James A. Traficant Jr., an iconoclastic nine-term Ohio populist in the House of Representatives who was convicted on corruption charges in 2002, becoming the second member of Congress to be expelled since the Civil War, died Sept. 27 at a hospital in Youngstown, Ohio. He was 73.
A family spokeswoman, Heidi Hanni, confirmed his death to reporters. The former congressman was injured in a tractor accident on his farm near Greenford, Ohio, on Tuesday. A former aide told reporters in Ohio that he apparently had a heart attack while driving the tractor, which overturned inside a building and left the former congressman trapped underneath.
Mr. Traficant, a maverick Democrat who found his own path in politics and seemingly in everything else, was one of the most deliberately outrageous members of Congress in history. Glib and voluble, he was known for wearing cowboy boots, skinny ties and out-of-date polyester suits and for a bouffant mound of hair that seemed to defy gravity.
Reporters outdid themselves in trying to describe Mr. Traficant’s pompadour — and to determine whether it was real. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, it was a “Planet of the Apes sort of hair helmet,” or as Washingtonian magazine put it, “a creature from Lake Erie before it was cleaned up.”
Before he served in Congress,
Mr. Traficant was elected sheriff of Mahoning County in 1980. Youngstown, the county seat, was a down-on-its-luck steel city in northeastern Ohio that lost thousands of jobs in the 1960s and 1970s. Fought over by mobsters from nearby Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Youngstown was called “Crimetown, U.S.A.” by the Saturday Evening Post magazine in the 1960s.
A fiery advocate for the disenfranchised, Mr. Traficant became a local folk hero when he went to jail for three days rather than obey a court order to foreclose on the homes of unemployed mill workers.
In 1983, he went on trial for corruption, charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Federal prosecutors had tapes of Mr. Traficant admitting that he accepted more than $100,000 in bribes from organized crime figures.
Although he had no legal training, an undaunted Mr. Traficant acted as his own attorney and outwitted the lawyers making the case against him. He argued that he had collected the bribes as part of a sting operation he was conducting in order to trap gangsters in the act. Mr. Traficant was acquitted.
A year later, in 1984, he was elected to Congress. He brought federal money to his struggling district, but Mr. Traficant also used his congressional seat as a bully pulpit to state personal grievances about what he considered government overreach.
He became known for his rambling, sometimes crude rhetoric during short speeches on the House floor, often ending his free-association commentaries with a reference to “Star Trek”: “Beam me up, Mr. Speaker.”
“Let us tell it like it is,” he said in 1997. “When you hold this economy to your nosey, this economy does not smell so rosy. If there is any consolation to the American workers, I never heard of anyone committing suicide by jumping out of a basement window.”
Complaining about U.S. support for other countries, he said in 1998: “Russia gets $15 billion in foreign aid from Uncle Sam. In exchange, Uncle Sam gets nuclear missiles pointed at our cities, two tape decks and three cases of vodka. Beam me up.”
In 1987, the federal government won a judgment against Mr. Traficant for unpaid back taxes — on the bribe money he had pocketed as sheriff in Youngstown. He then launched an unceasing attack on the Internal Revenue Service and proposed a measure limiting the ability of the IRS to seize the property of people charged with tax evasion. It became part of a tax reform bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Mr. Traficant also maintained an outspoken belief in the innocence of John Demjanjuk, a retired Ohio autoworker who was convicted in Israel of being a Nazi guard at a World War II concentration camp. Demjanjuk was ultimately deported to Germany, where he died in 2012.
Many Washington insiders regarded Mr. Traficant as an uncouth scoundrel, but he remained popular in his home district, where he was easily reelected eight times.
“He looked less smart than he was,” a former press secretary, Charles Straub, told the New Yorker in 2002. “It put people off guard. It was part of his mystique as just an average citizen. But he was a very shrewd politician.”
Mr. Traficant tended to ignore the legislative initiatives of his nominal party, the Democrats, and in 2001 voted for Illinois Republican J. Dennis Hastert as House speaker. The Democratic leadership then stripped Mr. Traficant of his seniority and took away his committee assignments.
By then, several of his associates has been convicted in a sweeping corruption investigation, and it was widely suspected that Mr. Traficant was next in line.
“He’s acting as his own attorney,” his press secretary once said, “and his attorney has advised him not to comment.”
In 2002, Mr. Traficant was indicted on 10 felony counts of racketeering, bribery and fraud. Federal prosecutors charged that he required several of his congressional aides to pay him monthly kickbacks of as much as $2,500 for the privilege of being on the government payroll. Other staff members were expected to bale hay on his farm or repair his houseboat, which was docked in Washington. He was also accused of filing false tax returns and of soliciting businesses in his district to provide free goods and services.
After a two-month trial in Cleveland, in which Mr. Traficant argued in his own defense, he was convicted of all 10 charges.
On July 24, 2002, Mr. Traficant became only the fifth member of the House, and the second since the Civil War, to be expelled from Congress. The vote was 420-1.
Mr. Traficant claimed he was a victim of a conspiracy involving Attorney General Janet Reno, grudge-bearing witnesses and a hostile federal judge.
“The truth, sir, is rarely in you,” the judge, Lesley Brooks Wells, told Mr. Traficant when she sentenced him to eight years in federal prison and to pay more than $250,000 in fines and restitution. “You were howling that you were going to fight like a junkyard dog in the eye of a hurricane, and you did fight that way, to protect a junkyard full of deceit and corruption and greed.”
When Mr. Traficant went to prison, he had to reveal to guards that his towering stack of hair was, in fact, a toupee.
James Anthony Traficant Jr. was born May 8, 1941, in Youngstown. His father was a truck driver.
After attending parochial schools, he went to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was the starting quarterback on a football team that included future NFL Hall of Famer Mike Ditka. Even then, Mr. Traficant was something of a rebel.
“Pitt has the worst coaching staff in the country,” he told a reporter during his senior season. “I’ve made two big mistakes in my life. The first one was coming here; the second one was staying.”
After graduating from Pitt in 1963, Mr. Traficant failed to catch on as a professional football player. He returned to Youngstown, where he worked for a community action program before becoming a drug and alcohol counselor.
He received a master’s degree in administration from Pitt in 1973 and another master’s in counseling from Youngstown State University in 1976. He directed the Mahoning County drug counseling program from 1971 to 1981, when he took office as sheriff.
Survivors include his wife of 46 years, Patricia Choppa Traficant, and two daughters.
In 2002, while sitting in a federal prison cell, Mr. Traficant ran for Congress as an independent. He lost to one of his former aides, Tim Ryan (D), who still holds the seat.
After serving seven years, Mr. Traficant was released from a federal prison in Minnesota in 2009. Hardly chastened, he attempted a political comeback by campaigning for his old House seat as an independent in 2010. He polled 16 percent of the vote.
Mr. Traficant, who spent virtually his entire adult life working for the government in one capacity or another, often said he loved the United States but hated the government. He once admitted that an incendiary comment he made about the “political prostitutes” in Congress was out of line.
“I want to apologize,” he said, “to all the hookers of America for associating them with the United States Congress.”