Former Ohio Rep. Jim Traficant died on Saturday following a tractor accident four days ago. Traficant had been largely a non-entity since he was expelled from Congress in 2002 following his conviction on bribery charges. But, for much of the 1990s and early 2000s, Traficant was one of the most high-profile House members -- carrying a political Q rating that was the result of his odd approach to, well, life, as well as the regular whiff of corruption that followed him.
Many reporters dedicated months and even years of their lives to covering Traficant -- and trying to uncover just what he was up to. Upon hearing of his passing, I reached out to a number of these reporters -- both in Washington and in Ohio -- who covered Jimbo to ask for their favorite story (or stories) about him. They are below. (I'll add more when I get them.)
Paul Kane, former Roll Call newspaper and now WaPo
It was December 2000, about five months before Traficant was indicted. Visiting friends in Cleveland, my buddy realized the holiday party for the local U.S. Attorney's office was there at the same bar. We crashed their party, and upon introductions, several federal prosecutors had one question: Do you know Damon?
Damon Chappie was my coworker at Roll Call, just about the only reporter in Washington who realized what Traficant was: a crook, to his core. By the late 1990s most regional newspapers had slashed or eliminated their D.C. bureaus, making it more difficult than ever to keep congressmen in check, especially the rank-and-file. The congressional press corps back then fell for Traficant's cover story -- that he was a goofy guy who wore bad suits and a bad toupee, who quoted Star Trek, a man of the people who cared for the working class of Youngstown.
It was a sham.
Traficant was a decades-long crook. He extorted money from his own staff -- forcing them to slide envelopes of cash under his office door in Youngstown. He took bribes. He shook down donors. All the while, Youngstown slid deeper and deeper into economic despair. Say what you want about other ethically challenged lawmakers of that era -- think Bud Shuster and Jack Murtha -- they at least delivered pork for their district. All Traficant ever did was help build a privately run prison to house inmates from DC, undercutting the prison workers union.
But us congressional reporters just wrote about how colorful and flamboyant he was.
Except Damon, who, because of a bogus blood transfusion in the 1980s and a crazy virus, was blind. Yet Damon saw what others couldn't see. For years at Roll Call he stayed ahead of the investigation, tracing the roots of the corruption and staying in sync with the prosecutors.
In Cleveland that night, they wanted to know about this reporter, how he kept up with their investigation. In early 2002 Damon attended parts of the trial and word spread he was there. During breaks prosecutors rushed to meet him, amazed that this lone reporter -- blinded in his sight, perfect in his journalistic vision -- had seen through Traficant's cover.
Damon died almost a decade ago, in early 2004, and somewhere in Cleveland there are some prosecutors and ex-prosecutors thanking the world that there was at least one investigative journalist who saw the truth.
Sabrina Eaton, Cleveland Plain Dealer
I have covered the Ohio congressional delegation since 1994, but Congressman Traficant and I did not hang out much. His staff was always gracious and helpful but when I'd ask him questions in person, even before his legal issues surfaced, he would often provide responses that had nothing to do with the subject at hand. I wasn't sure if he was messing with me or merely focused on other subjects. It became somewhat more hostile after his legal issues surfaced, and my job included investigating illegal stuff he did. I once asked him something rather innocuous in a scrum of reporters and he hollered something at me to the effect of "All you ever do is bust my balls!" A TV clip of our exchange ran a fair amount over the next day or two and my kids got angry when they saw it because they thought he was being mean to me.
I suspect he saw me as part of a media establishment he didn't need, which served people he didn't particularly want to reach. He was extremely popular with working people around Capitol Hill and lots of congressional staffers thought he was great. Although he would tell me to get lost on a regular basis, he knew many of the elevator operators, cafeteria workers and other service workers by name and would engage in pleasant banter with them. When he was on trial in Cleveland -- in an era before news of that nature was easily accessible over the Internet -- many of them would stop me around Capitol Hill to ask how he was doing. I think that common touch is why he was so successful as a politician.
John Bresnahan, former Roll Call reporter and now at Politico
1) The late, great Damon Chappie and I covered Traficant’s expulsion hearing before the House Ethics Committee in 2002. Traficant had already been convicted in a federal corruption trial and was heading to prison, so there was no question he was going to be expelled. Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), a low-key guy, was chairing the committee. No matter what theatrics that Traficant engaged in – he accused the entire government of being involved in a conspiracy against him – Hefley just kept the hearing rolling. It was impressive how Hefley got through it.
2) Damon, a tremendous journalist, was obsessed with Traficant. He had done some great reporting on Traficiant’s illegal activities, including kickbacks from his own staff. Damon attended most of Traficant’s 10-week trial in Ohio, which was this raucous episode. Traficant – he represented himself in the case -- kept hauling in witnesses and making wild, totally unsubstantiated accusations. Finally the judge cut him off, and he was convicted. Twenty years before, he had been acquitted using the same tactics, which helped launch his congressional career. Now he was going to prison.
3) At one point during the House expulsion hearing, Damon – who was blind – said he wanted to talk to Traficant. So we walked over to the table where Traficant was sitting by himself. He kind of growled at Damon, “What do you want?” Traficant knew who Damon was, of course. They talked about some details of his case, and then Traficant offered Damon some praise for his fair coverage, which stunned us both. Traficant’s life was spinning out of control, and here he was praising Damon.
4) Before he was expelled, the Democrats kicked him out of their caucus. The Republicans didn’t want him. He had no committee assignments and nothing to do. He would sit on the House floor all by himself. Members shunned him, they didn’t want to talk to him. He would joke with the cops who guarded the chamber and the doorkeepers/floor staff. I’ve never seen a man who looked so lonely.
Carl Hulse, New York Times
First thing I think of is the hair, which he described as having been cut by a weed whacker. I remember him strutting down Independence Avenue one day and a pack of tourists just staring at the whole presentation with the denim suit or whatever. His closing argument on the expulsion vote had people lining up to get in the chamber but it was more subdued than he promised. "Vote your conscience," he said. "Nothing personal."