Traficant Better Late Than Never

Rep. James Traficant defended the help he gave businesses in his district before a peer panel considering whether to recommend his expulsion, saying Tuesday that he did nothing wrong and shouldn't have been convicted of bribery and racketeering.

"I helped them. I helped everyone in my district," Traficant said during questioning by the committee counsel, which he delayed and interrupted, frequently launching into his own interpretation of the events.

"I called anybody for anything," he said. "I was a very active congressman. Maybe I was unusual. Maybe I was stupid."

House Ethics Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., repeatedly called for order: "We don't need so much embellishment. Answer the questions the counsel is asking and I think we'll get to the truth here."

The Ohio Democrat showed up an hour late for the start of Tuesday's hearing, saying he wasn't told to be there. He told committee members that he thought the hearing was going to begin in the afternoon when he calls his first witnesses. Traficant's witnesses, who were excluded from his criminal trial, aren't scheduled to testify until Tuesday afternoon.

Hefley said the eight-member House ethics committee had planned to cross-examine Traficant at the beginning of the hearing, and the eight-member panel was prepared to go forward.

"In the future, when we set the time for the hearing, unless there's some reason in advance, we need you to be here," Hefley told Traficant.

"I apologize to the committee," Traficant said. "If I had known, I would be here. I was on other media broadcasts trying to demean you and everybody else." He later told Hefley he was just joking.

After the nine-week trial in Cleveland during which Traficant defended himself without a lawyer, he was convicted in April of taking kickbacks from employees and soliciting bribes and other gifts from businessmen.

Just like then, Traficant, though not a lawyer, defended himself this week before the congressional panel, which is considering whether to recommend his ejection from Congress. And for the first time, Traficant put himself on the witness stand.

Stalking around his table, Traficant shouted insults, occasional obscenities and scatological references into his microphone as he wrote and drew on an easel to demonstrate shapes of rooms and names of witnesses he said lied about him and their dealings.

"They've gone back 15 years looking for cash transactions," he shouted in the cavernous House Armed Services Committee room, where the hearing is being held. "They couldn't find one person."

He also butted heads with the committee lawyers, who objected frequently to his scattershot testimony. "I object to these objections," Traficant said angrily at one time.

But on Tuesday, he sounded more conciliatory. Appearing on C-SPAN, Traficant said he expects his colleagues to vote him out of Congress, but said he doesn't hold that against them. "I harbor no hard feelings," he said.

Traficant's testimony Monday followed a meticulous, two-hour summary by committee prosecutor Paul Lewis of the Cleveland trial evidence, which covered more than 10 years of Traficant's term in office. "Throughout his career, the congressman was trading official acts for favors," Lewis said.

Committee lawyer Kenneth Kellner told the lawmakers there was more than enough evidence for panel members to recommend expulsion for Traficant, who he says "violated the public trust and traded his office for personal gain."

Prosecutors have recommended he serve at least 7 years in prison on the convictions of taking kickbacks from staffers and bribes from businessmen. Sentencing is scheduled for July 30.

The ethics panel will decide whether the convictions represent a "continuing pattern and practice of official misconduct" and, if so, whether they warrant the House expelling the nine-term lawmaker.

Regardless of what happens, Traficant is seeking re-election, this time as an independent.

"If they put me in jail in Ohio, I might be the first American to win a congressional seat while incarcerated," he boasted.

One of the most colorful members of Congress, known for his wild hair, loud clothes and animated floor speeches -- "Beam me up!" he regularly exclaimed -- Traficant could become only the second member of the House since the Civil War to be expelled.

Traficant, 61, maintains that all he did was help thousands of businesses in his district by bringing home federal projects.

"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 said, proclaiming his innocence and accusing the Justice Department of waging a vendetta against him for the past two decades.

The chairman of the ethics committee, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., noted that Traficant spent most of his hour-long opening statement railing against the government and officials' motives for prosecuting him.

"I don't think we're interested in why you got here," Hefley said. "I think we're interested in, 'Did you do the things you're accused of?"'

House rules require an ethics panel investigation when a lawmaker is convicted of a felony. The harshest penalty is expulsion, followed by censure, reprimand or fines, all of which require votes by the full 435-member House.

Expulsion requires the approval of two-thirds of the House and is a fate that has befallen only member since the Civil War: Rep. Michael Myers, D-Pa., who was tossed out in 1980 for accepting money from undercover FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks seeking favors from Congress.