WASHINGTON – For only the second time since the Civil War, members of the House are faced with the decision of whether to expel one of their own. This time, it's Ohio Rep. James Traficant, who has sworn his innocence of ethics violations and vowed not to resign.
A House committee voted Thursday night to recommend that the House eject the maverick congressman for violating ethics rules by taking kickbacks and bribes and evading taxes. A vote by the full 435-member House could come as early as next week.
If expelled, Traficant, a Democrat, would join Rep. Michael Myers, D-Pa., who was ejected from the House in 1980 for accepting bribes, as the only member of Congress kicked out in the past century and a half.
In its 213-year history, the House has expelled just four members, including three congressmen during the Civil War who were charged with treason.
Traficant will get at least 30 minutes to defend himself in front of the House before the expulsion vote. The colorful, opinionated congressman has requested more time — eight hours — and vowed to make what could be his last speech on the House floor one to remember.
"When I make my final speech, I'm going to inform them how it really is," said the congressman, who has been known for his popular but tumultuous one-minute speeches before the House each day.
The 10-member House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct debated Traficant's punishment in its Capitol basement offices for about five hours Thursday before its lawyers delivered a statement to reporters. "The committee voted unanimously to recommend to the House that Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. be expelled," the statement read.
The lawyers would not answer questions.
"It's been one of the most unpleasant experiences I could ever recall having," GOP Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio, a committee member and Traficant friend, said before the verdict was announced. "I say anyone who says they liked the experience, whether they liked or disliked the congressman, needs to see a psychiatrist."
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., called the whole process bittersweet. "It's both sad because you're dealing with a colleague, and it's ennobling because you see a number of your colleagues at their best," he said.
The last time the House ethics panel recommended expulsion for a member was in 1988, when it unanimously suggested that Rep. Mario Biaggi, D-N.Y., be kicked out after his extortion conviction. He resigned before the House vote.
Unlike Biaggi, Traficant has insisted on his innocence and complained bitterly about what he called a government vendetta against him. He was convicted in April but has vowed to run for re-election in the fall and stand his ground until the very end.
"I would not resign if my name was resign," Traficant, 61, boasted at an impromptu news conference.
The ethics committee's lawyer, Robert Walker, told lawmakers Traficant's conviction and ethic violations were crimes of "the most serious nature" and deserved only one response: expulsion.
But Traficant pleaded with the committee to postpone its decision until after his appeals were exhausted. "You could possibly expel a member that gets a new trial and make you look like a bunch of fools," said Traficant, who wore a rumpled Western-style white denim suit while representing himself before the committee though he is not a lawyer.
An eight-member subcommittee of the ethics panel found Traficant guilty of nine of the 10 ethics violations connected to his conviction in federal court earlier Thursday. The 10th count, an allegation that the other charges represented a "continuing pattern" of misconduct, was dismissed.
Federal prosecutors have recommended Traficant serve at least 7 1/4 years in prison on the criminal charges. Sentencing is scheduled for July 30.