CLEVELAND (AP) – Rep. James Traficant Jr. was convicted yesterday of taking bribes and kickbacks from businessmen and his own staff after a raucous and often-farcical 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.
After each count, the judge asked Traficant, known for his arm-waving rants on the House floor, if he wanted the jurors to restate their verdict.
“No,” Traficant replied softly with uncharacteristic meekness, standing with his hands folded in front of him. He later told the jury the evidence was circumstantial and the trial was “a very unfair process.” But he added: “I accept your verdict.”
He later told reporters he didn’t think he had much of a chance on appeal.
Traficant faces up to 63 years in prison at sentencing June 27 but will probably receive a much shorter term under federal guidelines. He could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He could also be expelled from the House, something that has happened only once since the Civil War. His felony conviction triggered an automatic investigation by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt said Traficant should resign.
“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,” Gephardt said.
Outside court, Traficant angrily said he would not resign.
“I still have some rights as an American,” Traficant said. “I’ve never been a quitter. I’m not going to quit now.”
Traficant’s Youngstown-area district was eliminated this year, but he has said he will run as an independent in a neighboring district.
The 60-year-old congressman contended the government was out to get him because he single-handedly beat the FBI in a racketeering case 19 years ago, when he was a Mahoning County sheriff accused of taking mob money. Back then, as in this case, he represented himself without benefit of a law degree, and successfully argued that he was conducting his personal sting.
The acquittal made him something of a folk hero in the corruption-riddled Youngstown area and helped get him elected to Congress. He quickly became known for his unruly hair, loud wardrobe and tempestuous floor speeches in which he railed against the Justice Department and the IRS. The rants often ended with an exasperated “Beam me up!”
Among the charges against him this time were filing false tax returns and receiving gifts and free labor from businessmen in return for his political help. He also took cash kickbacks – and free labor on his houseboat and at his horse farm – from members of his staff.
Prosecutors called 55 witnesses to testify against Traficant and submitted as evidence bank records showing large cash deposits. They also produced a briefcase stuffed with $24,500 in cash that one witness said the congressman asked him to hide.
Former Traficant staff member Allen Sinclair testified that he was hired under an agreement that he give his boss $2,500 in cash each month.
In addition, Traficant had office workers bale hay, fix farm equipment and build a corral at his farm.
Prosecutors said he also helped contractors with legal disputes and lobbied for them in exchange for free work at his farm, including paving a barn floor, fixing drainage systems, removing trees and spreading gravel.
Traficant said many of the government’s witnesses had previously lied under oath or struck deals to testify. He also argued that helping local businesses was part of his job.
“I didn’t force anybody to do anything. You know what I did: I fought like hell for my people!” he shouted in opening statements.