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WASHINGTON Panel begins Traficant hearings



Published: Mon, July 15, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The hearings are being televised by C-SPAN.

By DAVID ENRICH

STATES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- A congressional ethics panel opened hearings today to consider whether U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. should face disciplinary action in the U.S. House.

Traficant, a Poland Democrat, has been charged by the House ethics committee, officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, with 10 counts of "egregious misconduct."

The charges largely mirror the felonies of which he was convicted in April.

Traficant's appearance today before the eight-member Adjudicatory Subcommittee marks his first time in Washington this year.

He spent much of 2002 preparing for and participating in his criminal trial, and after his convictions in April, the ethics committee warned him not to return to the capital pending an investigation.

Like a criminal trial

The adjudicatory phase of the proceedings is similar to a criminal trial. Two ethics committee lawyers will present their case against Traficant, including witnesses and evidence from the 10-week criminal trial.

Traficant will have the opportunity to mount a defense, which is likely to include his own witnesses.

Traficant and the prosecuting attorneys will be able to briefly cross-examine each other's witnesses. Members of the ethics committee also will be able to question the witnesses.

Experts on the ethics committee process say that the length of time that lawmakers spend questioning witnesses is likely to be a key variable in determining how long the hearing goes.

To represent himself

Traficant, 61, who is not a lawyer, is representing himself before the ethics committee, although he is being accompanied by legal counsel that might assist him in "limited technical matters," according to Traficant spokesman Charles Straub.

The Adjudicatory Subcommittee is charged with determining whether there is "clear and convincing evidence" of Traficant's guilt.

If it finds him guilty, the full 10-member ethics committee will have to recommend a punishment, which could include a monetary fine, being censured or reprimanded or expulsion from the House. The full House will then vote on an appropriate punishment. Disciplinary action against members of Congress is rare.

The House has not expelled a member since 1980, when Michael Myers, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was caught on videotape accepting bribes.

Before that, the only three members to be expelled had defected to the Confederacy during the Civil War. Lesser punishments are more frequent but still uncommon.

Gingrich case

The last time a lawmaker was disciplined was in 1997 when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, was reprimanded and fined $300,000 for spending tax-exempt funds on political activities.

This is the first high-profile ethics committee hearing since the committee's rules were revised in the 1990s to open hearings to the public.

Most observers expect the committee to recommend that Traficant be expelled. Historically, most lawmakers have resigned in the face of an ethics committee investigation.

But Traficant's aides say the congressman, who is running for re-election this year as an independent, is determined to prevail.

Televised hearings

The hearings are being televised live on C-SPAN. A committee meeting room in the Rayburn House Office Building was packed this morning with dozens of reporters and curious congressional aides.

The rarity of the ethics committee proceedings is not the only thing fueling the national interest in them.

Traficant has a reputation for rambunctious antics, which he has earned over his nearly 18-year congressional career and he reinforced that when he represented himself during his criminal trial in Cleveland.

The chairman of the ethics committee, U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., has vowed to close the hearing if "Traficant gets out of hand."




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