Friday, April 12, 2002

Traficant convicted of corruption charges

By Paul Singer
The Associated Press

        CLEVELAND — 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 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,” Mr. 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.

        He may also still face additional fines totaling nearly $2 million as part of his sentence.

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

        Mr. 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,” Mr. Gephardt said.

        Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Traficant made a mistake in defending himself.

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

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

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

        A subdued Mr. 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, Mr. Traficant was combative when questioned by reporters and his statements were laced with profanities. It was not clear whether 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.

        Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

        Mr. 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 Lesley Wells said to his empty chair.

        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 Mr. Traficant later said the government had stolen it.

        Prosecutors, meanwhile, called 55 witnesses to testify against Mr. 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.


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