Jim Traficant appears before the House Ethics Committee after his criminal conviction in 2002
The cult of personality that has grown around Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the Republican nomination for President in this year's election, has left many people wondering why he holds any appeal at all. Trump's supporters hold him up as someone who can boost the American economy, and whose frankness will prove a welcome challenge to political correctness and "politics as usual" in the nation's capital. Opponents see a narcissistic blowhard who offers an authoritarian and impractical solution to illegal immigration while failing to denounce support from white supremacists.
It all must seem like deja vu to the voters of Youngstown, Ohio. For nearly 20 years, their representative in Congress was a brash man with an awful toupee and a consistent record of irritating his colleagues.
But while James A. Traficant Jr. was largely despised in the House of Representatives, he enjoyed plenty of support at home. Over the years, he built up a reputation as a person who sought to fight government waste and bring economic development to a chronically depressed district in the Rust Belt. Even after his career ended ignominiously, with a conviction on corruption charges and expulsion from Congress, he enjoyed plenty of support at home.
Jim Traficant was born in Youngstown on May 8, 1941. He graduated from Cardinal Mooney High School in 1959 and went on to attend the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in 1963. While at the school, Traficant became quarterback of the football team and played alongside Mike Ditka, who would go on to become a renowned coach for the Chicago Bears. Traficant was a late round pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but didn't make the team. He also tried unsuccessfully to play with the Oakland Raiders.
Even at this stage in his life, Traficant earned a reputation for speaking his mind. While still attending the University of Pittsburgh, he made headlines for insulting the school in an interview. He had made two mistakes so far in his life, he claimed: "Coming to Pitt was the first. Staying at Pitt was the second." After he graduated, he spent some time working for insurance companies before becoming the consumer finance coordinator for the Youngstown Area Community Action Council in February 1967.
By this time, Youngstown had fallen on hard times. The city had been a center of steel production for decades, and its population had swelled to 130,000 in 1930. Mills provided work for thousands of people, and demand for steel boomed during World War II. But increased globalization and a decline in the steel industry caused Youngstown's economy to stagnate. Organized crime seized the opportunity to take control of city and county government posts, with mobsters from Cleveland and Pittsburgh battling for influence. Higher poverty and the prevalence of illegal drugs added to the persistent problems in the region.
Traficant turned his attention to the drug problem in 1972, becoming the coordinator for Mahoning County Drug Programs. He later became executive director of the organization. He returned to the University of Pittsburgh and earned a master's degree in administration in 1973. He got a second master's degree, this one in counseling, from Youngstown State University in 1976. In November 1977, Traficant became the chairman of the Mahoning County Welfare Advisory Board.
Traficant tried his hand at politics in 1980, when he ran for the Democratic nomination for sheriff of Mahoning County. He managed to defeat incumbent George D. Tablack in the primary, and won the general election despite the party's decision not to endorse him. Among the changes Traficant made while in office was the decision to institute 10-hour work shifts for deputies and end the use of county cars and credit cards.
In October 1981, a Mahoning County reserve deputy was murdered. While transporting a dangerous prisoner, John Litch Jr.'s vehicle was rear-ended by a vehicle driven by the prisoner's half-brother. When Litch got out to investigate, the driver shot and killed him. Both the prisoner and his half-brother managed to escape, but were later apprehended. Litch was the first Youngstown area law enforcement officer to be killed in the line of duty since 1952, although four other police officers had been shot during the year. Traficant said he accepted responsibility for Litch's death, but came under investigation after it was reported that the sheriff's office had been tipped off about the possibility of an ambush and not taken any action. A grand jury decided not to charge him with any malfeasance.
One incident which helped give Traficant a folk hero reputation occurred in 1983. By law, the sheriff was required to sign foreclosure deeds after a property was sold at auction. When a court presented Traficant with 10 foreclosure notices for the residences of unemployed mill workers, he refused to sign them until he knew "the disposition of those people displaced from their homes." In February, he was found in contempt of court and ordered to spend 100 days in jail.
Admirers would thereafter remember Traficant as a sheriff who was unwilling to carry out foreclosures on the downtrodden. However, he was imprisoned for only three days before agreeing to serve the notices, after which he was released. Still, Traficant continued to show sympathy for those who were about to lose their homes. In December 1987, while serving in Congress, he successfully created a $3.5 million program to provide counseling for people who were facing foreclosure.
By the time Traficant did his brief stint behind bars, he was facing a much longer prison sentence. Although the Pittsburgh and Cleveland crime families were locked in a violent power struggle for control of Youngstown, they collaborated when it came to keeping local political figures in their pocket. Federal investigators had built a case that Traficant had received $163,000 in campaign contributions from both mob factions in exchange for turning a blind eye to their criminal activities.
As Traficant told it, Cleveland mob boss Charles Carrabia contributed $103,000 toward his primary campaign. Carrabia also took him to meet with James Prato, a leader in the Pittsburgh crime syndicate, a few days before the primary. Prato handed Traficant an envelope stuffed with $55,000 to add to the campaign. However, Traficant soon gave the money to Carrabia with instructions to return it to Prato. He didn't think he was going to win the primary anyway, and he wasn't keen on getting mixed up with the area's criminal syndicates.
After his unexpected victory in the primary, Traficant claimed, he planned on using Carrabia's support to help end Prato's criminal activities in Youngstown. He met with Carrabia on several occasions after the primary, promising to have the sheriff's office hassle the Pittsburgh faction. Unbeknownst to him, Carrabia was having several of the meetings recorded. And when other meetings with Prato failed to materialize, Traficant suspected that Carrabia was the weaker of the two mobsters.
Soon after Traficant won the general election, Carrabia and his brother scheduled a meeting with the sheriff to play one of the tapes. Carrabia threatened to turn over the incriminating evidence to the FBI if the new sheriff did not cooperate with him. Traficant claims that he was defiant, telling Carrabia's brother to "shove that tape right up his fucking ass." Though the recording would have implicated Carrabia, it also had the potential to bring down both Traficant and Prato.
But in December 1980, Carrabia disappeared and was never heard from again. Traficant took office in January 1981, and within three months the mobster who had recorded the meeting (Joe DeRose) was also missing. Both men were presumed dead.
The FBI still got wind of the recordings, finding some of the audio tapes during a search of DeRose's home. Agents confronted Traficant on June 15, 1981, playing one of the recordings for him. He confirmed that the voice of the person meeting with Carrabia, and discussing the exchange of money, was his own. He also drew up a statement about how he had accepted campaign funds from Carrabia and taken (and returned) additional money from Prato.
Both the tapes and the document would prove to be controversial. The FBI referred to it as a confession, saying it confirmed that Traficant had colluded with the mob and taken bribes to favor one faction in the war for Youngstown. They offered to grant Traficant immunity if he assisted in an investigation to crack down on organized crime in the region, but said he would have to resign as sheriff to accept the deal. Traficant met several times with the FBI, trying unsuccessfully to negotiate an alternate arrangement where he could offer assistance in the investigation while staying in his elected role; the FBI refused. In addition to this fundamental disagreement, Traficant was worried what would happen to him if he became a key witness against the mob; he had started carrying a .38-caliber handgun on him at all times after Carrabia and DeRose vanished.
In August 1982, a grand jury indicted Traficant for tax evasion as well as bribery conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which had been passed in 1970 to target organized criminal enterprises. Several organizations and officials had been calling for him to step down as sheriff prior to the indictment, including the judges of the Court of Common Pleas. Traficant refused, saying at one point, "To all those politicians who want me to resign: go fuck yourselves."
Though an attorney represented Traficant for the early stages of the case, the relationship eventually grew strained. Ignoring the legal advice to keep quiet before the trial, Traficant frequently ranted to the press about the FBI and IRS. He accused several public officials of having ties to organized crime, alleging that mobsters were working with the prosecutors to take him down. He also accused the FBI of forging his confession and doctoring the recordings. The head of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, who happened to be Prato's lawyer, petitioned unsuccessfully to have Traficant sent to an insane asylum.
When the case went to trial in May 1983, Traficant would act as his own lawyer. The sheriff had no experience in the courtroom, and later admitted that he first thought RICO referred to a crime family. If convicted, he faced up to 23 years in prison. Traficant made several unsuccessful attempts to have the trial moved from Cleveland to Mahoning County, saying the case was unique to that area. The judge refused to grant Traficant's request to have the jury made up entirely of Youngstown residents, although three people from the city were ultimately selected as jurors.
During the seven-week trial, the prosecution relied on the recordings, Traficant's signed statement, and testimony from several witnesses who said they were aware of the sheriff's links to the mob. The testimony included a Mahoning County deputy who said Traficant asked him at least five times to give him a superficial gunshot wound to make it seem like the sheriff had been targeted in a mob hit. Traficant admitted to the jury that he had taken money from both the Cleveland and Pittsburgh mob families. However, he said it was part of a sting operation to infiltrate the organizations and entrap the mobsters. He claimed that the statement to the FBI had been coerced, and that he didn't tell agents about his activities because he did not trust them.
He also brought up his background in helping crack down on drug abuse in Mahoning County, saying he wouldn't have gone from this profession to helping mobsters involved in the narcotics trade. Indeed, Traficant declared during his first campaign for the House of Representatives that he would seek to impose the death penalty for certain drug offenses. He kept his promise, proposing such a measure in March 1985.
On June 15, 1983, the jury acquitted Traficant of all charges. Jurors said they had discounted both the confession and the audio recordings since they couldn't be sure of their authenticity. It was an astonishing result that only added to Traficant's reputation. Stephen Jigger, head of the prosecution team, said he thought the sheriff's guilt had been proven without a doubt, but that Traficant had managed to direct the jury's attention to irrelevant points. He described Traficant as "an intelligent, articulate, and aggressive defendant" as well as a "skilled politician."
Indeed, the acquittal would prove to be a springboard that brought Traficant to national office. In 1984, he defeated six other candidates for the Democratic nomination for his House of Representatives district. He went on to defeat the incumbent Republican congressman, Lyle Williams, by almost 20,000 votes. Once again, he managed the victory even though his party declined to endorse him.
The corruption trial also resulted in another curious outcome. In August 1984, the IRS informed Traficant that he owed taxes on the $163,000 he had admitted to taking from the crime families. When he hadn't paid by the middle of 1985, they pressed the issue. The trial was delayed until after the 1986 election, when Traficant was re-elected to the House.
The victory at the criminal trial had made Traficant confident that he would be able to represent himself once again. The four-day trial took place in the U.S. Tax Court in Cleveland in November 1986. Traficant claimed that he had only accepted the money so it could not be used against him in the 1980 sheriff's race, and had returned it after the election. The signed statement and audio tapes were once again introduced as evidence.
Traficant did not have as much luck in these proceedings, and he held out slim hope for victory. "This is America. Even though this is the IRS, you never know," he said. "This stumbling jackass may pull it off."
He didn't; in September 1987, the court found in favor of the federal government. Traficant was ordered to pay back taxes on $108,000 in mob contributions that he had failed to report, plus interest and penalties. He challenged the decision soon after, but an appeals court upheld the verdict in August 1989. Four months later, he failed to meet a deadline to bring the matter before the Supreme Court.
Traficant would target the IRS at several points during his career. Anticipating his defeat in the tax case, he introduced legislation in April 1987 to protect the taxpayer from an "overzealous IRS." He later proposed legislation to limit the ability of the IRS to seize property from people charged with tax evasion, and his suggestions were folded into a tax reform bill approved by President Bill Clinton in 1998. Traficant was also pleased with the "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" passed by Congress in April 1996.
The Washington Post would describe Traficant as "one of the most deliberately outrageous members of Congress in history." He was known for a terribly unfashionable wardrobe, including polyester or denim suits, skinny ties, and cowboy boots. His ridiculous appearance was further enhanced by an enormous mound of perpetually mussed-up hair. "He looked less smart then he was," recalled Charles Straub, Traficant's former press secretary. "It put people off guard. It was part of his mystique as just an average citizen. But he was a very shrewd politician."
Traficant also became famous for a series of rambling, sometimes profane speeches on the floor of Congress. Representatives have the ability to speak on any subject, provided the remarks do not go longer than one minute. Traficant capitalized on this privilege to take numerous potshots at what he considered to be overreach, inefficiency, or foolishness on the part of the federal government.
The rants were often related to an obscure topic. In 2001, in between one-minute speeches by congressmen who advocated a United Nations war crimes tribunal for Saddam Hussein and a balanced energy plan for California, Traficant used his time to comment on a St. Louis alderwoman who had urinated in a trash can so she wouldn't have to yield the floor during a filibuster. He typically ended the speeches by shaking his head in dismay and making a Star Trek reference by declaring, "Beam me up, Mr. Speaker."
Criticizing foreign aid to the Soviet Union on one occasion, Traficant said, "Russia gets $15 billion in foreign aid from Uncle Sam. In exchange, Uncle Sam gets nuclear missiles pointed at our cities, two tape decks, and three cases of vodka." At another point, he said, "The Lord's Prayer is 66 words, the Gettysburg Address is 286 words, the Declaration of Independence is 1,322 words. U.S. regulation on the sale of cabbage—that is right, cabbage—is 27,000 words. Now if that is not enough to give Hulk Hogan's dictionary a hernia, check this out. Regulatory red tape in America costs taxpayers $400 billion every year, over $4,000 each year, every year, year in, year out, for every family. Beam me up."
Traficant's fellow congressmen were particularly irked in October 1990, when he made a remark about "political prostitutes" in Congress. He subsequently apologized "to all the hookers of American for associating them with the United States Congress."
These insults and scattershot criticisms did little to endear Traficant to other members of Congress, but they earned him a good deal of popularity in his home district. He would be re-elected to another eight terms after 1984, with his constituents praising what they saw as brutal honesty and an effort to shake up the nation's capital.
"We don't have much hope right now, and things are getting more dismal by the day. But one of the few things we still have faith in is that guy over there, Jim Traficant," said an unemployed ironworker who visited Traficant in Washington in 1985. "We know he'll fight for us. He is our blessing." Tim Ryan, who worked as an aide to Traficant, recalled the congressman by saying, "He was always rooting for the underdog, and was willing to spend his time and energy trying to help people that nobody else would listen to. There wasn't a guy who had more charisma, or more of an ability to make someone feel special and part of the fun that was going on." Supporters gave him the affectionate nickname Jimbo.
Although his outlandish appearance and statements dominated Traficant's personality, he also developed a substantial record of bringing federal assistance to his district. He succeeded in bringing a Saturn automotive plant to the Mahoning Valley and traveled to Japan to try to convince Mitsubishi to set up a similar facility in the region. He revived a proposal to build a canal between Lake Erie and the Ohio River. He also managed to get federal funding for the construction of two federal courthouses, a VA clinic, and a convocation center in Youngstown during his time in office. In May 1998, he secured $46 million for local road projects.
Although he worked to get federal spending directed to his home district, Traficant called for reduction in expenditures in other areas. He was particularly opposed to foreign aid, and also called for less government regulation on businesses. He called for "Buy American" provisions in spending bills and expressed opposition to free trade agreements. Traficant also supported tough measures against illegal immigration, calling for the deportation of anyone who entered the country unlawfully; he also wanted American soldiers stationed on the border with Mexico to stop anyone trying to sneak into the United States.
Traficant occasionally flirted with the idea of running for a different office. He formed a committee to explore a presidential bid in April 1987, and managed to get enough votes to send a single delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He ended this effort a year later, pledging the delegate to support Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. After winning a fourth term to the House of Representatives in 1994, he said he was considering whether to run in Ohio's gubernatorial or Senate race in 1998.
Traficant earned plenty of criticism in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he came to the defense of two men accused of war crimes during World War II. He first offered a vocal defense of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-born retired Ohio autoworker. Demjanjuk was accused of being a notoriously cruel guard, nicknamed "Ivan the Terrible," at the Treblinka death camp. Extradited to Israel in 1986, he was convicted two years later and sentenced to death. The Israeli Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1993 after determining that there was insufficient evidence to convict Demjanjuk, and Traficant claimed his appeal had led to the reexamination of the case. He flew to Israel to accompany Demjanjuk back to the United States. Demjanjuk's case would persist for almost another 20 years; he was later deported to Germany, convicted of war crimes, and died in 2012 while the case was under appeal.
Traficant with John Demjanjuk on a flight back to the United States in 1993
Arthur Rudolph also earned Traficant's sympathy. Rudolph had also been accused of abusing prisoners while working as a Nazi rocket scientist, although he was later admitted into the United States and worked with NASA on the Apollo program. In 1984, he surrendered his citizenship and left the country as part of an agreement with the U.S. government, ultimately ending up in West Germany. In May 1990, Traficant angered the Jewish community when he said that Rudolph should be allowed to return to the United States and that a "powerful Jewish lobby" was trying to intimidate government officials.
Traficant's contentious relationship with the Democrats continued in Congress. A January 1998 analysis of his voting record found that he had gone against his own party 77 percent of the time. He voted against Clinton's budget in May 1993, but did not support impeachment of the President in 1998. Traficant also held pro-life views and was in favor of organized prayer in public schools. After the massacre at Columbine High School in 1998, he called for an end to the constitutional ban on school prayer, saying, "People who pray together are not likely to kill one another."
The Democrats tolerated Traficant's maverick ways until early 2001. The elections of 2000 had demonstrated just how divided the nation was in terms of political opinions. In addition to the controversial presidential election, where Republican candidate George W. Bush was sent to the White House after a Supreme Court decision to end a ballot recount in Florida, both chambers of Congress were split almost evenly between the major political parties. The Republicans continued to hold a majority, although it had dwindled to seven seats.
On January 3, 2001, the members of the House of Representatives cast their votes for Speaker of the House. The Republicans put forth Dennis Hastert of Illinois while the Democrats backed Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Traficant broke from his party and supported Hastert, earning him a standing ovation from the Republican representatives. He was the only Democrat to support Hastert, who was chosen as Speaker with 221 votes.
Angered by Traficant's apostasy, the Democratic leadership kicked him out of the party caucus, stripped him of his seniority, and removed all of his committee assignments. The punishment made him the first rank-and-file congressman to serve without a committee assignment in almost a century. There was some speculation that Traficant would defect to the other side of the aisle, but he never did so. House Majority Leader Dick Armey later said that the GOP never offered Traficant a place in their caucus, and Traficant never requested one. "I have told Jim myself, and told him some time ago, it would not be in his best interest to join the Republican Party," Armey said in May 2001. "He doesn't get his mile of slack if he's a Republican, and Jim needs a mile of slack."
The Republicans may also have been reluctant to extend an invitation to a congressman who seemed to be on the verge of a criminal indictment. Several of Traficant's associates had been convicted in a far-ranging investigation in eastern Ohio, and observers suggested that it would only be a matter of time before they charged him.
Organized crime had once again provided the impetus for the investigation. Paul Gains, a newly elected prosecutor in Mahoning County who had ousted an incumbent with mob ties, was shot three times at his home and left for dead on Christmas Eve of 1996. Investigators began unraveling a web of corrupt activities, with the first indictments coming down in December 1997. More than 70 people would ultimately be convicted, including the former Mahoning County prosecutor, a sheriff, and several local businessmen. The FBI subpoenaed Traficant's payroll records and other information in December 1999, and began questioning people about possible unpaid perks offered to the congressman two months later.
As a result of the looming charges, Traficant had faced a tougher than expected challenge in the 2000 election. Robert Hagan, a state senator and one of the challengers in the Democratic primary, mounted an especially spirited offense. He accused Traficant of alienating people with his off-color behavior, driving businesses out of Youngstown, and failing to adequately represent his district. Hagan also happened to be the brother-in-law of Kate Mulgrew, an actress on Star Trek: Voyager. He capitalized on this coincidence by recruiting her for his TV ads to play on Traficant's catchphrase. Democratic voters in Youngstown were urged by Captain Janeway herself to "beam out" Traficant.
Traficant had triumphed in the March primary, but only came away with 51 percent of the vote. He had won the general election by a similarly tight margin, with about 50 percent of the voters favoring him in a three-way race.
These victories were all the more remarkable in that they occurred as several of Traficant's associates were being convicted. Two of his former aides, George M. Alexander and Charles O'Nesti, pleaded guilty shortly before the primary to racketeering conspiracy related to former Youngstown mob boss Lenine Strollo. Traficant, realizing that a case was likely forming against him, accused the federal government of targeting him because he had a pending bill supporting an investigation of the FBI's botched raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. In August 2000, he ignored a court order to turn over pertinent information.
In October, contractor A. David Sugar was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering after admitting to lying to a federal grand jury. Sugar had told his secretary to lie about fake invoices related to work done at Traficant's Ohio farm. Another person who had done work at this site, Clarence T. Broad, pleaded guilty in November to trying to influence a federal witness.
Traficant was indicted on May 4, 2001, on 10 counts. The charges, unrelated to the assassination attempt on Gains, included bribery, fraud, racketeering, and tax evasion. Prosecutors charged that the congressman had demanded monthly kickbacks of as much as $2,500 from his employees in order for them to keep their jobs. Staffers had also been ordered to do personal work for Traficant, including baling hay at his farm and doing upkeep on a Potomac River houseboat where the congressman had formerly lived while in Washington, D.C. In addition, he was accused of promising favors for businessmen who gave him free items and services, including the use of a Corvette and Avanti luxury car and the construction of a pole barn on his farm. In one instance, Traficant had helped businessman John J. Cafaro win approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for a laser guidance technology developed by Cafaro's company; Cafaro had rewarded him with a gift of thousands of dollars to pay off and repair Traficant's houseboat.
Traficant's mugshot, dated May 11, 2001, following his indictment
The case went to trial in February 2002 in Cleveland. Once again, Traficant opted to represent himself instead of hiring professional counsel, and the courtroom was not immune from the bizarre behavior he often exhibited in Congress. After an FBI agent said none of Traficant's associates was asked to wear a hidden microphone because the congressman often hugged them and slapped them on the back, Traficant asked almost every witness, "Did I ever hug you?" He repeated other questions dozens of times, described the prosecution as having "the testicles of an ant," directly accused one witness of lying under oath, and objected to any IRS testimony since they represented "thieves who prey upon the American people." Traficant said he engaged in these antics because he considered the courtroom a "theater," but later chalked it up to inexperience; he was not a lawyer, he pointed out, but rather the "son of a truck driver."
On April 12, after 10 weeks of testimony, Traficant was convicted on all counts. He quickly blamed the trial process, complaining about the jurors from the Cleveland area. He had tried unsuccessfully for a change of venue or to get a jury of only Youngstown residents. "Very few people on this jury really knew Jim Traficant or had an understanding of Jim Traficant. I think that would have made a big difference," he declared. Indeed, Traficant continued to enjoy a great deal of support at home. Youngstown area radio show host Dan Ryan fielded several calls from residents after the conviction, many of whom defended the congressman; one said that plenty of other politicians took bribes, and that Traficant's misbehavior was paltry by comparison.
Five days after the verdict, the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct met to determine a punishment for the convicted congressman. Traficant asked committee chairman Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican, to "go light." But he also put his typical devil-may-care attitude on display. He complained that there was no coffee available at the hearings, threatened to call for the expulsion of all committee members, and said he'd like to kick his prosecutors in the crotch. The committee found Traficant guilty of nine ethics violation and, on July 18, 2002, made the unanimous recommendation that he be expelled.
In Ohio, both political parties welcomed the news. A Democratic spokeswoman said the party had had nothing to do with Traficant for the past two years. Jason Mauk, speaking for the state's Republican Party, declared, "It's embarrassing to think that Jim Traficant is the national face of Ohio politics right now."
Typically, congressmen subject to a criminal conviction or other scandal decide to resign before Congress can take any punitive action. Only four congressmen had been expelled from the House of Representatives prior to the recommended action against Traficant. Three had been thrown out during the Civil War, for fighting on behalf of the Confederacy while representing border states of the Union. The fourth, Democratic Representative Michael Myers of Pennsylvania, was expelled after his conviction in the Abscam scandal in 1980.
Even when faced with prison time and joining this none-too-appealing club, Traficant remained jocular. He suggested that he would go to the proceedings in a denim suit and show off his impression of Michael Jackson's moonwalk on the floor of Congress.
On July 24, the House took up the expulsion measure. Anticipating a harangue from Traficant, Speaker Hastert opened the proceedings by reminding members about the rules against abusive language. The warning did little to temper the rambling statement offered by Traficant. He claimed that the witnesses had a grudge against him, but also accused the government into coercing their testimony, crying, "I'll go to jail. But I'll be damned if I'll be pressured by a government that pressured these witnesses to death." Traficant suggested that the federal judge at his trial had been hostile and that Attorney General Janet Reno, whom he had accused of treason in August 2000, was trying to oust him. He also referenced his infamous hair, saying he cut it with a weed whacker.
Representative Steven C. LaTourette, an Ohio Republican, suggested that the motion on Traficant's expulsion should be delayed until September. He said this action would allow for Traficant's sentencing to take place and for his legal motions on the matter to be heard. The suggestion won a fair amount of support, mostly from Republicans, but was defeated in a 146-285 vote.
When it came to Traficant's arguments, his fellow congressmen had little sympathy. Those who made statements denounced him for bringing dishonor to the House, and suggested that to believe his defense was to put credence in an absurd conspiracy that involved the IRS, FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office, and a federal judge all colluding to bring him down.
A two-thirds majority was needed for expulsion, but the final tally was nearly unanimous. A total of 420 representatives voted in favor of Traficant's expulsion, with only one congressman opposed. The lone dissenter was Gary Condit of California, who was embroiled in a scandal of his own. Condit had admitted to an affair with Chandra Levy, a young intern from his district, but only after repeated questioning related to her disappearance in May 2001; Levy's body had been found in May 2002, and her death was ruled a homicide. Condit was a lame duck congressman by the time of Traficant's expulsion, having lost the Democratic primary in March.
Six days after he was thrown out of Congress, Traficant was sentenced to eight years in prison. At the time, it was the longest sentence ever imposed on a congressman, extending nine months longer than the minimum sentence recommended by prosecutors. Judge Lesley Brooks Wells said she added the extra time because Traficant had undermined the respect for his office and shown himself to be dishonest. She also ordered him to pay more than $250,000 in penalties, including a $150,000 fine, the forfeiture of $96,000 of unreported income from staffer kickbacks, and a $1,000 special assessment.
Wells referenced Traficant's congressional record at the sentencing, declaring, "You've done a lot of good in your years in Congress...The good you have done does not excuse you of the crime you were convicted of." Referring to Traficant's frequent promises that he would fight the charges like a "junkyard dog," Wells declared, "The truth, sir, is rarely in you. You were howling that you were going to fight like a junkyard dog in the eye of a hurricane, and you did fight that way, to protect a junkyard full of deceit and corruption and greed."
Since the judge refused to let Traficant remain free on bail while he appealed his case, he immediately began his time behind bars. "I committed no crime. I regret nothing I said," he declared, saying he intended to run for re-election in the 2002 race while incarcerated. It was only when he reported to prison that his famous hairdo was revealed to be a toupee. Traficant had to remove the hairpiece during a routine inmate search, and was informed that he wouldn't be able to wear it while in federal prison.
As promised, Traficant entered the 2002 race as an independent candidate. He managed to get 15 percent of the vote, but lost to Democratic candidate Tim Ryan, a state senator and former aide to Traficant. Despite his conviction, Traficant was able to start collecting an annual pension of about $40,000 after turning 62 in 2003. In June 2008, a federal judge ordered $250 to be deducted from his $1,037.79 a month state pension to go toward his fine. Traficant started his sentence at the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex in Pennsylvania, then served the remainder at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota, after he was transferred due to an undisclosed medical or mental health issue.
An appeals court upheld Traficant's conviction in March 2004. The Supreme Court refused to hear his case in January 2005. Traficant took up painting and began creating scenes of horses and barns. At one point, he allegedly wrote a letter which renewed his claim that the federal government had sought retribution against him. He claimed that his conviction was punishment for his appeal on Demjanjuk's defense and because he "[knew] the facts" about the FBI sieges at Waco and Ruby Ridge, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, and the disappearance of union leader Jimmy Hoffa.
The letter surfaced on the website of David Duke, a white nationalist and former KKK grand wizard. Traficant had won the affection of white nationalists for his defense of Demjanjuk and Rudolph, and Duke appealed to his followers to send monetary donations to Traficant's wife, Tish, or his prison canteen fund. Tish downplayed Duke's appeal, saying her husband had no control over where his letter was circulating. Michael Collins Piper, a conspiracy theorist who first posted the letter and contribution information, also denied that Traficant represented the views of white nationalists. "There's stuff I've written about Traficant that's showing up in places I don't even know," he said. "It's like six degrees of separation with the Internet now." After Traficant's death, Duke would post a "Tribute to Jim Traficant and his Opposition to Jewish Supremacism."
In September 2009, after serving seven years of his sentence, Traficant was freed. He received a warm welcome in his hometown. An appreciation dinner was scheduled, and the theme of the local minor league baseball team's next game was "Traficant Release Night." Traficant remained on probation for the next three years. In January 2010, he got a part-time gig as a talk show host on the AM radio station WTAM.
Traficant and wife Tish at an appreciation dinner held after his release from prison
Traficant continued to maintain his innocence. At one point, referring to himself in the third person, he declared, "Seven people said they bribed him. They never had no crime against Traficant. They taped every phone call he ever made, probably. Since 1983." He was vocal in his disdain for both the Democrats and Republicans and also sounded off against targets such as the IRS, Justice Department, Socialists, and illegal immigrants. These diatribes caught the attention of the Tea Party, the conservative movement that formed after the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, and Traficant was invited to speak at several of their events around Youngstown.
In May 2010, Traficant announced that he would try to recapture his seat in Congress in the year's election. Since his imprisonment, his district had been split in half. Ryan continued to serve in one, while the other seat was filled by Democrat John Boccieri. Traficant opted to challenge Ryan as an independent candidate, with a platform that largely sought to restrict government power. He said he would attempt to repeal the 16th Amendment, which allows Congress to levy an income tax; abolish the IRS, Department of Energy, Department of Education, and Social Security; eliminate corporation and Medicare taxes; deport all illegal immigrants and station troops at the Mexican border; and free all prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes.
Traficant managed to get his name on the ballot for the general election. He again garnered a significant but insufficient portion of the vote, with 16 percent of the electorate favoring him. Ryan won re-election and continues to serve in the House of Representatives to this day. After the loss, Traficant seemed content to stay out of the spotlight.
On September 23, 2014, Traficant was driving a vintage tractor into a pole barn at his daughter's farm in Greenford, Ohio, when it struck an obstacle and overturned on top of him. There were suggestions that he had suffered a heart attack before the accident, but a pathologist later determined that the weight of the tractor had restricted Traficant's ability to breathe. He died on September 27 in a hospital in Poland, Ohio.
Traficant remains a polarizing figure. In February 2006, more than 300 people attended a town hall style debate in Youngstown to discuss whether he had been good or bad for the region. Traficant's supporters lauded his ability to challenge the Washington norms, while his opponents saw him as a corrupt and clownish figure who had impeded progress in his district. "His passing is obviously the passing of a political icon in Mahoning Valley," said Robert Hagan, Traficant's former political opponent. "Good, bad, or indifferent, he had an incredible amount of charisma."
Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Sheriff's Slaying Tip-Off Probed" in the Pittsburgh Press on Oct. 24 1981, "Prisoner Kills Deputy Near Youngstown" in the Daily Kent Stater on Oct. 29 1981, "Sheriff Who Failed to Act in Foreclosures Sentenced" in the Toledo Blade on Feb. 17 1983, "Lashing Out" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jun. 2 1983, "In Fighting Form" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jul. 2 1983, "The Mafia and the Congressman" in the Washington Weekly on Apr. 19 1985, "Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, Facing Federal Charges of Tax Evasion," reported by UPI on Nov. 13 1986, "Congressman Defending Scientist Who is Suspected in War Crimes" in the New York Times on May 15 1990, "Traficant Relishes Bad Boy Role" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Mar. 1 2000, "Rep. James Traficant Indicted on Racketeering" in The Item on May 4 2001, "U.S. Charges Traficant, Colorful Ohio Congressman, With Taking Bribes" in the New York Times on May 5 2001, "Armey: GOP Doesn't Want Traficant" in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal on May 8 2001, "Now Playing: Traficant Probe 2001, The Sequel" in the Youngstown Vindicator on May 23 2001, "Traficant Guilt OK to Some Voters" in the Star-News on Apr. 15 2002, "Panel Says Traficant Violated Ethics Rules" in the Daily News on Jul. 18 2002, "House Panel Votes to Expel Maverick Congressman" in the Spokesman-Review on Jul. 19 2002, "House Votes, With Lone Dissent From Condit, to Expel Traficant From Ranks" in the New York Times on Jul. 25 2002, "Traficant Begins Eight-Year Sentence; Expects Re-Election to House From Jail" in the Boca Raton News on Jul. 30 2002, "Bad Hair Day For Traficant" in the Associated Press on Oct. 29 2002, "'Welcome Home, Jimbo' Countdown" in the Youngstown Vindicator on Aug. 9 2009, "White Nationalists, Conspiracy Theorists Join Traficant Cause" on TribToday.com on Aug. 30 2009, "The Life and Trials of James A. Traficant Jr." in The Vindicator on Sep. 2 2009, "Traficant Lands a Part-Time Job on Radio" in the Youngstown Vindicator on Jan. 5 2010, "Tea Party Hero Jim Traficant: Could Ex-Con Return to Congress?" in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on May 2 2010, "America's Fastest Shrinking City: The Story of Youngstown, Ohio," published by The Hampton Institute on Jun. 18 2013, "Ex. Rep. Jim Traficant is Seriously Injured in Tractor Accident" in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Sep. 24 2014, "James A. Traficant Jr., Colorful Ohio Congressman Expelled by House, Dies at 73" in the Washington Post on Sep. 27 2014, "James Traficant Jr., Expelled From Congress in 2002, Dies at 73" in the Los Angeles Times on Sep. 27 2014, "James Traficant Jr., Cast Out by Congress in Bribery Case, Dies at 73" in the New York Times on Sep. 27 2014, "Jim Traficant Dies at 73" in Politico on Sep. 27 2014, "Ex-Congressman Jim Traficant Dies of Injuries Suffered From a Tractor Accident at Daughter's Farm" in the Cleveland Plains Dealer on Sep. 27 2014, "Former Rep. Traficant Didn't Have Heart Attack, Seizure Before Tractor Death, Pathologist Says" in the Cleveland Plains Dealer on Sep. 30 2014, Remembering the Cruelest Month: The Network, Labor, and Haunting of the Memories of Columbine by Stephanie Jean Stillman, Political Scandals: The Consequences of Temporary Gratification by La Trice M. Washington