Congressman Convicted Of All Counts In Federal Corruption Case

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. was convicted Thursday of taking bribes and kickbacks from businessmen and his own staff after a raucous trial in which the fiery congressman insisted on serving as his own lawyer.

The nine-term Democrat (pictured, above) was found guilty of all 10 federal charges he faced, including racketeering, bribery and fraud. The jury also ordered him to forfeit $96,000 in ill-gotten gains.

He said he would not resign, despite a call by House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt for him to do so.

"I still have some rights as an American," Traficant said. "I've never been a quitter. I'm not going to quit now."

Sentencing was set for June 27. The nine-term Democrat faces up to 63 years in prison, though he would probably receive a much shorter term under federal guidelines.

"I'm not afraid of going to jail," Traficant said while leaving the courthouse.

Traficant, 60, could also be expelled from the House by his colleagues, something that has happened only once since the Civil War. The House ethics committee said it will consider discipline, which includes expulsion, censure, reprimand or fines.

"At the heart of all public service is personal integrity. A member of Congress who breaks the law betrays the public trust and brings discredit to the House of Representatives," Gephardt said.

Traficant remained free on $50,000 bond.

Jurors had deliberated about 23 hours over four days.

Jury forewoman Helen Knipp, 63, of Mansfield, said it appeared that Traficant, "felt he was a congressman and was above it all. He was trying to confuse us. He didn't succeed."

Fellow juror Jeri Zimmerman, 40, of Mentor said Traficant made a mistake in defending himself.

"You can only get by so much with personality. We're not ignorant people," Zimmerman said.

Traficant stood with his hands folded in front of him as the judge read each verdict.

After each count, the judge asked Traficant if he wanted the jurors to restate their verdict. "No," he said softly.

A subdued Traficant told jurors the evidence was circumstantial and that the trial was "a very unfair process." But "I accept your verdict," he said.

Outside the courthouse, Traficant was combative when questioned by reporters and his statements were laced with profanities. It was not clear if he would appeal.

"I don't think there's any hope on appeal for me. I'm too much wanted," he said.

He indicated he would represent himself if he did appeal.

"I'm not going to spend half a million dollars for the same decision," he said.

Traficant contended the government came after him because he beat the FBI in a racketeering case 19 years ago, when he was a Mahoning County sheriff accused of taking mob money. He was elected the next year to the House, where he quickly became known for his unruly hair, loud wardrobe and tempestuous floor speeches in which he railed against federal agencies, from the Justice Department to the IRS. The rants often ended with an exasperated "Beam me up!"

During the trial, Traficant roared at the judge, crudely questioned the prosecutor's manhood and used barnyard epithets to describe what he thought of the government's case.

Among the charges against Traficant were filing false tax returns, receiving gifts and free labor from businessmen for his political help and taking cash kickbacks and free labor from staff.

Prosecutors argued that several Youngstown businessmen provided free work on the congressman's houseboat and horse farm, and Traficant, in exchange, lobbied state and federal regulators on their behalf.

They also said he required some staff members to pay him a portion of their salaries and others to work at his farm on government time.

Traficant represented himself, though he is not an attorney and often was chastised by the judge for not following procedure.

Throughout the 10-week trial, he shouted at witnesses, government attorneys and the judge. At one point, he stormed out of the courtroom to retrieve a witness.

"Goodbye, congressman," U.S. District Judge U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells said to his empty chair.

By Traficant's own admission, the trial was no "walk in the park." His cross-examinations were random and frequently self-destructive. He promised to haul a 600-pound welding machine into court and insisted it was never offered to him as a bribe. It never showed up and Traficant later said the government had stolen it.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, called 55 witnesses to testify against Traficant and submitted as evidence bank records showing large cash deposits to his accounts and a briefcase full of cash that one witness said the congressman asked him to hide.

Former Traficant staff member Allen Sinclair testified that the congressman hired him under an agreement that he would give his boss $2,500 in cash each month.

When the FBI began investigating the congressman, Sinclair said, Traficant brought him $24,500 in cash and asked him to hide the money and burn the envelopes it had arrived in.

Prosecutors also called former contractor Anthony Bucci, who testified that he dropped a lawsuit against Traficant over an unpaid $13,000 bill in exchange for the congressman's help with federal and state regulators.

"We were basically going to sue a congressman, or for $13,000, we were going to own him," Bucci said.

Traficant said many of the government's witnesses had previously lied under oath or struck deals with the government to testify. He also argued that helping local businesses was part of his obligation as a congressman.

"I didn't force anybody to do anything. You know what I did: I fought like hell for my people!" he shouted in opening statements.

Traficant contended the government had been out to get him because of his 1983 acquittal, but the judge prohibited him from making the alleged vendetta part of his defense. He argued he was targeted for prosecution because he dared to challenge the power of the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI.

Traficant's Youngstown-area district was eliminated this year, but he has said he will run for re-election as an independent in a neighboring district.

Under U.S. House rules, a felony conviction involving a member of Congress triggers an automatic investigation by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

Traficant, who angered many Democrats by voting to elect Republican Dennis Hastert as speaker, has already been stripped of a committee assignment.

Expulsion requires the approval of two-thirds of the 435-member House, and has happened to only one congressman in the last 141 years: In 1980, Rep. Michael Myers, D-Pa., was expelled for accepting money from undercover FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks seeking favors from Congress.

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