"I wanna fight these people like a junk yard dog. Tonight I have dark pants on. Am I scared to death? No. I'll go to jail before I admit to something I didn't do."
James A. Traficant (1)
On July 24, 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives decided, by a vote of 420 to 1, to follow the advice of the House Ethics Committee and expel representative James A. Traficant, Jr. (D-Ohio) from their Congress; his expulsion was the second ever from the House of Representatives since the Civil War. (During the Civil War in 1861, three were kicked out for "disloyalty to the Union", and in 1980 Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers of Pennsylvania was expelled "for receiving a payment in return for promising to use official influence on immigration bills in the so-called ABSCAM 'sting operation' run by the FBI" (2, p.8).) The sole vote against Traficant's expulsion in 2002 was cast by Representative Gary A. Condit (D-California).
On July 29, 2002, U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells sentenced Traficant to eight years of prison and fined him $150,000 (in addition to $96,000 a jury had ordered him to return). This sentencing followed an April 11, 2002 verdict of guilty on charges of bribery, tax evasion, and racketeering, charges which adequately describe his corruption but ignore some of the other details. For example, prosecutors (successfully) claimed that he had his employees "do personal chores for him and kick back a portion of their paychecks" (3).
And this would be an open-and-shut case of official corruption being exposed and quashed, if it weren't for Traficant's, well, eccentric personality. They don't make them this weird. Look: in his home district (Ohio District 17, mostly Youngstown, which according to tradition has a strong mob presence): in 2002, while incarcerated, he got 27,487 out of 181,464 polled. That's fifteen percent of the voting public. The man is, if nothing else, charismatic. But whence does this charisma stem?
Traficant was born in Youngstown on May 8, 1941. At his local high school, Cardinal Mooney, he played football (he was a quarterback of some renown), and he got a football scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. He graduated with an M.S. and went back home, where from 1971 to 1981, he served as executive director of the Mahoning County Drug Program. In 1981, he was elected sheriff of Mahoning County after a successful campaign which focused on a strong anti-drug message. And here began his connections with the local Mafia; he became entangled with two mob leaders, and one of them "disappeared" a few months later along with a man who had made tape recordings of conversations between him and Traficant. When the FBI searched the disappeared men's houses, they turned up the tapes and decided that they were conclusive proof that Traficant took bribes from the mob. Traficant refused an offer of immunity (it would have cost him his position as sheriff) and signed a statement saying that one mobster had helped him raise money and another had offered him $55,000, which he rejected. The trial began in 1983; in court he decided to represent himself, and he carefully dodged the issue of bribery by claiming that he "fucked the mob" (10)--he was running a sting operation of his own all the time, you see. The jury (mainly composed of his peers from Mahoning County) bought it hook, line, and sinker. After four short days of deliberation they found him not guilty, to the dismay of the audience: "As Traficant jumped from his seat, there was a prolonged groan in the courtroom" (9).
Realizing a sudden burst of popularity at home (where, just before the trial, he had won admiration as a "man of the people" by refusing to sign foreclosure notices), he decided to run for Congress. In 1984, with $15,000 of campaign money and without the endorsement of his own Democratic party, he was elected to the House of Representatives and stayed there until unlucky 2002. In 1987 he had a brief spat with the U.S. federal government over the 1983 bribery issue; this time, they didn't challenge that he was running a sting operation but instead noted that he hadn't paid taxes on the money the Mafia 'helped him raise', nor had his 1981 tax return mentioned $5,500 his drug programs collected. According to the Business Journal Online, "U.S. Judge B. John Williams ruled that Traficant was liable for paying taxes on $108,000 in mob money he accepted, and of not declaring the $5,500 in other income on his 1981 taxes. According to Traficant's estimates at the time, he was liable for nearly $200,000 when interest and penalties were considered." (14). This squabble did little to change his home district's perception of him as a crusader against the evil government, and helped to reinforce his hatred of federal agencies (particularly the IRS).
Traficant's always-mussed tuft of hair, no-nonsense delivery and affinity for polyester or plaid clothing have made one of the most recognizable figures on Capitol Hill.
Traficant is known for his often flamboyant speeches and for voting with the Republcians. [sic] When he went so far as to vote against his own party leader in the speaker's election, he was basically banished by fellow Democrats and stripped of all his committee assignments. (13)
CBS News, May 4, 2001
Always a unique voice in American politics, Traficant's influence is questionable, but his entertainment value is almost boundless; he was fond of the phrase "beam me up" (an apparent Star Trek reference) in his "one minute speeches", speeches of one minute of commendable rhetorical styling, but with little substance or topicality. These speeches might seem a welcome break from the filibustering and political maneuvering of our times; but keep in mind that at Student Congress National tournaments (an adequate simulacrum) anyone who talks for much less than the allotted three minutes is perceived as not having much to say. Archives of Traficant's 1997-2001 speeches, and a priceless .wav of his saying "beam me up" can be found at http://www.traficant.com/speech.htm. Here are two classic examples:
BIN LADEN CANNOT HIDE MUCH LONGER
December 13, 2001
Mr. Speaker, Osama bin Laden is holed up in Tora Bora. Reports say that bin Laden is near the precipice of his great demise. The cornerstone of his condominium is crumbling, and they predict he will fall.
Think about it. Bin Laden was always one who was flexing his muscles, strutting his stuff, scaring people to death.
Beam me up. I now officially deem bin Laden as 'bin hiden.' This gutless coward from Tora Bora has no balsam, period.
I yield back with a famous quote of Mohammed Ali [sic]. Bin Laden can run, but bin Laden cannot hide much longer.
JANET RENO SHOULD LEAD OR GET OUT OF THE WAY
September 9, 1998
Mr. Speaker, this Monica matter is serious, but it pales in comparison to the reports that the White House was bribed with Chinese money. Unbelievable.
I don't know if it's true, but I know one thing. Janet Reno has turned her back on both the American people and the Constitutuion [sic].
Let's tell it like it is. Janet Reno should either lead or get out of the way. I say to my colleagues, Monica is a fly on her face. This Chinese money is a dragon eating her assets.
I say, Janet Reno has two decisions to make. One is to appoint an independent counsel to scrutinize and investigate this madness, or number two, Janet Reno should resign. I urge my colleagues to think about it.
I yield back the balance of any national security we may have left.
Notably, Traficant had a pathological aversion to the IRS (calling it the "Internal Rectal Service") and the government as a whole ("I hate the government" (11).) Also, he tended to push for harder drug laws; he postured to make himself pleasing to the people. His acerbic style won him little sympathy in the end. Curiously, in 2000, he went on national television and announced "I will probably be under indictment" (10); he presciently alleged that the FBI was out to get him. Now, he didn't fabricate these allegations (although he has that history)--there was real reason for him to be frightened. His ex-advisor and some Mahoning Valley construction worker chums had been accused of corruption (selling contracts for kickbacks). Traficant himself was, by this time, under FBI scrutiny (of course, he claimed that this had been the case for the previous twenty years as well). By May 4, 2001 he was indicted for his role in the bribery and assorted crimes against the people. Announcing the indictment, CBS News also matter-of-factly notes that "Since the first indictments in December 1997, more than 70 people have been convicted, including a judge, a prosecutor, a sheriff and a Traficant aide, Charles O'Nesti, who has since died." (13). Nonetheless, Traficant decided that he was special, a victim of the system which he tried oh-so-hard to mend (critics say that he needlessly brought up dead pork-barrel issues; avid grain-of-salt fans appreciate the levity).
Perceiving perhaps more public admiration than he in fact enjoyed (nationally, that is; local radio stations had been singing his praises and decrying the FBI as evil ever since his 2000 announcement) Traficant did manage to drag out proceedings both in court and in House Ethics Committee hearings (for example, remember Mike Myers and ABSCAM? Traficant did, and spent a significant amount of time interviewing irrelevant people about it). He filled the courtroom with non sequiturs--for example, he brought forth the novel argument that all of Congress was corrupt; however, he failed to distract the court from the evidence against him. In court, Traficant further drew attention to himself with his nontraditional dress; in particular, he and the media often commented on his uniquely-combed hairpiece (revealed to be a wig when he was finally incarcerated). During his four-day House Ethics Committee hearing, he asked his "friendly witness" and former employer Sandra Ferrante "Were you and I sex partners?" When she replied "No"; he lightning-quick responded: "Why not?" (12). Protesting his expulsion, he argued that his conviction might be overturned. At the sentencing hearing, he claimed that criminal sentencing constituted double jeopardy since he had already been punished with expulsion from the House (the judge responded that expulsion was not a criminal sentence).
But his dilatory tactics faltered in the national spotlight. His antics met nationwide ridicule, as at last the inner workings of Congress were exposed to the world (nobody seemed to ask why Congress hadn't laughed him out of office previously). The inevitable outcome is spelled out above. Traficant's reign is over, but the Youngstown mob's is not. One is almost led to pity the man; had he lived in another place and another time, he could have become an excellent leader, but he fell in early with the mob and could never thereafter escape that illicit life of crime.
"People still swear I'm crazy. No one has ever fucked with me all these years in Youngstown. No one ever came up to me in a bar and tried to pick a fight. No one ever took a punch at me. No one ever pulled a gun on me. It's good to be crazy..." (9)
Good luck in prison, Mr. Traficant.
By the way, Traficant still has a contingent of loyal followers (remember that 15%?). It is quite difficult to distinguish between genuine and false supporters on the Internet, but rest assured that they exist in his home town. For a sample of his friends online, look at www.traficant.com. Despite what this roused rabble might tell you, don't feel too bad about his situation; he's sentenced to eight years in prison, but he'll still be raking in plenty of dough: until he is convicted of treason or some similar high crime (bribery not being among these), he is still eligible to collect $37,000 a year in pension. For his sake, though, I hope he reports it.
Assorted Quotes, by Popular Demand
From the Washington Post, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A20607-2002Jul17>:
"Am I different? Yeah. Deep down, you know you want to wear wider bottoms; you're just not secure enough. . . . Do I do my hair with a Weed Whacker? I admit."
"I want you to disregard all the opposing counsel has said. I think they're delusionary. I think they've had something funny for lunch in their meal, I think they should be handcuffed, chained to a fence and flogged, and all of their hearsay evidence should be thrown the hell out. And if they lie again, I'm going to go over there and kick them in the crotch. Thank you very much."
"I wanted to have Playboy bunnies come on at night to meet with me. I wanted to be promiscuous with them." (the Post writes: "--on why he kept a boat docked in the Potomac. Traficant was convicted of selling the boat to a businessman at an inflated price in return for favors.")
From Fox News, <http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,58175,00.html>:
"I would not resign if my name was resign."
From YourCongress.Com, which has a section devoted to the House's most colorful representative, <http://www.yourcongress.com/section.asp?section=Daily_Traficant>:
"I think Congress should take the IRS, handcuff them to a chain-link fence, and flog them with their own damn Tax Code. That is what the Congress should do."
"According to news reports, the Department of Energy cannot find substantial amounts of plutonium and uranium. The plutonium and uranium were, according to a Department spokesman, either loaned out to research groups or, quite simply, it was 'just the fault of sloppy bookkeeping.' Unbelievable. It appears that these two powerful components of nuclear destruction are being regulated as well as condoms at a Vegas brothel. Beam me up here. I yield back the need to find these lost items, before bin Laden delivers them to our front lawn."
Starved for more? Check the YourCongress.com site first, then the references below, then go to http://thomas.loc.gov/ and do full-text searches on legislation proposed or sponsored by Traficant. It's enlightening--being from Ohio, he was big on steel; also, interestingly (well, interesting to me), he proposed a minimum-wage increase through an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act (it was shunted to committee and disappeared, of course).
Final verdict? Maybe every Congress needs a "designated wacko" (besides the Vice President).
If you would like to send helpful words of support:
James A. Traficant, Jr.
Allenwood Low FCI
P.O. Box 1000
White Deer, PA 17887
The numbers I used above probably mean more to you if you read this part.
1 "Vintage Traficant Expelled From Congress". <http://www.newsnet5.com/news/1574303/detail.html> 25 July 2002.
2 "Expulsion, Censure, Reprimand, and Fine: Legislative Discipline in the House of Representatives". <http://www.house.gov/rules/rl31382.pdf> 16 April 2002. -- a review of the expulsion process
3 "Traficant sentenced to eight years in jail" <http://www.cmonitor.com/stories/front2002/0731traficant_2002.shtml>
4 "ABC News.com: Elections 2002 coverage" <http://abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/election2002/oh.html> 2002. -- Ohio election results
5 "Did Congressman James Traficant's Own Political Party Still Support Him After the Verdict?" <http://18.104.22.168/search?q=cache:www.cis.ysu.edu/~chang/student_proj/S3717_s02_2290/s3717s02Gensburg.pdf> 2002. -- an interesting read (though I have reservations about the study itself) but I just used it for biographical information
6 <www.traficant.com> Accessed 29 December 2002 -- GO HERE. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. I borrowed some biographical information from here under the assumption that they wouldn't lie about the bland stuff.
7 "TRAFICANT, James A., Jr., 1941-". <http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=T000350> -- a succinct Congressional biography
8 "The Trials of Traficant". <http://www.americanmafia.com/Feature_Articles_227.html> -- an _excellent_ summary of the Mafia story underlying Traficant's life. Worth a read (though it sadly cites no sources).
9 "James Traficant - The Mafia and the Congressman". <http://www.moldea.com/Traficant.html> Written April 19, 1985, and an excellent source on the subject of his first criminal charges. Moreover, the quotes come from an actual 1985 interview! (confirmed via email to author) Priceless.
10 "Crimetown USA by David Grann" <http://www.tnr.com/071000/3grann071000.html> 2000. -- this page describes Traficant's 1983 trial
11 "House Panel Votes to Expel Traficant - July 18, 2002" <http://www.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/07/18/traficant.ethics/index.html> -- good quotes!
13 "Congressman Traficant Indicted" <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2001/05/04/politics/main289500.shtml> 4 May 2001.
14 <http://www.business-journal.com/TraficantTrial/FirstTrial4-11.html> 11 April 2002. Good description of Traficant's first two trials and a brief summary of the most recent one.
15 "Traficant to Receive Pension". <http://statenews.org/news/2002/july/opr-072902-04.htm> 29 July 2002.