By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
CLEVELAND -- The conviction of U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. and the ensuing political process could silence the area's voice in Congress.
The Mahoning Valley, in effect, would be represented by total strangers.
If Traficant leaves Congress, the responsibility of running his congressional offices in Washington, D.C., and the Mahoning Valley would fall to the Clerk of the House with assistance from the House Administration Committee.
Except for a few of Traficant's receptionists, the rest of his employees would lose their jobs if the congressman resigns or is expelled, said Jim Forbes, spokesman for the House Administration Committee and the Clerk of the House.
Those handful of Traficant holdovers would handle telephone calls and mail from constituents and refer constituent concerns to the three or four Clerk of the House employees who would run Traficant's D.C. office, Forbes said. No Clerk of the House employees would work in the Valley offices, he said.
"The Clerk of the House employees would handle constituent concerns and pay bills," Forbes said.
He acknowledged that Valley residents would not get the same service from the clerk's staff as they do from Traficant's staff if the congressman vacates his office.
"They do the best they can," Forbes said of the clerk's staff.
The move greatly concerns U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, a Lucasville Democrat running in the new 6th District, which includes Traficant's hometown of Poland.
"Consideration should be given to Traficant's constituents," Strickland said. "The operation of his office would go to the Clerk of the House, who assumes the responsibility of vacant offices. I don't think there would be a lot of strong advocacy for the area under that scenario. I would hope that it would be possible for his constituents to continue to be served by his staff, which I assume is trying to do their jobs under difficult circumstances."
If Traficant resigns or is expelled, it would be up to Gov. Bob Taft to schedule a special election to fill the 17th District vacancy. There is no legal requirement as to when or if the governor calls the special primary and general elections.
Strickland and others say there is a strong likelihood that Taft would not hold a special election and leave the 17th District seat vacant for the rest of the year.
That would spell disaster for the Valley, Strickland said.
But if the governor opts to hold a special election, the person who would fill the remainder of Traficant's term would receive assistance from the House Administration Committee, Forbes said. The committee would place two to three of its staff members in the congressional office to teach that staff how to operate the office, Forbes said.
As the U.S. House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct prepares to investigate Traficant and possibly recommend his expulsion from Congress, Strickland and U.S. Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer, two Ohio congressmen looking to take his place representing the Valley, say the body should not rush its decision. Elections will be held this year, with the victors taking office in January.
"As long as there are legal remedies for the congressman, it would be unwise for the House to take any action leading to expulsion," Strickland said. "It would be a serious mistake to expel him now. Expulsion is very serious."
It's so serious that the House has only expelled four members in its history and only one member since the Civil War.
Sawyer, an Akron Democrat running for the new 17th District seat, a position Traficant planned to seek as an independent before his conviction, also said he does not want to see something done immediately. Sawyer, a former member of the standards committee, said he would probably recuse himself from any vote on expelling Traficant if one was brought up in the near future.
The standards committee, commonly known as the House ethics committee, routinely launches investigations of House members after they have been convicted of crimes. A federal jury found Traficant guilty Thursday of 10 felony counts, including bribery, racketeering and tax evasion.
House rules say congressmen convicted of felonies "should refrain" from voting in the House until "judicial or executive proceedings reinstate the member's presumption of innocent or until he is re-elected to the House after his conviction."
The ethics committee's investigation can begin as early as Tuesday, when the House reopens for business.
The investigation begins with a bipartisan, four-member panel, which will review court transcripts and evidence looking for violations of house rules. The evidence can include testimony from Traficant.
If the panel finds violations, a separate eight-member bipartisan panel holds public hearings to recommend punishment.
Traficant says he has no plans to resign. The congressman said this morning that he still intends to run as an independent in the November general election for thr 17th Congressional seat.
"I will not allow the government to get rid of Jim Traficant without a fight," he said.
Charles Straub, his spokesman, said nothing should be ruled out even though the conviction is going to make it difficult for Traficant to win.
The ethics committee can make a decision on Traficant's fate rather quickly. The last congressman expelled by the House for refusing to resign after a felony conviction -- Michael J. Myers of Pennsylvania, convicted in the Abscam political corruption sting in the late 1970s -- was expelled about a month after his conviction.
The committee can recommend punishing Traficant a number of other ways. Other penalties include censure, reprimand, a fine, and/or denial or limitations of rights and privileges. The House would have to vote by a two-thirds majority to expel Traficant. Any other punishment would need only a simple majority.
House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a frequent Traficant target, said the congressman should resign because "a member of Congress who breaks the law betrays the public trust and brings discredit to the House of Representatives."
In response, Traficant said, "I've never been one to back out. If Gephardt's making statements like this, Gephardt should look at the Constitution first."
The other way for the House to consider expelling Traficant is for a congressman to introduce legislation seeking immediate disciplinary action. Those requests must be debated and either voted on or sent to the ethics committee within two days.
Sawyer said he did not know if that would happen, but it would be inappropriate for a congressman to make such a request because of the ethics committee's investigation.
There are some House Democrats who do not like Traficant and might make a motion to expel the congressman, Straub said.
Traficant, who often votes with Republicans, raised the ire of his fellow House Democrats when he crossed party lines last year and voted for Republican Dennis Hastert for Speaker of the House. That move led the Democrats to strip Traficant of his committee assignments and makes him the only rank-and-file House member without a committee assignment.
John Feehery, Hastert's spokesman, said that the speaker's office does not have a reaction to the guilty verdict and that the matter will be investigated by the ethics committee.
Ohio and national Democratic spokeswomen said their party doesn't care what happens to Traficant because they do not consider him a Democrat.
"We'll let Mr. Traficant's conscience and the voters of Ohio be the guide here," said Jennifer Palmieri of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C.
"He made his party loyalty clear, and we haven't had anything to do with him," added Lauren B. Worley of the Ohio Democratic Party. "But we're not calling for his head."
Just because Traficant is now a felon, it doesn't mean he is barred from running for Congress. Whether a felon can serve as a congressman, if elected, is entirely up to the House.