Former Congressman James Traficant Is Released After 7 Years in Prison

Former Ohio Rep. James Traficant walked out of a Minnesota prison Wednesday morning after serving a seven-year sentence for bribery and racketeering. He faces three years of probation. Video by AP
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009

James A. Traficant, the Ohio Democrat who was expelled from Congress after being found guilty of bribery and racketeering, walked out of prison in Minnesota on Wednesday after serving seven years behind bars.

Traficant, 68, an eccentric former sheriff, did not answer reporters' questions as he left the prison alone and rode away in a taxi. He wore a T-shirt, shorts and knee-high white socks and carried some of his belongings in a plastic bag. Famous for his unruly toupee that was piled impossibly high on his head -- he said he needed "a weed whacker" to trim it -- Traficant left prison with a gray receding hairline.

Linda Kovachik, a close friend who has kept in touch with him, said Traficant was planning some quiet time before deciding what he might do next. Many of his supporters say they hope he becomes a radio talk-show personality.

On Sunday, 1,000 of his supporters are planning a welcome-home dinner in Youngstown, Ohio. He still has strong support in the area that nine times elected him to Congress. Hundreds of people have bought "Welcome Home Jimbo" T-shirts.

"His sentence was overkill. Seven years is a long time," said Tony Trolio, who has been selling the shirts. "I am not condoning what they say he did, but there are murderers who get out in three years."

Trolio said he, like many people, remembers Traficant as a popular sheriff and congressman who helped a lot of people. "He was a spontaneous, charismatic guy."

Trolio said he talked to Traficant's wife, Tish, a hairdresser, and that when the former lawmaker realized that reporters were on the bus he planned to take from Minnesota to Ohio, he hopped into a taxi and evaded them. "That's Jim!" he said.

In 2002, in a trial in which Traficant represented himself, he was convicted of 10 felony counts, including accepting bribes and taking kickbacks.

Prosecutors and witnesses said he filed false tax returns and accepted free labor and materials for his Ohio farm from contractors in exchange for giving them congressional favors. He was the second House member since the Civil War to be voted out for unethical behavior.

Traficant, whose speeches in Congress often drew a crowd because they were so colorful and unusual, frequently made "Star Trek" references and, on the House floor, signed off by saying, "Beam me up."

To mark his release, the Axis Bar & Grill on U Street NW, urged customers to come dressed like Traficant, who favored skinny ties, denim suits and bell-bottoms.

With a picture of Traficant taped to his chest, bartender Jack Winston said a lot of Ohioans come to his bar. Former Akron resident and pub regular Frances X. Riley said Washington will miss "a great character" like Traficant, "a crook," he said, who liked "good, cold money."

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