Convicted Congressman Returns To Capitol Hill To Fight For Political Life

By JESSE J. HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - A defiant Rep. James Traficant proclaimed himself the victim of a government vendetta Monday, declaring he is innocent of bribery, fraud and tax evasion charges but conceding he expects to be kicked out of Congress and sent to prison.

The Ohio Democrat pleaded with an eight-member panel of the House ethics committee to listen to witnesses and tape recordings excluded from his criminal trial, saying they would prove the Justice Department forced witnesses to lie on the stand.

"Every single witness was in jeopardy and harm and got a 'get out of jail free' card for implicating Traficant in some crime," he said of the nine-week federal criminal court trial in Cleveland.

Just like then, Traficant, though not a lawyer, represented himself Monday. The ethics panel will decide if the convictions represent a "continuing pattern and practice of official misconduct" and, if so, whether they warrant the House expelling the nine-term maverick lawmaker.

One of the most colorful members of Congress, known for his wild hair, loud clothes and animated floor speeches -- "Beam me up!" he regularly exclaimed -- Traficant (pictured, above) could become only the second member of the House since the Civil War to be expelled.

"I had no intent to commit a crime, but I will do the time, and expect a long time to try and shut me up," said Traficant. He contends federal prosecutors have been out to get him since 1983 when, as a sheriff, he successfully defended himself against bribery charges.

"But let me tell you, there will be some smoking gun that will come out before it's over in the Traficant case and you will recognize that you let a member of Congress be convicted," he told the ethics panel.

Committee lawyer Kenneth Kellner told House members there is more than enough evidence for panel members to recommend throwing Traficant out of office. Traficant "violated the public trust and traded his office for personal gain," Kellner said.

Prosecutors have recommended he serve at least 7¼ years in prison on the convictions of taking kickbacks from staffers and bribes from businessmen. Sentencing is scheduled for July 30.

Committee prosecutor Paul Lewis spent hours summarizing the Cleveland trial evidence, which covered more than 10 years of Traficant's term in office.

"Throughout his career, the congressman was trading official acts for favors," he said.

Traficant tried to block the trial evidence, but his objections were repeatedly overruled. After three straight rejections, Traficant sat quietly, listening to Lewis and scribbling notes on a legal pad.

But when his turn came, he turned the volume up, stalking around his table, shouting into his microphone and writing and drawing on an easel to demonstrate shapes of rooms and names of witnesses he said lied about him and their dealings.

"They've gone back 15 years looking for cash transactions," he shouted in the cavernous House Armed Service Committee room, where the hearing was being held. "They couldn't find one person."

He continually butted heads with the committee lawyers, who would object to his scattershot testimony. "I object to these objections," he said angrily at one time.

Finally frustrated at Lewis' objections, he turned to him and said "I'd appreciate it if you don't interrupt me again."

Retorted Lewis: "I'll object when it's relevant, congressman."

Traficant will continue his case on Tuesday, when he will call witnesses he says will help vindicate him.

Traficant, 61, maintains that all he did was help thousands of businesses in his northeast Ohio district around Youngstown by bringing home federal projects.

"I am a member too," Traficant said. "I may not be the most liked, and I may have unorthodox measures and I may have raided this House for some appropriations money, but I'm a member, too, and I'll be damned if I'm going to be treated like a dog."

Traficant insisted the Justice Department pressured witnesses and even Congress to keep him quiet. Democrats removed him from all of his committee assignments after he voted to make Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois speaker rather than Democratic leader Dick Gephardt.

"What you've done is allow the executive branch to become so powerful that people fear their government," he said.

House Ethics Committee Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., noted that Traficant spent most of his hour-long opening statement railing against the government and officials' motives for prosecuting him.

"I don't think we're interested in why you got here," Hefley said. "I think we're interested in, 'Did you do the things you're accused of?'"

Traficant stayed true to his boisterous nature during his opening statement.

He declared he wanted to "kick the ass" of the businessman who claimed to have owned him, that he was "having some rectal disorder because of this" and that an FBI witness could have had a "small microphone up his rectum."

Traficant also complained to Hastert that the committee harassed a potential witnesses. He asked Hastert to suspend proceedings pending an investigation, but the hearing went forward.

House rules require an ethics panel investigation when a lawmaker is convicted of a felony. The harshest penalty is expulsion, followed by censure, reprimand or fines, all of which require votes by the full 435-member House.

Expulsion requires the approval of two-thirds of the House members. The only member ousted since the Civil War was Rep. Michael Myers, D-Pa., who was tossed out in 1980 for accepting money from undercover FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks seeking favors from Congress.

Regardless of what happens, Traficant is seeking re-election, this time as an independent.

"If they put me in jail in Ohio, I might be the first American to win a congressional seat while incarcerated," he boasted.

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