Local state legislators want the House Democratic Caucus to step in to help the 17th District if the congressman resigns or is expelled.
Congressional lawmakers are in place to conduct an inquiry into whether U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., convicted of federal bribery and tax evasion charges, should be disciplined by the House.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., will be chairman of the panel, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California will be the leading Democrat. Reps. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and John Lewis, D-Ga., also will serve on the panel.
The House ethics committee selected the panel Wednesday.
Traficant's chief of staff, Charles Straub, said the nine-term Democrat was at his Poland, Ohio, home and would have no comment. Traficant has said he has no plans to resign and will run for re-election as an independent candidate.
An automatic disciplinary investigation by the ethics committee was triggered after the 60-year-old lawmaker was found guilty last week of taking kickbacks from staff members and bribes and gifts from businessmen. He will be sentenced June 27 and likely faces four to six years in prison. The congressman has said he will appeal his conviction.
The four-member panel will meet in private as it reviews trial transcripts and evidence to see if House rules were violated.
If violations are found, a separate eight-member bipartisan panel would conduct public hearings to determine whether to recommend expulsion, censure, reprimand or fines. In most cases, committee removal would be another option, but Traficant was shut out from committee membership stemming from his vote for Rep. Dennis Hastert, a Republican, for speaker of the House.
Expulsion from Congress, the most severe punishment, would require approval of two-thirds of the 435-member House.
State lawmakers' request
If Traficant leaves Congress early, some members of the Mahoning Valley's state legislative delegation want the House minority leader to step in and provide services to local constituents.
"Any 'congressional muscle' would be absent since no actual congressman would be in place to fight for our district's needs," the legislators wrote in a letter to House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. "The needs of our district are great, and we ask that every consideration be made by the House Democratic Caucus to help our constituents."
Kori Bernards, Gephardt's spokeswoman, could not be reached to comment on the request.
Gephardt has frequently been at odds with Traficant and called for Traficant's resignation the day the congressman was convicted.
Two members of Congress, including the chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, have submitted resolutions calling for Traficant's expulsion.
The ethics committee promised a swift investigation. "Both the investigative subcommittee and the full committee are committed to conducting this matter as quickly as possible," the committee said.
Under House rules, Traficant has 10 days to object to the committee's membership.
Clerk of House to fill in
If Traficant resigns or is expelled, the Republican-controlled Clerk of the House would assume the responsibilities of running the 17th Congressional District offices in Washington, D.C., and the Mahoning Valley. Traficant's staff would be retained until a new congressman is selected.
State Reps. John Boccieri, a New Middletown Democrat, and Kenneth A. Carano, an Austintown Democrat, said it is highly unlikely that Gov. Bob Taft would call for a special election if Traficant resigns or is expelled. That would leave the seat vacant through the end of the year.
"We are concerned about our constituents' being represented if there is a gap," Boccieri said. "We are asking congressman Gephardt to use the full resources of the House Democratic Caucus."
Boccieri and Carano declined to say if they believe Traficant should resign or be expelled. But Carano described having no congressman for the area as a "catastrophe," and it was described as a "tragic sequence of events" in the letter.
U.S. Reps. Ted Strickland, a Lucasville Democrat, and Thomas C. Sawyer, an Akron Democrat, who are both seeking to represent the Mahoning Valley under the state's new redistricting plan, have said they would do all they could to assist this area in Congress, when they are called upon to help.
Boccieri and Carano signed the letter at a Wednesday press conference. State Rep. Anthony A. Latell Jr., a Girard Democrat running for Congress, attended the press conference but did not say anything. Also, Latell does not plan to sign the letter because his candidacy could be construed as a conflict of interest on this matter, Carano said.
Boccieri and Carano said two other local legislators -- state Reps. Sylvester D. Patton Jr., a Youngstown Democrat, and Dan Sferra, a Warren Democrat -- plan to sign the letter shortly.