James A. Traficant Jr. is a federal prisoner today not because the FBI, the Justice Department and U.S. District Court Judge Lesley Brooks Wells conspired to deprive him of his freedom. And certainly not because he was the target of an elaborate scheme by friends and foes to turn him into a criminal. Traficant will spend the next eight years -- seven if he behaves himself -- in a federal penitentiary because he just couldn't stop being his crooked self.
His unsubstantiated charges of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, his blatant disrespect for the criminal justice system and his public threats against FBI agents all combined to force Judge Wells' hand Tuesday during the sentencing phase of the criminal trial. That she chose not to give him the maximum penalty under the federal sentencing guidelines is a testament to her sense of justice and fair play. She could have personalized the numerous negative comments Traficant made about her, but she did not.
As for remanding him into the custody of federal marshals immediately upon sentencing, Judge Wells had no choice. Traficant's behavior since his conviction in April, highlighted by his appearance two weeks ago before the House ethics committee and last week before the full House, painted a picture of an individual without remorse, with no sense of shame and certainly with no regrets for having sullied the reputation of the Mahoning Valley.
In addition, his threat to escape from prison so he could do harm to his perceived enemies -- even if he intended it only for dramatic effect -- sealed his fate.
His expulsion from the House of Representatives, where had served for over 17 years, gave this region a black eye that will take a long time to heal. The 420-1 vote delivered a strong message to the voters of the 17th Congressional District: Not every member of Congress uses his or her public office for personal gain. Also, by their overwhelming vote, the representatives let it be known that it is not standard operating procedure to demand salary kickbacks from congressional staffers and that it certainly isn't common for constituents to pay bribes or to give gifts and other things of value in return for a congressman performing routine, or even extraordinary, service.
The decision to expel Traficant was based on a recommendation from the ethics committee, which found him guilty of nine violations of the House's rules of official conduct.
Playing the victim
No, James A. Traficant Jr. was not railroaded. He chose to serve as his own lawyer, both in federal court and in the House of Representatives, and he alone decided to disregard the evidence against him and to build his case on the fanciful notion that the federal government has had nothing better to do than stalk him since 1983. That's when he successfully defended himself against federal charges of racketeering, bribery and tax evasion stemming from his 1980 campaign for Mahoning County sheriff. The government contended that he took $163,000 in bribes from a local organized crime faction with a promise to protect its interests and punish its competitors once he took office.
A jury disregarded a signed confession and tape recordings of his conversations with the mobsters. Jurors instead believed his claim that the confession was fake and the recordings were doctored. He won election to Congress in 1984.
But rather than spend the past 17 years truly representing the people of the Mahoning Valley and behaving in a manner that would have made us proud, he became the congressional jester, the buffoon who attracted attention because of his gutter mouth, his unconventional attire and his one-minute speeches. He was not a serious legislator, but he knew that he didn't have to be. Election after election showed that he had pulled the wool firmly over the eyes of a sufficient number of voters in the 17th District. He was their hero and could do no wrong.
Unfortunately, he was the lens through which the nation viewed the Mahoning Valley. And so today, we must suffer the consequences of having had Traficant as our congressman.
Time to close the book
But we must move forward and that means closing the book on James A. Traficant Jr. He is on the general election ballot as an independent candidate for the reconfigured 17th District Congressional seat and has predicted victory.
He must not win. Having a congressman who is serving time in a federal penitentiary will make the Valley the laughing stock of the nation, will undermine the job-creation efforts of various government and development agencies, and will deprive the people of effective representation.
We do not buy Traficant's contention that if he wins the general election members of the House would be willing to intercede on his behalf with the federal bureau of prisons. He said during a live television interview Monday on WFMJ-TV Channel 21 that he could be assigned to a prison in Washington, D.C., and given work privileges.
That, he argued, would enable him to attend debates on the floor of the House and to vote on legislation.
Any voters in the new 17th District who are inclined to buy that self-serving tripe, should ask themselves this: Could there be 218 members of the House willing to stick out their political necks for a convicted felon such as Traficant?
The erstwhile gentleman from Ohio is headed where he belongs -- a federal prison, not the U.S. House of Representatives.