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Newsmaker: James A. Traficant Jr. / Fallen hero running out his string in Congress

Monday, July 22, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. may have made his last threat.

U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. talks with reporters following an ethics committee hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday. (Associated Press)

Traficant, a convicted felon on 10 corruption charges, growled at photographers last week after they pounced on him before an ethics committee hearing in Washington, D.C.

"If you don't get those cameras out of my face," he said, "I'm going to go 8.6 on the Richter scale with gastric emissions that will clear this room."

A Democrat who has represented the Youngstown, Ohio, area for 17 1/2 years, Traficant promised to be loud, gruff and outrageous, right to the end of his congressional career. That could come any day.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct recommended last week that Traficant be expelled. Now the full House is poised to vote on his removal. Expulsion would require the votes of at least two-thirds of the members, or 290 of 435.

Traficant, 61, predicted he would be kicked out of Congress this week and imprisoned the next. His sentencing on federal convictions for bribery, racketeering and taking kickbacks from congressional aides is scheduled for July 30 in Cleveland.

Fellow congressmen have suggested that Traficant should resign from Congress to spare himself the dishonor of expulsion.

"It would certainly help him if he resigned," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois. "I think we're going to come to the floor with that expulsion issue this week and certainly if he chose to resign he'd be better off, but that's up to him."


Name: U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.

Date of birth: May 8, 1941

Place of birth: Youngstown, Ohio

In the news: Traficant, D-Ohio, could become the fifth congressman in history to be expelled. An ethics committee last week recommended his ouster. He was convicted in April in criminal court of 10 corruption felonies.

Education: Graduated from Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, 1959; bachelor's degree in physical education, University of Pittsburgh, 1963; master's degree to be a secondary school principal, Youngstown State University, 1973; master's degree in counseling, Youngstown State, 1977.


Traficant has said he will not quit. He hates being told how to act or what to do.

For instance, Traficant broke ranks with fellow Democrats and supported Hastert for speaker in 1999. That move infuriated his Democratic Party colleagues. Many called him disloyal and an opportunist.

Traficant replied that he didn't answer to other politicians, but to the people he represented in northeast Ohio.

His congressional career has been one of the oddest in history because it was launched and destroyed by scandals.

In 1983, Traficant was a county sheriff in deep trouble. Mafia tape recordings showed that he had taken $163,000 in bribes from crime families in Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

Traficant initially confessed to corruption, then decided to fight the charges at trial.

Acting as his own lawyer even though he had no legal training, he told jurors he took the bribes because he was running a sting operation. They acquitted him.

After that, he took on the stature of a folk hero and parlayed his notoriety into a successful campaign for Congress in 1984.

He has been re-elected eight times. Even with his new legal troubles, he plans to run as an independent in the November election. Traficant said he hoped to be the first person to win a congressional seat from a prison cell.

Traficant first tasted fame in the late 1950s as a hotshot quarterback at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown. His talent brought him a football scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he lettered three years in football and received a degree in physical education.

Traficant returned to Youngstown after graduating and became a counselor in a drug-rehabilitation program. He went to graduate school and planned to become a school administrator, but altered his plans by jumping into the 1980 race for sheriff of Mahoning County.

He won the election, then made hay with voters by refusing to foreclose on the homes of laid-off steel workers.

His charisma, coupled with a blunt speaking style, turned him into a curiosity for political junkies around the country. Professors at Youngstown State, Slippery Rock and Edinboro universities undertook studies of Traficant's style, often describing him as more sizzle than substance.

If expelled, Traficant would become only the fifth congressman in American history to lose a seat in that manner.

The last congressman to be expelled was Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers, D-Pa., who was convicted of taking bribes in 1980. The other three were ousted during the Civil War era; all border-state representatives, they were charged with siding with the South in the war.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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