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THE NATION

House Vote Expels Felon Traficant

Congress: The Ohio Democrat is ousted by an overwhelming count of 420 to 1. In a packed gallery, he protests his innocence in a colorful, impassioned speech.

July 25, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio) was expelled from Congress Wednesday night by an overwhelming vote of his colleagues in the House of Representatives, becoming only the second member of Congress thrown out by his peers since the Civil War.

The 420-1 vote, with nine members recorded as "present," came after the congressman made a last stand on the House floor. Four members, Traficant among them, did not vote.

Traficant, the self-dubbed "junkyard dog," has been a convicted felon since April, when a jury in Cleveland found him guilty on all 10 counts of a federal corruption indictment. He protested his innocence Wednesday night as people packed the House gallery hallways for a turn to see him in action. His fellow lawmakers listened in stony silence.

The nine-term congressman from Youngstown offered a passionate defense over 48 minutes, including 18 minutes granted him by other House members. His plea not to be expelled was made in intervals, broken up by arguments for his ouster by his colleagues.

"None of us ever want to sit in judgment of our peers," said Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), chairman of the House ethics committee, which unanimously recommended Traficant's expulsion. "There are some unique occasions, however, when the behavior of an elected official violates the public trust to such an extent that we are called upon to uphold this provision."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), another member of the ethics panel, said: "He traded his official office and powers repeatedly for money, for labor, for equipment at his farm and other things."

The ethics committee's senior Democrat, Rep. Howard L. Berman of Mission Hills, called the evidence against Traficant "vast" and warned that allowing him to retain his membership in the House "cannot be our message."

To make his case on the House floor Wednesday evening, Traficant offered a winding exposition of his criminal trial and insisted once again that he has long been "the No. 1 target of the United States justice system."

At times hard to follow, Traficant, 61, spoke about a long cast of shady characters from his trial and professed his conviction that former U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno was a "traitor" and his belief that he has suffered lingering repercussions for standing up for John Demjanjuk, who had been accused of being the Nazi war criminal "Ivan the Terrible."

But he also exhibited the spark that made his one-minute speeches from the floor famous among avid C-SPAN followers--shouting, gesticulating and sprinkling his comments with words such as "damn" that earned him several admonishments from the House leadership, which had taken five minutes at the start of the proceedings to offer cautions about decorum.

Instead of his promised denim suit with bell-bottom pants, Traficant was dressed in a dark, boot-leg-cut suit with an overly long tie that had sedate diagonal stripes. It seemed for a short time that Traficant, who has made a career of being the underdog, might have one more political life in him yet.

After watching the ethics committee hearing last week, a juror in Traficant's federal corruption trial said he might have had reasonable doubt about the congressman's guilt if he had heard the testimony of Richard Detore, one of Traficant's witnesses at the hearing, during the criminal trial.

The juror, Leo Moser, cautioned in interviews that he was not saying for certain that his guilty decision would have shifted, and he pointed out that Detore was not cross-examined by federal prosecutors. Nonetheless, he said, the new testimony raised questions.

Detore, a co-defendant of Traficant's who is currently under indictment, told the House ethics committee that the federal prosecutor had threatened him and encouraged him to lie to bolster the government's case against Traficant.

The accusations about prosecutorial misconduct were forwarded for investigation to the Justice Department by Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio).

The vote on Traficant's ouster came only after an attempt by Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), another ethics committee member, to delay the proceedings until the House returns in September from the monthlong August recess.

The motion was defeated, 281 to 145, after LaTourette and others rose to ask colleagues to wait until after Traficant's sentencing next week and until questions raised by Detore were resolved.

Traficant was convicted in April on charges that he had traded political favors for money, received kickbacks from congressional staffers, evaded taxes and made his staff shovel horse manure and do other tasks on government time at his Ohio farm.

Traficant, who often reminds people that he is "just the son of a truck driver," made his political career as David to the government's Goliath. He was elected sheriff in his native Mahoning County, Ohio, in the 1970s, and was indicted in 1983 on federal charges that he had taken money from organized-crime figures in Youngstown.

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