Controversial sheriff, congressman succumbs after farming accident


By David Skolnick | skolnick@vindy.com

Former U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., the most controversial Mahoning Valley political figure of the last half-century, died Saturday as a result of injuries he sustained in a farm-tractor accident.

Traficant, 73, was in “very critical condition” after the accident. He was sedated during his time in the intensive care unit of St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Youngstown.

Atty. Heidi Hanni, a family spokeswoman, wouldn’t provide details of the former congressman’s death, to allow the family time to grieve. She said more information would be released Monday or Tuesday.

No information has been released on funeral arrangements, although there’s been speculation since shortly after the

accident about them and whether there would be any.

Traficant was driving a 1943 Ford tractor at about 7:50 p.m. Tuesday at his family farm on West South Range Road in Greenford. About 140 feet into a large pole barn, the vehicle struck a large steel blade on the ground. That caused the tractor to roll over backward onto Traficant, still in the driver’s seat, who was trapped underneath the vehicle.

Andrew Thomson of Mercer, Pa., was looking at equipment at the farm and was talking with the former congressman as Traficant drove the tractor into the barn. When Thomson didn’t get a response from Traficant, he checked the barn, saw Traficant under the tractor and called 911 on his cellphone, said Goshen Police Chief Steven T. McDaniel.

After the accident, emergency responders were there in minutes, lifted the tractor and administered CPR to Traficant, McDaniel said.

They also got Traficant out of the barn because gas was leaking from the tractor, he said.

Elizabeth H. Traficant, one of Traficant’s daughters, is the owner of record of the 76-acre farm at 6908 W. South Range Road since

Dec. 10, 1999, though her father spent a lot of time there.

He owned the farm for about 25 years before selling it in 1994 to his wife, Tish, for $32,100, according to Mahoning County auditor online records. Those same records show Tish gave the property Dec. 10, 1999, to Elizabeth at no cost.

The farm was a key location in Traficant’s political corruption trial in 2002. Among his convictions was having contractors do work at the farm for political favors, and having congressional staff members work there while on federal time.

Traficant served more than 17 years in the U.S. House as a Democrat before being expelled in July 2002. He was only the second member of Congress expelled since the Civil War.

It came shortly after a federal jury convicted him of 10 felony counts including racketeering, bribery, tax evasion and obstruction of justice.

He served a little more than seven years in federal prison before his release Sept. 2, 2009. Upon release, he was placed on reporting probation for three years.

HIS YEARS AS SHERIFF

As Mahoning County sheriff in the early 1980s, he was a populist who garnered support when he refused to sign property foreclosures, saying he didn’t want to see people lose their homes.

He also became a folk hero to some after successfully defending himself in a federal criminal trial charging him with bribery and tax evasion over accepting mob money during his 1980 campaign.

Traficant, who served as his own attorney in that trial, as well as the 2002 case, said he took the money as part of a one-man sting operation. He was found not guilty in June 1983, using that victory to launch a successful congressional campaign in 1984.

However, he lost a civil case, in which he also defended himself, against the IRS for failing to pay taxes on the $163,000 in bribes.

During his time in Congress, he became well-known nationally for his outrageous clothes — including a denim bell-bottomed suit and cowboy boots — and his wild hairdo, which was a toupee, as many had believed.

He was also known for his punchy one-minute speeches on the House floor which usually included the phrase “Beam me up!” from the “Star Trek” television series.

Among his favorite targets were the Internal Revenue Service, China, then-Attorney General Janet Reno, and talking about unusual current events dealing with sex.

After a promising start in Congress, he fell out of favor with his fellow Democrats.

He became the only rank-and-file U.S. House member in nearly 100 years not to get any committee assignments when he crossed the party line in January 2001 to vote for Republican Dennis Hastert as speaker of the House. It was among his last votes in Congress as he stopped going to the House because of his pending indictment, which was unsealed four months later.

He unsuccessfully ran for re-election from prison in 2002, and ran again in 2010 after he was released.

He lost both times to Democrat Tim Ryan, a former Traficant aide.

Ryan said, “I am saddened to hear this news about former congressman Traficant. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.”

Besides the failed congressional run in 2010, Traficant also got nowhere with a proposed Indian gambling casino in the Mahoning Valley, which isn’t permitted in Ohio under state and federal law.

In recent years, Traficant has traveled around the country to speak at anti-government and tea-party rallies and wrote columns for

American Free Press, an anti-government publication.

Traficant was in Washington, D.C., in July for an event to discuss his ideas to abolish the IRS and to eliminate all taxes and replace them with a flat 15-percent national retail sales tax on goods and services.

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