James Traficant, convicted ex-congressman, dies

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James Traficant, convicted ex-congressman, dies
AKRON, OHIO - AUGUST 1: (UNDATED PHOTO) Former U.S. Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) is seen in this undated photo. Traficant was sentenced July 30, 2002 to eight years in prison for bribery, tax evasion and racketeering. The House of Representatives voted 420-1 to expel him last week, making Traficant only the second member of Congress kicked out since the Civil War. (Photo courtesy of Summit County Jail/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON- JULY 24: Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. (D-OH) (L) talks to from Capitol elevator operator Bonnie Shepherd (R) on his way to the House chamber July 24, 2002 in Washington, DC. Traficant is facing a pending motion in the House that would expel him over allegations bribe taking. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/ Getty Images)
Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2002 before the House Ethics Committee. Traficant on Monday told a House ethics panel considering whether he should be expelled from the House that the Justice Department has targeted him for years and forced a jury to convict him of fraud, bribery and tax evasion. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
UNITED STATES - JULY 18: Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, speaks to the press before a hearing of the House Ethics Committee. The Committee found Traficant guilty of 9 counts violating House rules and recommended expulsion from Congress. (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON- JULY 24: Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. (D-OH) (2nd R) signs an autograph for a supporter before being escorted to the Capitol July 24, 2002 in Washington, DC. Traficant is facing a pending motion in the House that would expel him over allegations bribe taking. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/ Getty Images)
FILE - In this Nov. 1986 file photo, U.S. Rep. James Traficant Jr. answers questions from the media in Cleveland. Traficant, who spent time in prison on corruption and racketeering charges, has died after being critically injured in a tractor accident at his northeast Ohio home. He was 73. Dave Betras, the Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman, says Traficant died Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 in the hospital. Betras says he was notified by the Traficant family attorney. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan, File)
YOUNGSTOWN, OH - UNDATED: (VIDEO CAPTURE) (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Former Representative James A. Traficant Jr. appears in his latest television campaign advertisement. Traficant, who is currently serving an eight-year federal prison sentence in Pennsylvania, is running as an independent for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Photo by the Traficant Campaign Headquarters/Getty Images)
Robert Bucci, in this undated file photo, was sentenced Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2003 in Cleveland to three years and five months in federal prison. He had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service. He also admitted filing false tax returns and tax evasion. Bucci of Youngstown, Ohio, had fled to Cuba on Dec. 24, 1998, while free on bond. Information provided by Bucci's brother, Anthony Bucci, helped lead to the downfall of former Rep. James Traficant, a Democrat expelled from Congress last year after being convicted of bribery and racketeering charges. (AP Photo/US Marshalls Service)
FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2010, file photo, former U.S. Rep. James Traficant Jr. talks about politics at a diner in Boardman, Ohio. Traficant, who spent time in prison on corruption and racketeering charges, has died after being critically injured in a tractor accident at his northeast Ohio home. He was 73. Dave Betras, the Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman, says Traficant died Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 in the hospital. Betras says he was notified by the Traficant family attorney. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)
Former Ohio congressman Jim Traficant, left, is released from federal prison in Rochester, Minn., Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009. Democrat Traficant is ending a seven-year federal prison stay for accepting bribes and other corruption charges. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)
Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, rides an elevator in the Capitol Building in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2002, after being expelled from Congress during an historic vote in the House of Representatives. It was only the second time a sitting member has been banished from Congress since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert)
** FILE ** Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., holds up an unexploded U.S. cluster bomb packet, left, and U.S. air-dropped food rations, right, dropped from planes flying over Afghanistan in this Oct. 31, 2002, file photo. Jim Traficant's "beam me up" refrain. Bob Barr's relentless prosecutorial style. Gary Condit's repeated denials. Congress is losing some of its more colorful characters, perhaps a reflection of voter sentiment for more sober-minded politicians. (AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert, File)
U.S. Rep James Traficant, D-Youngstown, leaves federal court in Cleveland Thursday, March 28, 2002, after another day in his trial on bribery and corruption charges. Traficant is acting as his own attorney. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
WASHINGTON- JULY 24: Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. (D-OH) (L) hugs Capitol elevator operator Bonnie Shepherd on his way to the House chamber July 24, 2002 in Washington, DC. Traficant is facing a pending motion in the House that would expel him over allegations bribe taking. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/ Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 24: Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) speaks before members of the House of Representatives July 24, 2002 in Washington, DC. The House met to vote on a resolution to expel Traficant from Congress. In April, Traficant was convicted of bribery, tax evasion and fraud. (Photo by House TV/Getty Images)
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By MARK GILLISPIE

CLEVELAND (AP) - James Traficant, the colorful Ohio politician whose conviction for taking bribes and kickbacks made him only the second person to be expelled from Congress since the Civil War, died Saturday. He was 73.

Traficant was seriously injured Tuesday after a vintage tractor flipped over on him as he tried to park it inside a barn on the family farm near Youngstown. He died four days later in a Youngstown hospital, said Dave Betras, chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party.

The Democrat's expulsion from Congress in 2002 came three months after a federal jury in Cleveland convicted him. Prosecutors said he used his office to extract bribes from businesspeople and coerced staffers to work on his farm and his house boat on the Potomac River in Washington. He also was charged with witness tampering, destroying evidence and filing false tax returns. He spent seven years in prison.

Traficant's notoriety was rivaled only by his eccentricity.

He loved to play the buffoon during his 17 years in Congress. He got plenty of notice within the staid, buttoned-down Capitol and airtime on C-SPAN for his messy mop of hair - revealed to be a wig when he went to prison - his typical wardrobe of cowboy boots, denim or polyester suits, and his bombastic speaking style.

His made-for-TV rants on the House floor invariably ended with the signoff "Beam me up," which Traficant borrowed from "Star Trek" to show his disgust or bemusement at whatever he found particularly outrageous.

"Mr. Traficant was a complex man," Betras said. "He gave voice to the frustrations and anxieties of the common man. The public felt he was one of them and because of that connection, they supported him in good times and in bad. He was a larger than life character who will long be remembered."

Traficant was born May 8, 1941, in Youngstown and was a quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh, where he played with future NFL coaches Mike Ditka and Marty Schottenheimer.

He worked as a drug counselor for 10 years before running for Mahoning County sheriff at a colleague's suggestion.

He endeared himself to voters in the early 1980s by defying the courts and going to jail for three nights rather than foreclose on the homes of workers laid off from the city's dying steel industry.

The antagonism between Traficant and federal law enforcement authorities lasted throughout his public career, with Traficant trumpeting it as proof that he was on the side of "the little guy" against powerful government interests.

He faced his first federal bribery and corruption trial in 1983, when he was Mahoning County sheriff. Prosecutors accused Traficant of taking bribes to protect mobsters' criminal activity. He defended himself in court, although he was not a lawyer, and won. He argued that he was conducting a one-person sting.

He was elected to Congress the following year and was easily re-elected eight times.

He championed "Buy American" requirements on virtually every spending bill and prided himself on landing federal grants for hometown prospects, including highways, a sports arena and Youngstown's airport.

Yet he often exasperated fellow Democrats by breaking ranks, such as his decision to vote for Republican Dennis Hastert as speaker and his differences with President Bill Clinton on trade and other issues. He denounced Justice Department tactics and belittled Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, as a good prospect to run for governor of Beijing.

In 2000, as he geared up for re-election, Traficant was indicted in a grand jury investigation that targeted corruption and organized crime in the Youngstown area and led to the convictions of scores of people, including judges, a prosecutor and a sheriff.

But Traficant was the biggest prize, and he was not as lucky in his second trial as in his first.

He claimed the government had tried to frame him because of his criticism of the FBI, CIA and Internal Revenue Service.

During the two-month trial, he did a curbside interview on live network TV outside the courthouse each morning and then went inside to challenge U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells, who tried to dissuade Traficant from representing himself.

He often slumped alone at the defense table preparing handwritten motions as a team of prosecutors and investigators pressed the government's case under the eye of Justice Department attorneys.

He was expelled from Congress in a 420-1 vote by the U.S. House on July 24, 2002, three months after being convicted on 10 corruption-related counts. He was the second person to be expelled from Congress since the Civil War, the first being U.S. Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers of Pennsylvania over the Abscam scandal. Traficant could have avoided the indignity of expulsion by choosing to resign, but he remained defiant to the end.

"I'm prepared to lose everything. I'm prepared to go to jail," Traficant told colleagues as they debated his political fate. "You go ahead and expel me."

Six days later, at his sentencing, he abruptly fired his attorney.

"Take your things and move," he told the lawyer, who then switched seats with Traficant.

He was sentenced to eight years in prison and led from the federal courtroom in handcuffs.

Traficant called life in prison "tough."

"Most political figures go to some camps in country clubs," he said. "I didn't."

His case over, Traficant ran for re-election from prison as an independent in 2002 and lost to former aide Tim Ryan. Traficant got 15 percent of the vote in a three-way race.

He was released from prison in September 2009 and the following year ran for the Youngstown-area congressional seat as an independent. He received 16 percent of the vote, again losing to Tim Ryan, and then faded from the spotlight.

From then on, he lived a quiet life on his farm, doting on his grandchildren.

The barn where his tractor tipped over played a key role in his criminal case.

A Youngstown businessman had the barn built for Traficant in return for a favor. The businessman later billed Traficant for the full construction cost after the congressman continued asking for favors. Traficant ended up paying him far less than what the barn was worth, and the businessman testified against him.

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