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Traficant: Master of the disguise

Published: Sun, September 13, 2009 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)

By Bertram de Souza

The mug shots of James A. Traficant Jr. aren’t meant to highlight the fashion sense of the former congressman turned criminal. Rather, they are a commentary on the devious mind of a man whose life is and has long been a disguise. Everything Traficant does is designed to hide the truth.

From his appearance Thursday night on Greta Van Susteren’s show on Fox — his first formal interview since his release from federal prison — to his attendance last Sunday evening at a “Welcome Home Jimbo” party in Boardman, the goal was the same: Make people forget why he was sentenced to prison for eight years by a federal judge in Cleveland after a jury trial.

The three mug shots are an illustration of his strategy. In 2002, during the trial and while still a member of Congress representing the 17th District, Traficant had his trademark hairpiece and dressed in his much publicized outfits of bell bottoms, white or blue dress shirts with collar clasps and skinny ties. That was the Jim Traficant the people of the Mahoning Valley knew from way back when. He dressed that way when he was sheriff of Mahoning County from 1980 to 1984, when he successfully defended himself against federal criminal charges of racketeering, bribery and tax evasion in 1983, and when he ran for Congress in 1984.

In Washington, his refusal to don the uniform of Capitol Hill — pin-striped suits, white shirts, power ties — bolstered his folk hero image. It was intentional. His bell-bottom trousers were an effective distraction for some of the outrageous statements he made on and off the floor of the House.

After 17 years on Capitol Hill, during which he became politically invincible in his congressional district, Traficant was nabbed by the feds for using his public office for personal gain and was hit with 10 criminal counts. He defended himself, but unlike 1983, he lost.

And as he was booked into the federal prison, his hairpiece was removed. Thus, for seven years and a month, James A. Traficant Jr. was without his disguises.

The mug shot of him on Sept. 2, the day he was released from prison in Rochester, Minn., showed him au naturel — from his shoulders up. Indeed, his dress for the occasion was a T-shirt and shorts that came down to his knees. He also had on white knee-length stockings and tennis shoes.

But just four days later, he appeared at the party at Mr. Anthony’s banquet hall in Boardman — and it was the Jimbo of old.

The third mug shot shows the hairpiece — a lighter colored one to match his real hair that had turned white in prison — and the round-framed glasses. He also was dressed the way he did when he was in Congress and when he was defending himself in federal court.

Why? To disguise the fact that he is an ex-con who holds no public office and has no claim to any political high ground.

Of course, he made reference to his time behind bars when he spoke to the 1,200-plus supporters who attended the celebration. But even then he disguised the 85 months by tossing out the old excuses: I was framed; I was the target of a grand conspiracy; I was the victim of lies told by individuals who were threatened by the federal government if they didn’t say things that were not true.

Disguised life

His appearance on Fox Thursday night was a continuation of his disguised life. He went to prison, he said, because the Jewish lobby in this country had it in for him.

Jim Traficant, the champion of the underdog, served notice that he’s back — with guns blazing.

He made a good appearance on television — and that disguised a truth about Jim Traficant that long-time observers have known: He uses a lot of words but says nothing.

With bated breath Van Susteren asked him the big question: Are you going to run for Congress again?

Traficant replied in classic fashion: There’s a 50-50 chance I’ll run.

If only he would. Then he’d find out that time has passed him by.

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