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TRAFICANT ETHICS HEARING Ruling is in panel's hands



Published: Thu, July 18, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



BULLETIN: The House panel members announced this morning that they found Rep. James A. Traficant guilty of nine of 10 ethics violations.

By DAVID ENRICH

STATES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. has had a short, and not especially sweet, visit to the nation's capital.

Three days after Traficant arrived in Washington for the first time since January, the House ethics committee retreated to a closed-door executive session Wednesday evening to decide whether Traficant, a Poland Democrat, is corrupt and has violated the House code of conduct.

Meanwhile, Traficant said he was preparing to leave town so that he could focus on his appeals of recent convictions on 10 felony counts.

The Adjudicatory Subcommittee convened for several hours Wednesday in its office suite nestled in the basement of the Capitol. The committee was expected to make an announcement this morning on whether it had reached a decision or needed more time to deliberate.

The eight members of the subcommittee remained tight-lipped Wednesday about how they would rule, even as Traficant repeatedly stated that he expected to be expelled from the House.

By a majority vote, the committee must decide whether there is "clear and convincing evidence" of Traficant's guilt for each of the 10 counts of corruption, which include bribery, obstruction of justice, defrauding the federal government and tax evasion.

The case against Traficant was based entirely on the transcript of and evidence from his criminal trial, which took place in Cleveland from Feb. 5 to April 11.

Postponement rejected

Traficant urged the committee Wednesday to postpone its ruling until after he is sentenced by U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells on July 30. After announcing that he and his attorney are filing two appeals of the jury's verdict, Traficant also said the panel should delay any judgment until after his appeals have been considered by a court.

"I think it would be very unfair for to expel any member" while his appeals are pending, Traficant said. "I think you should at least give it a week to review."

Rep. Joel Hefley, the Colorado Republican who chairs the ethics committee, rejected Traficant's motion.

He and other committee members said they do not know how long it will take them to reach a final decision as to whether Traficant is guilty. "We're not going to be distracted" by time constraints, Hefley said.

The ethics committee -- officially called the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct -- has also arranged a hearing to start at 2 p.m. if they do not disclose their decision in the morning.

Before making the decision, the committee members and staff will have to review several pieces of evidence that Traficant introduced Wednesday, including a number of affidavits and 10 audiotapes of his conversations with people he said would prove prosecutorial misconduct.

The tapes, considered hearsay, were disallowed as evidence at trial because the people were available to testify.

Won't be identified

Hefley said the committee might not disclose how many members voted for conviction on each count, and whether anyone dissented. He said that the panel would not identify how individual members voted.

In the past, when the committee has decided issues such as Traficant's motions for dismissal of the charges, committee members have reached a consensus without having an actual yes-or-no vote, said Rep. Gene Green, a Texas Democrat who sits on the panel.

If Traficant is found guilty on any of the 10 counts, the full ethics committee -- which has 10 members -- immediately will hold a hearing, open to the public, to consider how Traficant should be punished. Possible sanctions include a monetary fine, censure, revocation of certain House privileges or expulsion from the House.

The full House will need to approve any punishment by a simple majority vote; a two-thirds vote is needed to expel Traficant.

If, as Traficant expects, he ultimately is expelled from the House, it would be the first such instance since 1980, when Michael Myers, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was kicked out after he was caught on videotape accepting bribes from FBI agents disguised as Arab sheiks.

Says there's no evidence

In his closing argument, Traficant said the evidence against Myers was much clearer than in his case because Myers was videotaped while, Traficant insisted, no concrete evidence tied him to any of the crimes.

"There's one common thread that runs through the entire Traficant case: There's no evidence," Traficant said.

He argued that the witnesses who testified against him in the trial had been coerced by the prosecutors and were unreliable. He also said that the criminal records of some of the witnesses should lead committee members to doubt their veracity.

Paul Lewis, the ethics committee lawyer who prosecuted the case in front of the panel, repeatedly instructed the committee members to "use common sense" when considering the charges.

"For this congressman's entire career, he used his office for personal benefit," Lewis said.

He spent much of his closing argument defending the witnesses' credibility.

"If they were really out to get him, as opposed to telling the truth, there were many areas they could have embellished the truth," Lewis said.

"It's not often that we see such direct evidence of this sort of conduct," he concluded. "This case displays this conduct that thankfully often is not seen."

Outburst

Although Traficant sat silently for most of Lewis' closing argument, at one point he jumped out of his seat to object to the prosecutor's statement about a witness's testimony.

"He's making misrepresentations, and I've had enough," Traficant bellowed.

"Sit down, Mr. Traficant," Hefley shot back. He said that committee rules barred Traficant from objecting during a closing argument.

"I'm going to object to that whether it's committee rules or not," Traficant said.

"At this point, we don't particularly care what you want," Hefley said. "Cool your jets and relax and listen to Mr. Lewis' summation."

After Traficant and Lewis wrapped up their summations Wednesday, Traficant said he expects to leave Washington and would not be present for the sentencing hearing, which is open to the public.

He asked the committee to guarantee that it would not send a resolution recommending his expulsion to the House floor until next week, when he plans to return. Hefley refused to make any guarantees but implied that it was unlikely to occur this week.

"My advice to you would be to stay in town," Hefley said.

Won't predict outcome

Committee members -- including Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat with whom Traficant frequently traded barbs during the hearing -- emphasized that they would not necessarily vote to convict, much less expel, Traficant.

"We don't know that there'll be a sanctions hearing," Hefley said.

To Traficant, though, expulsion and jail time seemed inevitable.

"I will die in jail, but you know what? I will die in jail before I admit doing something I didn't do," he said.

The last few minutes of his closing statement seemed as much a farewell address as an argument against conviction. He apologized for his conduct during the criminal trial -- "I probably should have been a little more diplomatic" -- and for what Berman and other lawmakers had said was Traficant's anti-Semitism.

"If you allow one man's rights to be trampled upon and don't take every measure to ensure the sanctity of that Constitution and Bill of Rights, then you endanger every American," Traficant said. "I think that's what my case is about."




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