YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – U.S. Rep. James Traficant told radio listeners Tuesday he is afraid of his upcoming federal trial on corruption charges, but added, "I like my shot" at beating the Justice Department a second time.
Traficant took telephone calls from around the country and hit on a range of topics, including the IRS and the fatal standoff at Waco, Texas, as he began a four-day stint as guest host of a talk radio program on WKBN-AM. The show also was broadcast nationwide on C-SPAN.
A federal grand jury indicted Traficant on May 4 on charges that include racketeering, bribery and conspiracy. The charges carry up to 63 years in prison and $2.2 million in fines.
The nine-term Democratic congressman had said little publicly about the charges, saying he would answer his accusers during the radio show. On Tuesday, he said he would not discuss specifics of his case because he did not want to give the federal prosecutors ammunition to argue that he had tainted the jury pool for his trial in Cleveland in February.
Traficant plans to represent himself in court, though he isn't an attorney.
During the show, he said his case may "serve as a microcosm of a struggle in America, a great struggle. These unelected bureaucrats seem to run things, and I think it's time for a challenge. I'm afraid, but I'm ready to go after them."
Traficant offered an upbeat assessment of the odds that he can beat the Justice Department without benefit of an attorney. "If it's one-in-10 million and we're close to 300 million people, then there's 60 Americans that have a shot ... Having done it once, and being one of 60 -- I like my shot."
Traficant, 60, in 1983, successfully defended himself against charges that he accepted mob bribes while Mahoning County sheriff. He lost a U.S. Tax Court case in 1987 stemming from the same issues.
Listeners from around the country called in Tuesday with support of Traficant and complaints about government abuses. Traficant and his callers discussed the standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidians in Waco; alleged government corruption and abuses in cities around the country; proposals to curb the power of the IRS; and a variety of complaints about former Attorney General Janet Reno.
The show repeatedly returned to criticism of China and concerns about U.S. officials providing military aid to the Chinese or allowing Chinese products to flood U.S. markets.
One caller from Pennsylvania attacked Traficant for his alleged transgressions, saying "I don't think you should have the right to be on TV."
Traficant replied, "In America you are innocent until proven guilty. Once you start shackling people because the government accuses them, you start looking like Germany in the late '30s."
Before the show began, a few dozen protesters gathered outside the station to oppose the station's decision to put Traficant on the air without a moderator.
The Citizens' League of Greater Youngstown released a letter to the station suggesting that "the free airtime amounts to an illegal gift or contribution to Traficant."
The group said Traficant's appearance may be part of a "quid pro quo relationship between Clear Channel and the congressman," in exchange for Traficant's opposition to federal legislation that would have made it easier for small radio stations to get broadcast frequencies in the area. Clear Channel Communications Inc. owns WKBN and several other radio stations in the area.
"We respect these people's right to disagree with our programming ... we regret that they do not respect our right to broadcast," said Bill Kelly, vice president/market manager for Clear Channel. Allegations of a quid pro quo "are a stretch, and come out of left field," he said.
At a doughnut shop in nearby Poland Township, Don Seely, 66, said he saw no problem with Traficant being on the air. "If he's guilty, they are still going to find him guilty," said Seely, who had listened to the radio show.
Clear Channel officials had said Traficant has been an occasional guest on the station's "Dan Ryan Show," a talk show that has aired in the Youngstown area for decades. He has also served as a guest host during Ryan's vacations.
Kelly said earlier that the station invited Traficant late last year to serve as guest host during Ryan's May 29-June 1 vacation.
After the indictment was issued, Kelly said, Traficant offered to withdraw from the assignment, but Kelly decided to let the show go on as planned.
"Our view is, 'indicted is not convicted,"' Kelly said. "So we did not rescind the invitation."
The current case stems from a 3 year federal investigation of corruption in Youngstown that has led to more than 70 convictions. The grand jury issued a 10-count indictment against Traficant charging that he ordered staff members to do chores at his farm, did political favors for businessmen in exchange for services, and pocketed a portion of staff members' paychecks.