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Ethics Violations Trip Traficant

Congress: Colleagues are unamused by the Ohio Democrat's antics as they recommend that he be expelled from the House.

July 19, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In the august, wood-paneled congressional hearing room stood Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., clad in a bright white suit, his gray-speckled hair combed high in a plume, tossing out one-liners like a stand-up comedian playing a small-town crowd.

He requested yet another bathroom break, for once refraining from naming his exact gastrointestinal complaint--something he had shared frequently during his four days with a committee investigating alleged ethics violations.

He called his home district of Youngstown, Ohio, "Mobtown, USA," but said: "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else, and it's as good as any town you come from."

He offered a hollow apology for repeated insults of committee members and then lobbed one last shell at chairman Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican, sputtering, "You, you Coors drinker."

But fellow House members holding Traficant's political fate in their hands had the straight faces of an audience for whom the joke had become stale.

In the morning, a House Standards of Official Conduct Subcommittee found the nine-term Democrat guilty on nine of 10 counts of ethics violations stemming from his felony conviction on federal bribery and corruption charges three months ago. And in the afternoon, the full committee unanimously approved his expulsion.

"It's been one of the most unpleasant experiences I could ever recall having," said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), a committee member and Traficant friend.

The decision shocked no one, least of all Traficant. The 61-year-old lawmaker has proclaimed over and over since returning to Capitol Hill this week--for the first time since his April 11 conviction in Cleveland--that he fully expected to become only the second member of Congress to be expelled since the aftermath of the Civil War.

He is scheduled to be sentenced in the criminal case July 30, and federal prosecutors have asked that he serve at least seven years for such transgressions as taking kickbacks and making congressional staffers on government time shovel horse manure on his farm.

"I'm here and I sure as hell am not resigning," said a defiant Traficant, who at the hearing, as at his criminal trial, chose to defend himself despite his lack of a law degree. The committee rejected Traficant's request that the House delay any decision until after his appeals are exhausted.

"I've had it. Don't push me around," he said during his final 30-minute attempt to get a stay of his political execution. "I'll go to jail. I'll let members of Congress put me in jail. But I'm going to tell you this: This isn't Jim Traficant talking now. This is a United States citizen and you're the Congress of the United States and you've allowed this to happen."

Traficant's portrayal of himself as the victim of a government vendetta and "trophy" for the FBI and the IRS failed to persuade.

"The committee determined that nine counts were proved by clear and convincing evidence and include repeated abuses of the public trust. Each of these violations is of the most serious nature," said Robert Walker, chief counsel for the oversight panel, whose case against Traficant closely followed that of the federal prosecution. "Taken together, these violations unequivocally call for only one response from you: that the House expel Mr. Traficant."

The full House now will have to vote on whether to accept the committee's recommendation. Expulsion requires the approval of two-thirds of the members. The vote is expected next week.

Four members in the 213-year history of the House have been expelled, the most recent being Pennsylvania Democrat Michael Myers in 1980, who refused to resign after his conviction for taking bribes in the FBI's Abscam investigation of corruption in Congress.

As at his nine-week trial in Cleveland, where he sparred with the judge, used profanity, dropped boxes on the floor and threatened physical harm to the prosecutors, Traficant's antics this week on Capitol Hill have given an air of frivolity to a serious proceeding.

He failed to show up on time on the second day of testimony, saying no one told him to be there, though instructions had been clear.

He said Playboy bunnies visited a decrepit boat he lived on when he was in Washington, but then said not even his wife wanted to board it because there was no working toilet. The names of "Sopranos"-like characters that figured in his trial rolled out of his mouth during his self-defense--Sugar, Bucci, Cafaro, Traficanti--impossible for the uninitiated to track.

It always had been an improbable political rise for the onetime star quarterback from the University of Pittsburgh. His start in national politics was born out of his triumphant self-defense in a 1983 trial on charges that, as the elected sheriff of Mahoning County, Ohio, he had taken more than $160,000 in cash from organized crime figures.

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