The congressman repeatedly violated the public trust by trading his office for gain, an ethics committee attorney said.
BY DAVID SKOLNICKVINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. told a congressional ethics panel considering his expulsion that he had no interest in turning the proceeding into a "sideshow."
He then accused ethics committee attorneys of misconduct, sought the immediate dismissal of his charges, requested the committee investigate breeches of confidentiality, and informed the committee's chairman that his only two witnesses couldn't be at the hearing today.
The sideshow comment came in response to statements made last week by U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, chairman of the subcommittee, that if Traficant, well-known for his outrageousness, tried to turn the hearing into a sideshow, he would put an immediate end to it.
"That's not my purpose here," Traficant told Hefley. "I'm facing 100 years in prison and $3 million [in fines] on a bunch of hearsay ... This isn't a walk in the park for me."
Federal prosecutors who handled Traficant's case are actually requesting U.S. District Court Judge Lesley Brooks Wells sentence him to about seven years.
Charges by panel
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.
Kenneth Kellner, one of two ethics committee attorneys handling Traficant's case, spent much of his opening statement reviewing the congressman's federal corruption trial.
"This case is about Rep. Traficant's conduct," Kellner said. "By clear and convincing evidence, we will show Rep. Traficant used a continued pattern of misconduct. He repeatedly traded his office for money, farm equipment and other things of value ... He also directed his congressional staff to do his bidding. Rep. Traficant had his congressional staff laboring at his farm in the hot summer."
Traficant repeatedly violated the public trust by "trading his office for gain," Kellner said.
In response, Traficant said in his opening statement that "you have just heard hearsay evidence. They have presented you a document filled with hearsay."
Traficant insisted he committed no crimes and because of his insistence of innocence, he will end up in prison for a longer time than if he accepted guilty.
"I will die in jail," Traficant told the subcommittee. "No one owns me."
Traficant told the committee he would testify on his behalf.
"I'm certainly not about to quit now," Traficant said today before the hearing began.
Traficant was to call two witnesses at the hearing, but said neither was available to appear today.
Those witnesses are Linda Kovachik, a Traficant staffer, and Sandra Ferrante, his former horse trainer who lived for years on his family farm in Greenford. They could testify by noon Tuesday, Traficant said.
His request to delay the testimony of the two was denied by Hefley, who added he would reconsider the request later today.
Traficant also asked that the charges against him be dismissed, pointing in particular to claims that Richard Detore, Traficant's co-defendant charged with taking part in a bribery scheme involving the congressman, was threatened by ethics committee lawyers if he did not cooperate with them.
Traficant said Detore was threatened with being charged with contempt of Congress by Rob Walker, the committee's chief counsel, if he did not cooperate.
Bernadette Sargeant, an ethics committee counsel, said that was not the case. Sargeant said she and Walker spoke with Detore, who offered several excuses -- including that the stress would cause him physical harm -- for not testifying at the hearing, and if he was called, he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself by his testimony. The decision was made to not use Detore as a witness, Sargeant said.
Hefley was not amused by Traficant's allegations.
"Some of those statements are false and you wouldn't want me to place you under oath" to repeat them, Hefley said. Traficant said he would be willing to repeat the allegations under oath.
The ethics committee's attorneys planned to call no witnesses, Hefley said. The committee's attorneys were expected to take 90 minutes to present their side. Each side was given five hours to present its cases and an hour each for closing arguments.
Traficant's appearance 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.
The subcommittee went into a five-minute executive session shortly after the hearing began today to discuss procedural matters about the admission of taped conversations made by Traficant.
The question of allowing the tapes to be introduced as evidence was raised by U.S. Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, a Madison Republican and member of the committee. LaTourette is a longtime Traficant friend.
The subcommittee conducted a practice run of the hearing Sunday.
U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston, Texas, Democrat and member of the subcommittee, had a medical emergency, Hefley said, and did not attend the beginning of the hearing. He was expected to arrive at the hearing later today.
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, 61, will have the opportunity to mount a defense, which is likely to include his own witnesses.
Traficant, who is not a lawyer, 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.
To represent himself
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.
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.
Contributor: David Enrich, States News Service