Traficant's Absence Leaves Clerk Running Office

By MALIA RULON, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The nameplate outside former Rep. James A. Traficant's office is empty and some walls inside are noticeably bare.

Since Traficant (pictured, above) was expelled from Congress and sent to federal prison, his office has broken new ground for how a congressional office is run without a congressman.

"There's just no template for this kind of situation," said John Culbertson, chief of staff for the 17th District office.

Traficant, 61, is serving an eight-year prison sentence for bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. The nine-term Democratic congressman was expelled from Congress on July 24.

In the past, members of Congress who have died or resigned while in office have been replaced in special elections. Ohio Gov. Bob Taft has decided to forgo a special election, saying replacing Traficant for what could only be a few weeks was not worth the expense or the possible voter confusion.

The seat is not expected to be filled until a new representative is sworn in next January.

For Culbertson, that means finding a way to balance the needs of the district with a congressional mandate that the office be completely removed from the political process.

"We're in kind of an awkward spot since we're open a little bit longer than a normal vacancy would be," Culbertson said.

The last time the House expelled a member was in 1980, when Rep. Michael Myers, D-Pa., was kicked out for accepting bribes from FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks. Myers was expelled in October and lost his re-election bid a month later. Congress had already adjourned for the year by then, so a special election wasn't necessary. In its 213-year history, the House has expelled just three others, all for treason during the Civil War.

Traficant's office could be vacant for as long as six months, an unusual situation in a Congress where the closely divided House is just seven seats from a power change.

"It sets up an interesting dynamic because you have to deal with the political pressures of an office that is not supposed to be political," Culbertson said.

Under House rules, vacant offices can't endorse issues or participate in any legislative or partisan activity. All day-to-day operations are overseen by the clerk's office, which answers to the House Administration Committee. That committee is chaired by Republican Rep. Bob Ney, who was a close friend of Traficant's and whose eastern Ohio district borders the 17th District.

"Ironically, I happen to border there and I do oversee his office now," Ney said. "There's no sitting congressman there now, but we are not going to alter anything. The services to the constituents in that district will not be interrupted in any way."

The staff will continue to take phone calls from constituents, lead occasional visitors on Capitol tours, and even submit budget requests for previously funded programs in northeast Ohio.

However, callers are now greeted with: "Seventeenth district Ohio office," rather than a greeting welcoming people to the office of Congressman Traficant.

Visitors to Traficant's Web site also no longer see a picture of a scowling Traficant swinging a 2-by-4 board emblazoned with the words "Bangin' Away In D.C." Web surfers are instead redirected to another site under the banner "Office of the Clerk."

Since Traficant's expulsion, Ney and his office have met regularly with the four-member Washington staff. They and 16 staff members in Ohio district offices will remain on the House payroll until the end of the year.

Culbertson will still be permitted to fly from Washington to the district as needed, and the office will still be run under its current operating budget, which totaled about $935,000 in 2001.

"We're still open for business," said Culbertson, a Washington-based consultant who once advised members of Congress on the Waco and Oklahoma City bombing investigations.

Culbertson took over as chief of staff in June when it looked like Traficant may be expelled. "I don't bail on my friends," he said.

Culbertson now sits at Traficant's big wooden desk, and the pictures of Traficant and framed front-page articles on the flamboyant congressman that once adorned the office walls have been replaced by standard House-issued artwork.

In Washington, Traficant was known for his bell bottom suits, skinny ties and wild silver hair while making daily arm-waving, theatrical rants on the House floor about the IRS and Justice Department, punctuated with the Star Trek comment, "Beam me up."

All of Traficant's speeches, personal belongings, pictures, files and a leather loveseat were packed and shipped to a place earlier designated by Traficant. Cases the office have been working on must be dealt with or referred to other offices. All documentation and research collected for matters before Congress must be turned over to the appropriate committee.

Applications from students in the 17th District seeking nominations to service academies such as West Point and the U.S. Air Force Academy are being forwarded to House Clerk Jeff Trandahl, who would present them to the winner of the November election. That person would have until Jan. 31, 2003, to submit nominations to the various academies.

Students from the 17th District "shouldn't be punished and have their dreams extinguished due to circumstances beyond their control," said LaTourette, whose northeast Ohio district also borders Traficant's former district.

Democratic state Sen. Timothy Ryan, who is a former Traficant staff member, and Republican state Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin of Aurora are vying for the seat in the recently redrawn district. Traficant has filed for the November election as an independent seeking re-election.

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