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Traficant's career could have been spared, had he seized his second chance



Published: Fri, April 12, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The story of James A. Traficant Jr. is a story of opportunities squandered, of second chances missed.

In 1983, Traficant did the near-impossible. He successfully defended himself against corruption and bribery charges, beating a battery of federal lawyers. In doing so, he not only retained his job as Mahoning County sheriff, he became something of a folk hero and, in 1984, was elected to Congress.

He never appreciated how big a bullet he dodged. The FBI had a confession that he signed saying that he took money from the mob during his 1980 campaign for sheriff in exchange for his pledge to protect their illegal enterprise after he was elected. They had hours of tape recordings of him and two mobsters, Charles and Orland Carabbia, discussing their bribes and their alliance. They had a packet of $10,000 in cash that Traficant took, some of which had been spent and replaced, belying his claim that he planned to use it in a crime-busting "sting."

The federal government had all of that, and in the end none of it mattered. He bulldozed his way through a trial presided over by a rookie judge, convinced a jury that the confession was a forgery, the tapes were doctored and that he really was running a sting against the Mafia, even though in two years he had arrested not a single Mafioso.

Chance to change: If Traficant had accepted that 1983 acquittal as the gift that it was, if he had recognized that his victory was a testament to his powers of persuasion but not proof of his invincibility, what a difference that might have made.

If Mr. Traficant had gone to Washington, D.C., an even slightly chastened man, he might have been able to eventually distance himself from his 1980 sell-out to the mob. He could have been re-elected in the Mahoning Valley for as long as he lived. He won by huge margins and rarely had to spend much to do so.

And even as a maverick, Traficant enjoyed a certain conventional success in Washington. He brought a second federal courthouse to Youngstown. He managed to have the Youngstown Air Reserve Base upgraded to wing status, solidifying its presence at the airport and bringing improvements there. He got $26 million allocated for a community center to be built in Youngstown.

He did all that and more. He burnished his reputation by affecting a strange hairdo and unconventional attire; he became a congressional oddity for his one-minute speeches delivered to C-Span cameras. He tagged buy-American riders on legislation whenever he could. He pursued the IRS with a vengeance. And he played what turned out to be a dangerous and damaging partisan game.

As one of the most secure incumbents in Congress, he could have done so much more if he had put his mind to it. But his mind was in other places.

Misplaced confidence: Having beaten the federal government once, he thought the Justice Department wouldn't have the guts to take him on again.

Traficant always had one of the highest staff payrolls in Congress, and now we know why. Some of those employees were required to kick back thousands of dollars from their paychecks to Traficant. Others were being used to work on his houseboat or to do chores at his horse farm. Even while he was on trial, he brazenly had a government employee serve as his chauffeur much of the time.

The high level of constituent service his staff supplied was a matter of pride for Traficant, but testimony showed that Traficant wasn't content with the $150,000 a year he was paid to provide that service. He shook people down for cash. He took favors, equipment, building supplies and labor in exchange for doing nothing more than what a congressman is supposed to do.

And whenever questions were raised, Traficant always had the same answer. "The FBI is vindictive and bitter. Either they'll get a case against me, or they'll give me herpes or cancer." That may sound like something he said a few weeks ago, or even yesterday. But that quote is from a Wall Street Journal story about Traficant that ran Sept. 10, 1983.

It is a personal tragedy that a man who had obvious intelligence and remarkable people skills was also perfectly corruptible. It is a larger tragedy for the Mahoning Valley that it was so easily seduced by the man.

There are those who will say Traficant is a creation of a Mahoning Valley mentality that tolerates corruption.

Perhaps. But timing had something to do with his phenomenal success. Traficant emerged as a politician in 1980 in the wake of the devastating steel mill closings of the late 1970s. The Mahoning Valley was being redefined against its will, and Traficant played to the frustrations of its people. Even while he was under indictment and awaiting his first trial, he burnished his image as a champion of the disaffected by refusing to sign home foreclosures. When he won, it was enough that he was a "little guy" who beat the government. It didn't matter if he was crooked.

A message: Now a jury of 10 woman and two men have given up 10 weeks of their lives to give the voters of the Mahoning Valley a second chance. They've spoken -- clearly and unanimously -- in a way that drowns out the weak claims heard too often in the 17th Congressional District that Traficant is no different from any other politician.

Too many people here buy the line that "everybody does it." Traficant acknowledges as much when he complains that he didn't get a fair trial because he didn't have a homegrown jury.

The message from Cleveland Thursday when the jury found Traficant guilty of bribery, racketeering and tax evasion was that everybody doesn't believe that corruption and politics are inseparable. It is time for the people of the Mahoning Valley to embrace that fact and to resolve that they will not squander the chance they have been given to demand more from themselves and more from the people they elect.




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