Traficant Trial Demonstrates Congressman's Idiosyncrasies

In the kind of moment that has become emblematic of Rep. James A. Traficant's corruption trial, the pugnacious congressman shouted at the judge this week: "Why are we proceeding? I have to go to the bathroom!"

Traficant is blustering his way through court with the same arm-waving theatrics that made him famous in Congress.

Though not a lawyer, the 60-year-old Democrat is defending himself against federal charges he took bribes and kickbacks in cash and various favors from staffers and from contractors who worked at his horse farm.

Traficant's polyester suits and the shock of gray hair that sits on his head like a helmet have long been the butt of late-night TV comics. The trial, which enters its fifth week Monday, has featured his dated wardrobe — a three-piece denim suit, bell-bottom pants and a canvas jacket with leather trim on the cuffs and pockets — and a host of idiosyncrasies.

He has been chastised repeatedly for interrupting, failing to do his homework and piling on objections.

"Jim is no lawyer. He's getting killed," said Don Hanni, former Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman and a friend of Traficant's.

Some of the congressman's closest friends and longtime staff members have testified that he bullied federal and state officials on behalf of businessmen who were paying him off. The government's evidence so far includes a briefcase full of cash, letters from Traficant to government officials, and a delicatessen placemat upon which he wrote a list of tasks he wanted a contractor to perform.

Traficant has said that once the jury has all the evidence, it will see he did nothing wrong.

U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells has frequently scolded Traficant over his courtroom performance. As the congressman struggled to cross-examine a witness on Feb. 14, Wells said, "These are very long pauses between questions."

"This is not really a walk in the park," Traficant replied, shuffling through a pile of dog-eared photocopies.

Traficant sits alone at the defense table with a yellow legal pad and a few brown folders full of notes and documents, while three federal prosecutors in business suits sit across the aisle at a table covered with binders and exhibits.

Traficant's cross-examinations appear random, and frequently are self-destructive. When confronting an old friend turned government witness, Anthony Bucci, Traficant asked if Bucci was afraid of him. Bucci replied that he heard a rumor that Traficant had hired a hit man to kill an ex-girlfriend -- a rumor the jury never would have heard if not for the question.

Another afternoon, Traficant grilled a handyman who said he worked at his horse farm. Traficant's voice raised to a bellow and he waved his arms angrily as he tried to have the witness describe the difference between a gelding and a stallion.

Finally, frustrated, Traficant roared: "A gelding doesn't have a set of testicles, sir!" Several jurors smiled and shook their heads.

Traficant's reputation as a maverick has endeared him to his blue-collar district in Youngstown. At the microphone on the House floor, he can be counted on for his blistering rhetoric and his trademark statement of disgust: "Beam me up!"

Witnesses have testified to idiosyncrasies in Traficant's personal life, too. Afraid of government bugging, he would hold sensitive conversations with staff members in his car, driving around Youngstown for hours. He also has a penchant for guns.

Traficant could face up to 63 years in prison and expulsion from the House if convicted.

He already has been exiled by House Democrats for voting with Republicans to elect House Speaker Dennis Hastert and is the only member of Congress without a committee assignment. His district was eliminated this year, and he has said he will run for re-election as an independent in a neighboring district.

In 1983, as Mahoning County sheriff, Traficant defended himself in a federal racketeering case and convinced a jury that the money he took from the mob was part of a sting operation he was running to bust organized crime. That victory helped propel him to Congress in 1984.

The congressman has said that this time, he is a victim of a vendetta by federal prosecutors angry about his 1983 acquittal and his frequent attacks on the IRS.

These days, he jokes with the courthouse guards every morning, asks the courtroom sketch artists to show him their drawings, and reacts with mock offense when they do.

"How can you flatter everybody else and make me look bad?" he asked one during a break.