Traficant Determined To Argue His Own Defense At Trial

By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - The congressman known for his combative style, tousled hair, polyester suits and maverick politics is also determined to face his federal corruption trial on his own terms.

Democratic Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., 60, has made a career of going it alone. Although not a lawyer, he will represent himself against 10 corruption and bribery charges in U.S. District Court.

"I get very upset with Jim Traficant, because he is still a quarterback trying to run a football team," said Don Hanni, 76, a Youngstown lawyer and former Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman.

While a quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh, Traficant (pictured, above) had a reputation for overruling plays sent in by the coach.

"I talk with him a lot. I tell him, 'For God's sake, get some help,'" Hanni said. "All in all, he's a decent fellow. I'd hate to see him go down the tube on these charges. But he wants to try his own case. I keep asking him, 'Did you wear any head gear when you played football?'"

The nine-term Democrat from Youngstown was indicted May 4. Trial is to begin Tuesday and is expected to last up to eight weeks. If convicted, Traficant could be sentenced to more than 60 years in prison and receive $2 million in fines.

Traficant lost an appeal Monday before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Judge Boyce Martin refused to delay the trial for the court to consider whether to rule out as evidence congressional materials that Traficant contends are privileged under the Constitution.

Traficant is accused of accepting gifts and favors from constituents in exchange for lobbying in Washington and also of forcing his paid staff to make cash kickbacks to him or do favors for him at his horse farm.

He said after a recent pretrial hearing that he believes the Justice Department has been after him since he beat bribery charges nearly 19 years ago.

Traficant is emboldened by his improbable win over federal prosecutors in that previous trial.

In 1983, he was a sheriff accused of accepting $163,000 in bribes from mobsters and filing a false income tax return. He defended himself in front of a jury then, too.

The Justice Department said it possessed FBI tapes of conversations Traficant had with organized crime figures and his signed affidavit that he took mob money.

But Traficant convinced the jury he had been acting undercover while trying to destroy mob influence in Mahoning County. The jury deliberated four days and acquitted him. His win made him a folk hero in the Youngstown area, and he was elected to Congress in 1984.

In 1987, a federal tax court ruled that Traficant owed back taxes on the $163,000 he said he accepted from mobsters but did not keep. Traficant has been a consistent IRS critic in Congress.

Traficant also has angered members of his own party for years by voting with the Republicans on many bills and helping to elect Republican Dennis Hastert as speaker. He is the only member of the House without a committee assignment.

At the microphone on the House floor, he can be counted on for arm-waving theatrics and expressions such as "Beam me up!"

Traficant has accused the lead prosecutor in his corruption trial case, Craig Morford, of misconduct. Traficant claims Morford got witnesses to testify against the congressman by threatening them with criminal charges. Morford has denied the allegations.

On Friday, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Traficant accusing the government of violating his civil rights by singling him out for prosecution. He asked for $250 million in damages and an injunction blocking the trial.

The trial judge in his corruption case also has said he cannot use that allegation as a defense.

Traficant's advantage at trial will be his experience as a political communicator, said Thomas Flynn, a communications professor at Slippery Rock University. Flynn has researched Traficant's rhetorical style.

"I'm sure he wants the jurors to look at him as the little guy," Flynn said. "He wants to say, 'Look what they are doing to me, and they can do it to you, too.' He's not uneducated. I feel, though, that he may be in over his head. This is a much different case than in 1983."

Adam Thurschwell, a law professor at Cleveland State University, said Traficant could have an edge if he gets a sympathetic jury.

"Jurors usually are not lawyers, either, and they don't much care for the legal mumbo jumbo," Thurschwell said. "They can be very much inclined to sympathize with the stumbling. Most prosecutors would prefer a represented defendant."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)