10 Years in Review: The trail of Traficant

By David Skolnick

YOUNGSTOWN — James A. Traficant Jr. is only the second person to be expelled from the U.S. House of Representatives since the Civil War.

He served a federal prison sentence of more than seven years for 10 felony convictions, and unsuccessfully ran for Congress from his cell.

He’s been anything but quiet since his Sept. 2 release insisting he was railroaded and looking to run for Congress to get even with those who put him behind bars.

What Traficant — known for his toupee and retro clothes as much as his criminal convictions — did before he went to prison and what he’s done since his release makes him the top local news story of the decade as selected by reporters and editors of The Vindicator.

Traficant crossed party line in January 2001 to vote for Republican Dennis Hastert as speaker of the House.

That led to Traficant becoming the only House member in a non-leadership position without a committee assignment.

Four months later he was indicted on 10 felony counts.

Traficant, serving as his own attorney, was convicted in April 2002 on all of the counts he faced.

The jury believed Traficant took kickbacks from local businessmen and had congressional staffers do work on his Greenford farm and a former houseboat he owned on federal government time.

On July 24, 2002, the U.S. House voted to kick Traficant out of office, only the second person expelled from Congress since the Civil War. The other congressman expelled was Michael Myers of Pennsylvania, who was kicked out in 1980 after being convicted of accepting $50,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents.

Traficant was sentenced to prison July 30, 2002.

The fall-out from Traficant’s demise had major ramifications for Mahoning Valley politics.

With Traficant’s seat vacant, the Democratic primary was filled with political heavy-hitters, including then-U.S. Rep. Thomas Sawyer of Akron, then-state Rep. Anthony Latell of Girard, a longtime local legislator, and state Sen. Tim Ryan of Niles, an elected official for a little more than a year at the time.

Ryan pulled off what was considered an upset in the May 2002 Democratic primary, and easily won the general election that year.

Ryan quickly became a political powerhouse, eventually obtaining a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, a position Traficant had long coveted.

Another young local politician came to prominence this past decade.

Jay Williams, Youngstown’s community development agency director and an architect of the Youngstown 2010 redevelopment plan, was elected in November 2005 as the city’s first black mayor. He was also the first independent candidate to win the seat in about 80 years.

Williams was easily re-elected as a Democrat last month.

Other top stories of the decade include:

Murder continued to take a high toll in the Valley.

Among the two most visible was the ambush and killing of Youngstown police Patrolman Michael T. Hartzell on April 29, 2003, by Martin L. Koliser Jr. and the death of six — two women and four children — in a Jan. 23, 2008, fire purposely set by Michael A. Davis on East Side. The latter was the city’s largest mass murder.

It wasn’t a good decade for the Youngstown City School District.

The district received about $200 million from the state for new buildings. But the new buildings didn’t help the district’s academic woes.

It was the only public school system in Ohio in 2009 in “academic emergency,” the lowest rating the state gives. The district’s financial woes has landed it in state fiscal emergency.

The district also saw a number of its students leave to attend charter schools or to other public school districts through open enrollment.

Political corruption and misconduct in the Mahoning Valley continued during the past 10 years, though not as widespread as it was in the 1990s.

Besides Traficant, the federal government convicted two former Valley politicians of fraud this year.

The two are: Maureen A. Cronin, a former Mahoning County Common Pleas Court judge, and ex-Trumbull County Commissioner James Tsagaris.

Federal prosecutors continue to investigate allegations of political corruption in the Valley.

Also, Marc Dann of Liberty, elected attorney general in 2006 in what even he described as a “surprise,” didn’t last too long in office.

A sex scandal under his watch forced Dann to resign under pressure May 3, 2008, about 17 months after he took office as attorney general.

The Mahoning Valley was a key stop for presidential candidates in 2000, 2004 and 2008. Every major-party presidential nominee visited the Valley during the three campaigns.

Also, Barack Obama visited the Lordstown General Motors complex on Sept. 15, 2009, becoming the first sitting president to visit the area during an odd-numbered, non-election year.

Among the Valley’s other bright spots was the selection of George V. Murry as the first black bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown on March 28, 2007.

Also, downtown Youngstown enjoyed a revival led by the opening of Federal Plaza to connect East and West Federal streets, the Covelli Centre, and a number of high-tech businesses as well as bar and restaurants in former vacant buildings.


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