CLEVELAND, Ohio – Rep. James Traficant Jr., the nine-term Ohio Democrat known for his combative manner and maverick politics, kicked off his trial on federal corruption charges Tuesday by immediately challenging the judge.
Traficant, who is representing himself, objected to the closed-circuit television arrangement U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells had made whereby the public and reporters watched the proceedings from a second courtroom.
The main courtroom was filled with potential jurors, but Traficant said the setup didn't let the public and the media experience "the ambiance" of the trial.
Wells stood by her arrangements. "That's the way we do it," she said.
Traficant also didn't like Wells' requirement that his note-taker, like him a non-attorney, sit at the defense table, at least on Tuesday, because of the crowded courtroom.
The 60-year-old legislator is facing 10 corruption and bribery charges that carry a potential penalty of more than 60 years in prison and $2 million in fines.
He is accused of accepting gifts and favors from constituents in exchange for lobbying in Washington. He also allegedly gave his staff the choice between paying him cash kickbacks or doing work at his horse farm.
The Justice Department intends to show a pattern of corruption to support a racketeering charge.
Traficant lost an appeal Monday before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Judge Boyce Martin refused to delay the trial while considering whether congressional materials should be barred as evidence.
Traficant's advantage at trial will be his experience as a political communicator, said Thomas Flynn, a communications professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania who has researched Traficant's rhetorical style.
"I'm sure he wants the jurors to look at him as the little guy," Flynn said. "He wants to say, 'Look what they are doing to me, and they can do it to you, too.' He's not uneducated. I feel, though, that he may be in over his head. This is a much different case than in 1983."
That year, Traficant was accused of accepting $163,000 from mobsters and filing a false income-tax return.
The Justice Department played what it said were FBI tapes of conversations Traficant, Mahoning County Sheriff at the time, had with organized-crime figures — and presented his signed affidavit that he took mob money.
Traficant, then as now representing himself, told the jury he had been conducting a one-man undercover operation against mob influence in the Youngstown area.
The jury deliberated four days and acquitted him. He became a folk hero and was elected to Congress in 1984.
Traficant said after a recent hearing that he believes the Justice Department has been after him ever since.
While a quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh, Traficant had a reputation for overruling plays sent in by the coach.
"I get very upset with Jim Traficant because he is still a quarterback trying to run a football team," said Don Hanni, 76, a former Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman. "I'd hate to see him go down the tube on these charges. But he wants to try his own case. I keep asking him, 'Did you wear any head gear when you played football?'"
Traficant has angered members of his own party for years by voting with Republicans on many bills and helping to elect Republican Dennis Hastert as speaker. He is the only House member without a committee assignment.
At the microphone on the House floor, he can be counted on for arm-waving theatrics and expressions such as "Beam me up!"
Traficant has accused the lead prosecutor in the corruption case, Craig Morford, of securing witnesses to testify against him by threatening them with criminal charges. Morford has denied the allegations.
Last week, a federal judge dismissed Traficant's $250 million lawsuit accusing the government of violating his civil rights by singling him out for prosecution.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.