government's reputation. Before Myers was forced out in October 1980, the only three previous expulsions occurred in 1861 as Congress was ridding itself of lawmakers loyal to the Confederacy, according to Congressional Quarterly.

Other lawmakers in modern times have run afoul of the law and kept their seats. Some have served while under indictment. Rep. Jay C. Kim (R-Diamond Bar) was allowed to serve out his term after he pleaded guilty in 1997 to misdemeanor campaign finance violations. He subsequently lost a reelection bid.

But congressional aides note that a conviction is more significant than an indictment, and a felony, such as bribery, is more serious than a misdemeanor.

"I don't think anybody wants to be in the position of protecting a felon," one Republican aide said.

Added a Democratic leadership aide: "It reflects horribly on the House."

Also working against Traficant is his lack of a partisan base. Neither party gave him a committee seat during this session of Congress.

Democrats shun him as a traitor for voting last year to reelect Hastert as House speaker. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) called on Traficant to resign immediately after the verdict was announced Thursday.

Republicans in recent years have relished Traficant's support on key legislation and have been amused at his outlandish tirades during floor debates, which he frequently punctuates with his pet phrase, "Beam me up!"

But Republicans are keenly aware that he is not one of them--and more important, that he could never be elected under the GOP banner from his heavily Democratic base in northeast Ohio.

A few factors could work in his favor, however. The House could delay a decision until his sentencing June 27. It also could decide to avoid the appearance of a hasty decision by letting the ethics panel deliberate the matter.

One influential Ohio Republican, Rep. Robert W. Ney has spoken up for Traficant. While Ney lamented the pall that the verdict cast over the House, he described himself as a friend of the convicted congressman. "It's a shame," he said. "Our thoughts go out to Jim Traficant and his family."

Ney said the ethics panel should consider the Traficant matter before it comes up on the floor. Asked about the possibility of a rapid vote, bypassing the committee, he said: "That's not justice."

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