CLEVELAND – A federal grand jury on Friday indicted Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. on charges of bribery, obstruction of justice, conspiracy to defraud the United States, filing a false tax return and racketeering.
The 10-count indictment alleges that the violations occurred while Traficant has served as a congressman representing the Youngstown area in northeastern Ohio.
The charges make a reality of the Democrat's long-standing prediction that he would be indicted in the U.S. Justice Department's probe of corruption in eastern Ohio's Mahoning Valley.
Since the first indictments in December 1997, the probe has resulted in more than 70 convictions, including a judge, a prosecutor, a sheriff and a Traficant aide, Charles O'Nesti, who has since died.
The racketeering count alleges that Traficant accepted "things of value" for political influence.
The government's probe is believed to have examined whether Traficant broke tax laws or House rules by accepting free use of a Chevrolet Corvette and the gift of an Avanti luxury car, as well as the price Traficant paid for construction of a pole barn on a farm that he once owned and where he still keeps horses.
Traficant, 59, has said he is prepared to defend himself in court, although he is not a lawyer. He did the same thing in 1983 when he was acquitted of accepting mob bribes while Mahoning County sheriff. He lost a U.S. Tax Court case in 1987 stemming from the same issues.
Traficant anticipated the indictment in comments to reporters before a speech Friday morning at Poland Seminary High School near Youngstown.
"I'm as frightened as anyone can be. I'm going to say this to the U.S. attorneys. You'd best defeat me, because if I beat you, you'll be working in Mingo Junction," Traficant said, referring to a small town in eastern Ohio.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Morford, who has been the lead prosecutor in the Youngstown-area corruption cases, would not comment on the indictment.
Some subpoenaed rent records reportedly concerned Traficant's district office, which is in a building owned by Kimberly Sinclair. Her husband, attorney R. Allen Sinclair, was hired onto Traficant's staff the same month his wife bought the building. House ethics rules bar members or "anyone with whom the member has a professional or legal relationship" from benefiting directly from money representatives use to pay expenses.
Traficant announced in January 2000 that he had complied with a subpoena that requested his telephone, payroll and rent records. The government made a request for more documents in May.
On July 3, Traficant notified the U.S. attorney's office in Cleveland that he was applying his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and would not turn over the documents his staff considered "personal."
The government responded on July 14 with a motion to compel Traficant to turn over the documents.
Since announcing he was a probe target, Traficant has been on a personal crusade against the U.S. Justice Department.
An angry Traficant took to the House floor in March 2000 and vowed to "fight like a junkyard dog" against any federal charge him.
Traficant was re-elected in November to his ninth two-year term. He defected from his party in the vote for House speaker and since has not received committee assignments.
He made repeated corruption accusations against the FBI, former U.S. Attorney Janet Reno and federal prosecutors in Ohio. He also introduced legislation to establish an independent federal agency to investigate the Justice Department.
"FBI agents in the northern district of Ohio have been on the payroll of the mob," Traficant said on the House floor in June. "They have been bankrolled by the mob."
Traficant also has claimed that an FBI informant, in writing, has said the FBI asked him to commit murder.
The congressman has long been a popular figure in the blue-collar area he represents.
Traficant, a former University of Pittsburgh quarterback, seems to thrive on controversy and unabashedly promotes Youngstown, a city known for being a battleground for rival Cleveland and Pittsburgh mob families.
The town also has struggled for decades to recover from the sudden closing of old steel mills -- long the underpinning of the area's economy -- in the late 1970s.
Traficant's unruly gray hair and affinity for polyester or plaid clothing have made one of the most recognizable figures on Capitol Hill. When speaking on the House floor, he usually at some point invokes "Beam me up!" -- a line borrowed from TV's "Star Trek" -- to show his disgust at something in government he finds particularly outrageous. The tax code is a frequent target.