If Traficant's going, he's going with a bang

The maverick lawmaker has charm, fiery rhetoric ... and a raft of felony convictions.

As a member of Congress facing expulsion, Ohio Democrat James Traficant will have half an hour to defend himself on the floor of the House. The maverick lawmaker, known for his rumpled suits and a haircut like three miles of bad road, has already been convicted by a Cleveland jury of bribery, corruption and racketeering. He promises this will be the speech of his life.

It's a spectacle many of his colleagues would rather not see. "What if the American people think this is in any way normal?" says Rep. Jim Greenwood (R) of Pennsylvania.

Historically, most Congress members convicted of crimes or about to be expelled have simply resigned. Only four members in the history of the House have been expelled, three for conduct traitorous to the Union during the civil war.

But Mr. Traficant seems to have no intention of going gently. Nor has he ever. For years, he has used the one minute members are allowed at the beginning of each session to rail against government, especially law enforcement agencies. He called former Attorney General Janet Reno a traitor for not pursuing allegations of illegal Chinese contributions to the 1996 Clinton campaign, and has blasted the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies as bums, bumbling nincompoops, and worse.

At the same time, he criticized Democrats for not doing enough to help his struggling district in Ohio's Mahoning Valley, once dubbed the steel capital of the United States. After Traficant voted for Republican Dennis Hastert for speaker at the beginning of the 107th Congress (a decision he had signaled to voters before the 2000 election), House Democrats refused to seat him in their caucus. That meant no committee assignments for Traficant, but it did not mean he had no influence in the House.

In fact, quite the opposite. In a closely divided House, Traficant often voted with Republicans. And GOP leaders made a point of backing many of his requests, including ruling in order his signature "Buy America" amendments on spending bills, as well as approving millions in special projects for his district.

"No one should underestimate Jim Traficant's ability to be effective in the 107th Congress," said House majority leader Richard Armey (R) of Texas, in comments before Traficant's April conviction on 10 felony counts of bribery, racketeering, fraud, obstruction of justice, and tax evasion.

In his own defense before a panel of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct last week, Traficant claimed credit for bringing more than $1.3 billion in federal spending to his district. In 1988, he sponsored a bill that eventually reined in the power of the Internal Revenue Service to seize personal property – a matter of personal concern, since the IRS began docking his congressional salary to pay $100,000 in back taxes on bribes dating to a 1983 acquittal.

In many ways, his has been a career dogged and even defined by legal problems. As sheriff of Ohio's Mahoning county, Traficant became a local hero after he refused to foreclose on the homes of unemployed workers. In 1993, he conducted his own defense on charges of taking bribes from mobsters, and when confronted with videotapes of transactions, convinced a jury that he was conducting his own sting operation.

His more recent legal woes have proved harder to shake. An investigative subcommittee has said there is abundant evidence that Traficant "engaged in a continuing pattern and practice of official misconduct through which he misused his elected office for personal gain." This ranged from soliciting bribes from businessmen to kickbacks and services from staff, including repairing horse stalls at his Ohio farm and the sinking houseboat he used as his residence in Washington.

In surprise testimony last week, a witness for Traficant also claimed to have seen evidence of illegal gifts to Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey from the same businessman who admitted to bribing Traficant. The Justice Department dropped a similar gifts-for-favors case against Senator Torricelli in January, but the senator, who faces what could be a close race this fall, appears Monday before a Senate ethics panel to respond to questions about the allegations. A Torricelli spokes-man denies any wrongdoing.

The House ethics panel has unanimously recommended expelling Traficant, who will be sentenced July 30 to up to seven and a quarter years in prison for his Ohio criminal conviction.

Despite his tirades, Traficant was liked by many of his colleagues. Before the latest troubles, some compared him to Minnesota's outspoken governor, Jesse Ventura. A memorable figure on the floor, he often sat on the Republican side of aisle with his boots up on a chair, bantering with GOP leaders.

"I'm not going to like that vote, but we can't duck it. Like it or not, it's an obligation we take when we pledge to protect and defend the Constitution," says Rep. Billy Tauzin, (R) of Louisiana.

Traficant insists he will still run for reelection this fall, and will serve even if from prison. "You're looking at an American that may be elected from a prison cell, because the people back home know I have been railroaded, because they know these witnesses," he said last week.

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