An Ohio congressman says that when a fellow House member goes astray it makes it difficult for the rest of the legislative body.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.'s colleagues on Capitol Hill say the man portrayed by the federal government as being involved with bribery, racketeering and conspiracy doesn't jibe with the man they know.
To his congressional friends, the nine-term congressman is colorful, outspoken, personable and a great representative of the people.
But a federal grand jury's 10-count indictment of Traficant paints another picture of him. The indictment describes a congressman who could be bought for the right price and would attempt to intimidate those who wouldn't follow his demands.
Praise: "He's a great champion of people's rights," said U.S. Rep. Bob Ney of St. Clairsville, R-18th, chairman of the House Administration Committee. "He stands at the microphone of the House and he says the things that the average American would say if they got that chance. He's worked with us to do a lot of good things for a lot of people across the country and in his district."
U.S. Rep. W.J. Tauzin, a Chackbay, La., Republican and co-sponsor of Traficant's national flat sales tax proposal, hopes the charges aren't true, said Ken Johnson, his spokesman.
"Nearly everyone up here has expected this to happen for some time based on the congressman's own comments, but it's kind of like you have a close friend or relative who is terminal," Johnson said. "You're not surprised when they die, but it still hurts."
U.S. Rep. Steven C. LaTourette of Madison, R-19th, a close friend of Traficant's for a number of years, said, "I am deeply saddened for Jim and his family, and for their sake I hope that these charges can be resolved as quickly as possible. I am thankful enough though that the months of leaks, speculation and rumors have ended and the government's case will be subjected to a burden of proof in a court of law."
'Blot on Congress': U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown of Lorain, D-13th, who has criticized Traficant for often crossing party lines and voting with Republicans, said the indictment is a blow to the credibility of Congress.
"It's always a blot on Congress when one of its members goes astray, and it's always regrettable," said Brown, whose district includes western Trumbull County. "It makes it harder for all of us. I hope it's addressed quickly in the court."
Doug Graham, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mac Collins -- a Jackson, Ga., Republican, said he would be disappointed if the charges turn out to be true. Collins sat next to Traficant when the Poland Democrat cast his ballot in January for Republican Dennis Hastert for House speaker.
"He is one of the true characters, and if we lose him, it will diminish the color of Congress by quite a bit," said Graham, who previously worked on the staff of U.S. Rep. Phil English of Erie, Pa., R-21st. "But on the other hand, Youngstown has that reputation in the world at large for being like a farm team for the Mafia, so who knows. Every time I've dealt with him, he's been great."
Support from Hanni: Don L. Hanni Jr., the former Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman who had his scrapes with Traficant in the past but has been an ally in recent years, said the charges are ridiculous and are the work of assistant U.S. attorneys who want to build their reputations on the back of Youngstown.
"If they put every congressman in jail for accepting improper gratuities, we'd have to build a whole new prison just for them," he said. "We wouldn't have more than a half-dozen left sitting in the halls of Congress running the country. If this is a precedent, I'm for it. If they put every other congressman in jail who took a crooked quarter then I'm for it. But this is bull---."
Hanni, an attorney, said he would be more than willing to help Traficant with any legal advice the congressman would seek. Traficant plans to defend himself in court.
Steve Katzman, a former assistant U.S. attorney and the first one based in Youngstown, has been critical of Traficant's impact on the Mahoning Valley. When reached Friday at his California office, Katzman said he didn't want to say what he really feels about Traficant because he does not want to impair the government's prosecution of the congressman.
"I'm not going to give the guy any ammunition," he said. "His reputation speaks for itself. I don't think he helped the area. I hope justice prevails."
NPR reporter's view: Steven Inskeep, National Public Radio's congressional reporter who did a profile piece on Traficant for "All Things Considered" earlier this year, said reading the indictment "is like reading The Vindicator for the past few years. The newspaper had all of this."
Inskeep said he will be interested to watch Traficant's defense.
"It will be an entertaining show," he said. "It appears by looking at the indictment that they have an awfully strong case, but it's difficult to convict on bribery because the law is written in a way that you have to prove he did something for the money. It's a real interesting case against a real interesting guy."
Sandra Ferrante, Traficant's longtime horse trainer at his Green Township family farm, said the congressman often told her he was going to get indicted and he was ready for a court fight. Ferrante left Traficant's farm late last year after a farmhand was convicted of threatening her, and the congressman refused to defend her.
"It's a shame for him that he was indicted, but he wanted this battle," she said. "I'm sure he's excited about it."
Moving on: Thomas Humphries, president of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, said the indictment "does not shed a positive light on this Valley, but at least it puts an end to speculation that the congressman would be indicted. ... With the congressman's indictment, I believe we can move on to other issues at hand."
Officials with the Ohio Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, two organizations that have criticized Traficant for his Hastert vote, had nothing to say about the congressman's indictment.