Traficant Pleas Before Peers

Convicted of bribery, tax evasion, and racketeering, Rep. James Traficant is now going to be judged by a panel of his peers, the House Ethics Committee, which will decide whether to recommend throwing the nine-term representative out of Congress.

The hearing, expected to last three days, got off to a cantankerous start Monday when Traficant, D-Ohio, lashed out at those he said are staging a "sideshow" and "lynching."

He specifically turned on the media, telling the camera crews covering the hearing to give him some room.

"This is disgusting. If I had a gastric emission it would destroy the cameras," Traficant said.

Later, he said he was unfairly targeted by federal prosecutors.

"I had no intent to commit a crime, but I will do the time and expect a long time to try and shut me up," Traficant, who often yelled at the committee, said. "But let me tell you there will be some smoking gun that will come out before it's over in the Traficant case and you will recognize that you let a member of Congress be convicted."

Monday's hearing is the first time Traficant, known for his poufy hair, loud clothes and animated House speeches punctuated with an emphatic "beam me up" line from Star Trek, has appeared on Capitol Hill since his criminal court case began in February.

The 61-year-old Ohio Democrat was convicted by a jury in April on 10 felony counts including taking kickbacks, racketeering, tax fraud and obstruction of justice. Sentencing is set for July 30 at which time prosecutors are going to recommend at least seven years of jail time. Traficant, who maintains his innocence, said he will appeal the ruling and will represent himself before the committee just as he did in the original case.

As the committee is deciding his fate, charging him with a "continuing pattern and practice of official misconduct," Traficant also has vowed to run again in November for a House seat, this time as an independent in a newly-configured district.

Should he win, he will have overcome extraordinary odds similar to the ones he faced in 1983 when he first came to office after successfully defending himself against corruption charges as a county sheriff. Traficant, who is not a lawyer, convinced the jury that he was participating in an undercover sting operation, not taking mob money.

This time around, he is unlikely to receive as warm a reception. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., has introduced a resolution of expulsion saying, "felons belong in jail and not in Congress" but has not yet called for a vote pending the ethics committee's action.

Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., insists his committee will take its work seriously. Two ethics committee counsels, Ken Kellner and Paul Lewis, will lay out the case against Traficant after which Traficant will get a one-hour opening statement. Then each side will present their cases, after which members can ask questions. Ten members serve on the committee, including two from Ohio.

Kellner told the committee Monday, "By clear and convincing evidence, we will show that Rep. Traficant engaged in a continuing pattern and practice of official misconduct through which he misused his elected office for personal gain." 

Traficant has already raised a series of objections about the trial on issues ranging from his ability to present videotapes to the timing of the hearing, which he said made it impossible for him to call on witnesses to be there.  He pressed members to let him introduce evidence he was not permitted to present during the court case.

"Every single witness was in jeopardy and harm and got a 'get out of jail' free card for implicating Traficant in some crime," said Traficant, who often stood in front of the committee in shirt sleeves and futilely insisted on being put under oath for his opening statement.

The committee conceded to his request Monday, allowing him to call four witnesses to his defense.

Hefley said that if Traficant is found guilty of any charge of official misconduct, then the panel will consider what penalties will be imposed. If he is expelled, it would be the second time since 1980, when Rep. Michael Myers, D-Pa., was expelled for accepting money from undercover FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks seeking favors from Congress.

Other options for the committee include censure, reprimand, or fines, all of which require a full vote in the 435-member House. Expulsion requires a two-thirds vote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.