A May 5 article incorrectly reported some of the circumstances surrounding former representative Dan Rostenkowski's departure from the House. The Illinois Democrat stepped down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee when he was indicted on May 31, 1994, in compliance with Democratic Caucus ethics rules. He lost to Michael Flanagan in the 1994 general election. (Published 5/6/01)
Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio) was indicted yesterday on charges of racketeering and bribery by a federal grand jury investigating corruption in northeastern Ohio, marking the most serious chapter to date in the feud between the brash blue-collar House member and federal prosecutors.
The 41-page indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Cleveland charged that Traficant started a "pattern of racketeering" shortly after taking office in 1985 to solicit bribes from businessmen and congressional employees in return for performing official acts.
The charges include four counts of bribery, two counts of tax evasion, two counts of racketeering and one count each of obstructing justice and accepting illegal gifts. The indictment seeks forfeiture of Traficant's personal property to recover as much as $100,000 in proceeds from the alleged criminal enterprise. He faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
Traficant, who won a ninth term in a three-way election race in November, is one of the most colorful figures on Capitol Hill, known for his polyester suits, plaid pants and denim blazers. He often concludes his regular morning tirades on the House floor with a line adapted from "Star Trek": "Beam me up, Mr. Speaker!"
Traficant has grown increasingly alienated from his party while moving to the right on many key issues. He parted with Democrats last year by voting to re-elect J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as House speaker, leading his party to retaliate by declining to give him a committee assignment in the current Congress.
As a rank-and-file member of the House, Traficant faces no immediate penalties. While the House ethics committee has the right to pursue an investigation, the panel traditionally has deferred to the Justice Department in criminal cases involving members.
The grand jury alleges that local contractors did work on Traficant's boat and family farm and gave him money in exchange for political favors. The indictment also alleges that he accepted monthly $2,500 payments from a staff member in exchange for hiring the aide and renting office space from him, and that Traficant ordered aides to perform manual labor on the boat and farm during regular work hours.
Traficant is also accused of trying to persuade a witness to destroy evidence and give false testimony to the grand jury.
"I'm as frightened as anyone can be," Traficant told reporters yesterday while awaiting the indictment in Poland, Ohio. "I'm going to say this to the U.S. attorneys, 'You'd best defeat me, because if I beat you, you'll be working in Mingo Junction.' " That is a small town in eastern Ohio.
The office of U.S. Attorney Emily M. Sweeney declined to comment.
The charges against Traficant grow out of a long Justice Department investigation of corruption in eastern Ohio's Mahoning Valley. More than 70 people have been convicted since 1997, including a judge, a prosecutor, a sheriff and a Traficant aide, Charles O'Nesti, who has since died.
Traficant, 59, has long predicted that he would be indicted and pledged on the House floor last year that he would "fight like a junkyard dog" against the investigation. He made repeated corruption accusations against former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno and federal prosecutors in Ohio, and accused FBI agents of being "on the payroll of the mob."
In a statement issued by his office in Washington, Traficant said, "I have had a bull's-eye on my back ever since . . . being the only American in United States history to have defeated the Justice Department in a RICO case pro se. . . . I will defend myself again in court."
In 1983, Traficant successfully fought federal bribery charges by arguing that he took $163,000 in mob money as part of a one-man sting operation designed to flush out mobsters. He lost a U.S. Tax Court case in 1987 stemming from the same issues, however.
In one case included in yesterday's indictment, John J. Cafaro, a representative of U.S. Aerospace Group, allegedly conspired with others to give Traficant $13,000 in cash and $26,000 worth of boat repairs in return for support for the company's aircraft landing technology. Prosecutors have filed charges against Cafaro.
Traficant is also accused of accepting more than $10,000 worth of paving at the family farm in return for pressuring federal and state highway officials on behalf of a contractor who had been convicted of felonies. From another contractor, Traficant allegedly accepted labor and materials in return for intervening with a local government agency about a building demolition contract.
House Republicans offered words of support yesterday. "Jim Traficant, the man I know, has stood up at the microphone and spoken up about the average man and woman in this country," said Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio). "This is between Jim Traficant and the court. In this country you are considered innocent until proven guilty."
House Democrats, meanwhile, took unbridled pleasure in Traficant's predicament and suggested he would likely lose in next year's primary.
"We're relieved that he is now sitting with and working with the GOP," said one Democratic leadership aide who asked not to be identified. "You can judge people by their friends."
Traficant's irreverent style has earned him affection on Capitol Hill, both from lawmakers and the workers who take care of the chamber. He is particularly popular among the Capitol Police force, since as a former sheriff he lobbied vigorously to grant them collective bargaining rights in 1995.
As representative of Youngstown, a city that has lost tens of thousands of jobs since the collapse of the steel economy in the 1970s and 1980s, Traficant has championed the cause of steelmakers and fought against liberalized trade measures. He routinely inserted language into legislation stipulating that products bought by the federal government should bear a "Made in the U.S.A." label.
House members in the past have served throughout extended legal fights. Daniel Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) remained chairman of the Ways and Means Committee during a lengthy battle against corruption charges. He pleaded guilty in a plea bargain in 1996 two years after being defeated in a primary. Joseph M. McDade (R-Pa.) served four years after being indicted on bribery and racketeering charges before being cleared in 1996. Jay Kim (R-Calif.) remained a member of the House after pleading guilty to several counts of violating federal campaign laws. He lost his seat in a GOP primary in 1998.