TRAFICANT CASE Rep to face col leagues House panel to decide if congressman gets booted
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. is making his long-awaited return to Capitol Hill, although he assuredly would like to be coming back under better circumstances.
The convicted congressman will be in Washington, D.C., to appear at a hearing Monday morning before the House ethics subcommittee that will consider his expulsion from the House.
The hearing in front of the eight-member subcommittee, consisting of seven former attorneys, is expected to take two to three days.
Traficant will defend himself during the subcommittee hearing as he did during his failed trial in federal court, in which he was convicted of 10 felony counts including bribery and racketeering.
Traficant, a Poland Democrat, will possibly have a few attorneys at his side to provide "some technical help on some of the issues," said Charles Straub, his spokesman.
Ken Kellner and Paul Lewis, two ethics committee lawyers, will prosecute Traficant's case.
The hearing is expected to attract national television and newspaper coverage with a few dozen reporters on hand to record the proceedings.
"Congressman Traficant could carry on for quite a long time. Members will probably be loath to stop him from talking for days and days," said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, which monitors the ethics committee process.
"Traficant is very volatile and unpredictable. All we know from Traficant is to expect the unexpected."
Both sides will be permitted to call witnesses and introduce evidence as long as the subcommittee determines they are relevant to the investigation, something Traficant had trouble with during his corruption trial in Cleveland.
U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, who chairs the ethics subcommittee, will keep Traficant on a short leash.
"There are certain rules of decorum for the House of Representatives, for the committee and for the hearing," said Sarah Shelden, Hefley's spokeswoman.
"If Mr. Traficant gets out of hand, Mr. Hefley will close the hearing."
Traficant and the committee's attorneys had to give each other the names of their witnesses, summaries of their expected testimony, and copies of any documents or other evidence proposed to be introduced, according to the committee's rules.
Traficant also had the opportunity to ask the subcommittee to issue subpoenas for the appearance of witnesses and/or the production of evidence, committee rules state.
Unless otherwise specified by Hefley, each side is able to question each witness for no more than five minutes and has the same time frame for redirect and recross-examinations. The subcommittee members can also ask questions of the witnesses.
During much of his 171/2 years in Congress, Traficant earned a reputation for rarely missing a House vote. But he has not cast a single vote in the House this year.
Traficant left Capitol Hill in late January to prepare for his federal trial, which ran from Feb. 5 to April 11. Since his conviction, Traficant has heeded the warning of the ethics committee to not return to Washington, D.C., while it investigates him.
Most, if not all, of the faces on the subcommittee will be familiar to Traficant simply because he is a nine-term incumbent who has spent years wheeling and dealing in Congress.
Traficant has had a close relationship with U.S. Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, a Madison, Ohio, Republican who serves on the subcommittee.
LaTourette is one of Traficant's closest friends on Capitol Hill and before Traficant's conviction, LaTourette had high praise for the congressman.
LaTourette declined to discuss the hearing but noted that he will be objective. To keep that objectivity, he has stopped talking to Traficant and his staffers, even though he still considers them friends.
LaTourette is among two members of the subcommittee from Ohio. The other is U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a Cleveland Democrat. No other state has more than one representative on the subcommittee.
The hearing process is unfamiliar to everyone involved. Traficant is only the fourth congressman to be investigated by the ethics committee in the past four years. The three others left office before expulsion hearings could be held.
Also, there have only been four congressmen ever expelled in the nation's history, and only one --Michael Myers, a Democrat from Pennsylvania in 1980 -- has been removed since the Civil War.
Myers was expelled under the ethics committee's former standards, revised in the 1990s, that had the committee hold its hearing behind closed doors.
Most congressmen facing ethics charges resign before any action can be taken against them.
The only disciplinary action taken against a member of Congress in the past decade, not including the issuance of letters of reproval against two congressmen, was when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, was reprimanded and fined $300,000 in 1997 for spending tax-exempt funds on political activities.
Party members can block disciplinary action against their own, but that's probably not going to be the case with Traficant, a maverick Democrat who is running for re-election this year as an independent.
"Traficant will be an easy punching bag," said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch.
"He's become a pariah for the Democrats [and] it's more likely than normal that they'd be willing to vote for some sanction against him. The Republicans don't necessarily have any great incentive to protect him either. For the first time, we might see an ethical ruling that is more than a slap on the wrist."
Jim Wright, the House speaker who resigned in 1989 as the ethics committee investigated his alleged financial improprieties, said Traficant faces an even more poisonous political climate than he did.
"It's a different universe," he said. "Instead of destroying your opponent's argument, people now try to destroy their opponents."
Richard J. Phelan, the former ethics committee lawyer who chased Wright out of Congress, said that because of a myriad of corporate scandals, lawmakers are less likely to tolerate financial improprieties.
"His timing is terrible," he said. "If the market were up and we didn't have scandals on the front page," it might be a different story.
A separate four-member ethics subcommittee accused Traficant on June 27 of 10 violations of the House's code of official conduct and the Code of Ethics for Government Services in a report that mirrored his conviction in federal court on 10 felony counts. He will be sentenced in federal court July 30.
The report accused Traficant of agreeing to perform and performing official acts on behalf of individuals and/or businesses in exchange for things of value; agreeing to employ a congressional staffer in exchange for $2,500 monthly kickbacks; persuading that same staffer, R. Allen Sinclair, to destroy evidence and give false testimony to a federal grand jury; filing false income tax returns; and engaging in a "continuing pattern and practice of official misconduct through which he misused his office for personal gain."
After all the testimony and evidence have been presented, the subcommittee will consider each count against Traficant in private and determine by a majority vote of its eight members whether each count had been proved.
If a majority does not vote that a count has been proved, a motion to reconsider that vote may be made only by a member who voted that the count was not proved. Any count not proved will be considered as dismissed.
If a violation is proved, a hearing will be held by the full committee to receive either oral or written submissions by the committee's counsel and Traficant as to the sanctions to be recommended.
The committee can recommend to the full House a variety of sanctions including expulsion, censure, reprimand, fine, denial or limitation of rights and privileges, a letter of reproval or any other sanctions deemed appropriate.
The recommendations from the ethics committee are considered by the entire House. Traficant would have at least 30 minutes to argue his case in front of the House before its members voted. Expulsion requires a two-thirds majority vote. All other sanctions require a simple majority.
Timing is going to be key in determining Traficant's fate.
The House is scheduled to take a lengthy recess after July 26, leaving less than two weeks for the subcommittee hearing, the ethics committee recommendation and a vote on Traficant's punishment by the full House.
Hefley told Roll Call, a congressional publication, that the committee could have a resolution ready for consideration by the House at the end of the week, if necessary.
The House is tentatively set to reopen its session Sept. 4, and members do not want to linger around Washington for the rest of the year, preferring to concentrate on running for re-election.
XContributors: David Enrich and Anand Giridharadas, States News Service