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Convicted congressman comes out swinging

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Posted on Tue, Jul. 16, 2002

Convicted congressman comes out swinging on Capitol Hill
Traficant won't go quietly
Representative accuses ethics committee of witness tampering
By Carl Chancellor
Beacon Journal staff writer

WASHINGTON - In the vaulted wood-paneled Committee on Armed Services meeting room, U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., D-Poland, came out firing both barrels during opening remarks in his House corruption hearing Monday.

``I love America but I hate the government... We have allowed political targeting in America,'' bellowed Traficant in a rambling hourlong statement to the eight-member panel of the House ethics committee.

Traficant, who was found guilty of federal bribery, racketeering and tax evasion charges in April, was back in Washington for the first time since his conviction to answer charges of ``egregious misconduct'' which could lead to his expulsion from Congress.

Immediately before the hearings, Traficant filed a complaint to dismiss the charges against him with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., citing ``gross misconduct'' on the part of members of the ethics committee.

Traficant claimed that staff acting at the behest of the ethics committee tampered with one of his defense witnesses. He went on to pepper an ethics committee staffer with a series of blunt questions concerning the alleged incident.

It was just a preview of Traficant's defiant ``in your face'' defense against charges that he violated House ethics rules.

At one point, Traficant said that just like the ethics committee, he was a ``member too.''

``I'll be damned if I'm going to be treated like a dog,'' Traficant said.

As he has from the start of this case, the bombastic nine-term congressman claimed that he is a victim of a government vendetta that Traficant said began in 1983, when as Mahoning County sheriff, he beat federal bribery charges against him. That court victory propelled him to Congress.

The House ethics charges against Traficant, 61, are based almost wholly on the evidence and transcripts from his federal trial in Cleveland. In June, the House ethics committee charged Traficant with 10 violations of ethics and the House code of conduct.

Committee lawyer Kenneth Kellner in his opening remarks said there was more than enough evidence to demonstrate that Traficant ``violated the public trust and traded his office for personal gain.''

Following a lunch break, the committee's second prosecutor, Robert Lewis, spent the next two hours meticulously detailing each of the 10 charges against Traficant. Lewis placed onto the record much of the testimony and physical evidence gathered by the FBI and IRS and presented during Traficant's trial.

``Throughout his career, Congressman Traficant was trading official acts for money and favors,'' Lewis said.

Late in the afternoon, it was Traficant's turn to come out swinging again, and just as he did in his Cleveland trial, he defended himself.

However, this time the committee, chaired by Joel Hefley, R-Colo., gave the maverick lawmaker more latitude than was allowed by U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells in his federal trial.

After being sworn in as his own witness, Traficant, stomping in front of the panel in his shirt sleeves, played to the several dozen cameras filling the hearing room.

``The pressure of the government to get Traficant courses through every charge... The FBI and the IRS have federal judges scared, they have Congress scared, they have the public scared, but I'll be damned if they scare me,'' Traficant roared.

Clearly, the ever-boisterous and colorful Traficant relished the opportunity to speak his mind. He claimed that every witness that the government put on the stand in Cleveland was ``in jeopardy and harm.'' He said that by implicating him in wrongdoing, they all received ``get out of jail free'' cards.

Lewis angrily objected to Traficant's characterization of government witnesses. But he did reluctantly admit that much of the most damaging evidence against Traficant came from individuals who were granted immunity or cut plea deals with federal prosecutors.

Traficant attempted to paint himself as one man against a system gone amok.

``The executive branch has become so powerful that people fear their government,'' he said.

Traficant came away with one victory Monday when he got the committee to agree to give him an extra day to present his witnesses. Hefley said he expected Traficant to have his witnesses ready to testify by 1 p.m. today.

If it finds Traficant guilty on the House charges, it's up to the ethics committee to recommend an appropriate sanction, from expulsion to censure to a simple reprimand.

Expulsion, the most severe penalty, requires approval of two-thirds of the 435-member House.

Last Friday in a 19-page brief, prosecutors who convicted Traficant in Cleveland requested that the congressman be given at least 7 years in prison.

On Monday, Traficant declared he was ready to go to prison and fully expected to.

``They can just pack my bags cause I'm not going to admit to crimes I didn't do... I'm prepared to be expelled and I'm prepared to go to jail.''

However, Traficant, who is on the ballot as an independent for the newly redrawn 17th District that includes part of Akron, told the hearing room that if he went to jail, he was going to make history.

``If they put me in jail in Ohio, I will be the first American to win a congressional seat while incarcerated,'' Traficant promised.

Carl Chancellor can be reached at 330-996-3725 or


2001 ohio and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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