Although former congressman and ex-convict James A. Traficant Jr. has kept out of the public spotlight — mercifully — he’s still making news.
Last weekend, ProPublica, a non-profit investigative news organization, in partnership with the Washington Post, published an in-depth series on presidential pardons. One of the stories delved into the efforts by members of Congress on behalf of constituents who had fallen from legal grace.
The piece was headlined “Congressional Letters: Power and Persuasion Don’t Always Add Up to Pardons” and focused on several congressmen and women who had sent letters to the president.
One of those was Traficant, the Democrat from Poland who had represented the 17th congressional district (originally the 19th) in the House of Representatives for 17 years.
But what ProPublica wrote about him simply reinforces the widely held perception that he was a political blowhard.
“One way to undermine your advocacy for a pardon application is to commit a felony yourself. Such was the case of former Ohio Rep. James Traficant, a Democrat who was convicted on 10 felony counts of bribery, racketeering and fraud a year after he wrote letters in support of two Ohio men convicted of charges arising from their ties to organized crime.”
One of men seeking a presidential pardon was Michael “Beef” Terlecky, a former lieutenant in the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department, who was found guilty of violating federal gambling laws and served time from November 1990 to August 1991.
In a letter dated Jan. 22, 2001, to President George W. Bush, Traficant wrote that Terlecky had served his punishment without complaint and had recognized and acknowledged his mistakes.
“However, 15 years after his committed offenses and ten years after the completion of his sentence, this charge continues to affect his personal and professional life,” Traficant wrote. “Michael has been an honest and upstanding member of our society ever since. He is a good family man and deserves to have his name cleared.”
The second recipient of Traficant’s generosity was Pat Traficant, the then congressman’s cousin and a well established figure in the gaming industry in Las Vegas.
“Pat was convicted of violating federal gambling laws in the Eastern District of Ohio on the sixth of February, 1974,” Traficant wrote to President Bush. “He was sentenced to five years probation and fined $5,000. His probation was served and completed in February of 1979, and the fine was paid in full by the same date.”
Traficant noted that Pat Traficant had served for six years in the National Guard “and has been an honest and upstanding member of our society ever since. He is a good family man and deserves to have his name cleared.”
The two letters were reprinted by ProPublica.
But as the investigative news organization noted, neither Terlecky nor Pat Traficant received a presidential pardon.
Valley residents who followed the congressman’s own criminal history will recall that in 2000, when it became clear that Traficant was a target of the FBI, Terlecky became his strongest ally and helped him build his defense against the FBI by claiming that local agents participated in mob-related activities.
In May of 2001, the former sheriff of Mahoning County was indicted by a federal grand jury on 10 criminal counts that stemmed from his using his public position for personal gain.
He was convicted in 2002 by a jury after a trial in which he defended himself. His conviction and eight-year prison sentence — he served a little over seven years — finally brought to an end one of the darkest periods in the Valley’s political history.
Traficant, who in 1983 had successfully defended himself in a federal trial on racketeering, bribery and tax evasion charges, became the face of the Valley for more than two decades.
So, why did he think that President Bush would give serious consideration to his letters seeking pardons for Terlecky and Pat Traficant? Because the Democratic congressman had publicly sided with Republican Bush over Democrat Al Gore in the controversial 2000 presidential election.
But despite kissing up to the Republicans, he was expelled from the House after his conviction. Only one member voted against kicking him out.