By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- U.S. Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, a close friend of U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant's and a member of the House ethics committee that recommended Traficant's expulsion from Congress, said his pal was targeted by the federal government.
But Traficant, a Poland Democrat, would have had nothing to fear about that if he didn't do anything wrong, LaTourette said.
"My observation is at the end of the day, I don't have any doubts that Jim Traficant was targeted and that they were going to get him," LaTourette said.
"But I also was convinced by clear and convincing evidence that he provided them with a brand-new rope" to hang himself.
LaTourette, a Madison Republican, admits he played the "devil's advocate" during Traficant's four-day hearing, but it had nothing to do with their friendship.
"I think that whether it's Jim Traficant, who's a friend, or it's Joe Blow, who you don't like, any member [of Congress who] finds themselves in that situation deserves a fair hearing," LaTourette said.
"I would do that for anybody, and I would hope that everybody on the committee would do that for me if I ever found myself in that situation."
Based upon the committee's rules that restricted LaTourette -- and other members -- to only consider the evidence presented, he said he had no choice but to vote in favor of recommending Traficant's expulsion.
The House will consider Traficant's expulsion next week, probably Tuesday or Wednesday. It would take a two-thirds majority of the House to expel Traficant, who would be only the fifth member of Congress to be expelled.
What was disturbing
LaTourette said he was "most bothered" by the testimony of Richard E. Detore, Traficant's co-defendant and star witness at the hearing who made allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the federal investigation of the congressman.
Detore said he was threatened by Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Morford, the lead prosecutor on Traficant's case, and urged to lie to get the congressman.
"When Mr. Detore was finished, it did occur to me that if it happened to one, it happened to" the key witnesses who testified against Traficant, including businessmen J.J. Cafaro, James Sabatine, Anthony Bucci and A. David Sugar, as well as R. Allen Sinclair, a former Traficant staffer, LaTourette said.
"However, based upon the rules of the House and based upon the evidence that was presented to us and we were permitted to consider, I reached the decision I did," he said.
LaTourette said he found Sandy Ferrante, a horse trainer at Traficant's farm, to be another excellent witness. He said the testimony of Linda Kovachik, a Traficant staffer, and Michael Robertson, a former Secret Service agent who testified about the lack of physical evidence tying Traficant to any of the crimes, to be truthful, but not having much to do with the congressman's case.
LaTourette said he spoke to Traficant after the expulsion recommendation was made and told him, "Based upon what was before me, this was the conclusion that I felt I needed to reach."
After being found guilty of nine of the 10 violations of House ethics rules he faced, Traficant turned to LaTourette and said: "If I'm out of here, I want you to work with whoever succeeds me ... to help my people."
Based upon new congressional district lines that take effect next year, LaTourette's congressional district will include seven northern Trumbull County townships, most of which Traficant currently represents.
LaTourette, a former Lake County prosecutor, said it was unfortunate that circumstances would not allow the ethics committee to get the flavor of Traficant's federal corruption trial -- such as being able to judge for themselves the credibility of each witness based on how each reacted while testifying -- instead of relying on a transcript of the proceedings.
"That's troubling to me," said LaTourette, who added he was bound to make his decision within the confines the committee was given.
"It was a unanimous vote [to expel]. The issue was, 'Was I convinced by clear and convincing evidence based upon what was submitted to me that was the appropriate recommendation to the House?' The answer is 'yes.' Likewise, would I have liked to have seen more evidence? Sure, sure."
Basis of case
The ethics committee's attorneys called no witnesses and their case was built entirely on the transcript of Traficant's federal trial that resulted in the congressman's being convicted on 10 felony counts including racketeering and bribery.
"I was left with the conclusion reached by the jurors as to whether or not J.J. Cafaro, Allen Sinclair, Tony Bucci and David Sugar were credible," LaTourette said.
Traficant's sentencing date is July 30, and federal prosecutors are asking the judge to give Traficant a federal prison sentence of more than seven years.
LaTourette called the Traficant hearing "a very difficult assignment, but I did what I had to do. ... I make no bones about it that the man is my friend. Sometimes you have friends who do things you don't like, admire or anything else. One of the sad things for me in public life is when people get in trouble, their so-called friends run from them like a scalded cat. I wasn't raised that way."
He declined to comment on the closed-door portions of the ethics committee discussions.
Even though LaTourette voted with the rest of the ethics committee to recommend Traficant's expulsion, he said he could not say how he would vote next week when the full House makes its decision.