President Bush’s latest list of pardons made national news last week — but received passing mention in the Mahoning Valley. It certainly would have been different had former Congressman James A. Traficant Jr.’s name been included.
Talk about a major story — not only for residents of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, but for people around Ohio and even the nation. Traficant’s name still triggers all sorts of emotional responses from those he represented in Congress for 17 years and those who got to see him on national television when he was railing against America’s loss of manufacturing might through the outsourcing of job and warning about the Chinese Communist government’s plan to control the U.S. economy.
Traficant also gained national and international notoriety after he was convicted by a federal jury in 2002 of 10 criminal charges, including racketeering, bribery and tax evasion.
A federal judge sentenced him to eight years in prison and he is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2009. He could come out in July and serve the rest of his sentence in a halfway house. But even after serving his time, he would still be on probation.
That’s why there is so much interest in whether the former 17th District Democratic congressman will seek a presidential pardon or a commutation of his sentence from outgoing President Bush. The Republican’s eight-year tenure ends Jan. 20.
But for the White House to even begin the process of reviewing Traficant’s case, the former congressman must swallow his pride and stop being such a hard head.
Circle of friends
Over the years, some of his friends and long-time supporters in the Mahoning Valley have met to discuss how a pardon or sentence commutation could be accomplished.
In 2005, there was a meeting of Traficant’s family, close friends Dominic and Diane Marchese and Dr. William C. Binning, professor emeritus at Youngstown State University, with Republican Congressman Steven LaTourette. LaTourette was a close friend of Traficant’s on Capitol Hill.
They discussed strategy, but took a presidential pardon off the table. That’s because a pardon is issued only if the individual seeking it admits guilt. Traficant did not do that in 2002 when he defended himself in federal court, and is still refusing to do so.
He continues to insist that he was railroaded by the U.S. Justice Department because of his public criticism of the IRS, FBI and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
It also was said that President Bush himself made it known in 2004 to then Youngstown Mayor George M. McKelvey that a pardon was not in the books.
Thus, a commutation is Traficant’s only hope — if he is willing to fill out the appropriate forms and if his case meets the standard for such action by the president. Appropriate grounds for commutation include “disparity of undue severity or sentence, critical illness or old age, and meritorious service rendered to the government by the petitioner.” Such service includes cooperation with investigative or prosecution efforts that have not been adequately rewarded by other official action. The finer points of commutation can be found in an electronic publication of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
So, how can Traficant be persuaded to petition for a presidential commutation and how can President Bush be moved to give the former Democratic congressman a break?
To the first question, the answer lies with a rumor that has been circulating for a couple of years, namely, that the former sheriff of Mahoning County has a life-threatening illness.
When he was moved from a prison in New York State to one in Rochester, Minn., which has a medical treatment facility, the rumors took on new life.
To the second question, Dr. Binning believes that McKelvey, the former Democratic mayor of Youngstown who publicly and enthusiastically supported President Bush’s re-election in 2004, could make a difference.
But word would have to reach the federal inmate that the retired city and county officeholder is willing to go to bat for him.