August 05, 2002 12:00 PM

Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.’s tenure in Congress was one of the more colorful in modern political history. Clad in atrocious ensembles of denim and polyester, caught in a 20-year bad-hair day, the nine-term Ohio Democrat enlivened the numbing parliamentary process with antigovernment ramblings and obscene rants. His trademark tag line: “Beam me up, Mr. Speaker.”

Now, it seems, the curtain has fallen. At press time, after hearings that mesmerized Washington, Traficant, 61, stood on the verge of becoming the second lawmaker since the Civil War to be expelled from the House of Representatives. (The other was Pennsylvania Democrat and Abscam figure Michael “Ozzie” Myers, booted in 1980 for taking bribes from undercover agents.) The House Ethics Committee voted unanimously for expulsion on July 18 after finding Traficant guilty of accepting bribes from business leaders, using his office for personal gain and taking salary kickbacks and free labor from his staff, who baled hay on his Poland, Ohio, horse farm and performed repairs on his D.C. home—a dilapidated yacht with no working toilet. Worse still, Traficant faced a prison sentence, to be determined on July 30, for an April conviction on bribery, racketeering, tax evasion and other charges.

“He has embarrassed our region,” says Youngstown attorney David Betras, who served as a media legal analyst during Traficant’s criminal trial. But Traficant, who defended himself at both his trials with profane bravado, remains defiant. “I am not going to be intimidated by these sons of bitches,” he says. “They can go f-themselves. I’ve committed no crimes. And yes, I think I can get elected from a damn prison cell.”

That may be no wild boast. Traficant remains on the 2002 ballot as an independent. He is still a working-class hero in Ohio’s 17th district, where voters have sent him back to Washington with margins as high as 91 percent. Although a 10th term seems highly unlikely, Youngstown State University political science professor Bill Binning predicts the disgraced lawmaker will garner as much as 25 percent of the vote. “If not for these legal problems,” says Binning, “he would die in office.”

Traficant, in fact, has brought hundreds of millions in federal funds to his Rust Belt district and sponsored legislation to rein in the Internal Revenue Service—a prescription for popularity. Not that he has shied away from unpopular stances: He was the most vocal defender of constituent John Demjanjuk, who was eventually cleared of charges that he was a Nazi concentration camp torturer known as Ivan the Terrible. “I call him Ross Perot on steroids,” Youngstown attorney Mark Calucci, 44, a distant cousin, says of Traficant. “He’s afraid of no one.” Yet even allies confess ambivalence. “I’m proud to say he’s a friend,” says Don Hanni, 77, an attorney and ex-chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party. “But he’s a nutball sometimes.”

Actually it was football that first brought Traficant fame. The oldest child of James, a Youngstown truck driver, and his wife, Agnes, a home-maker, he gained national attention in the early ’60s as a quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh. Waived by two NFL teams, Traficant went on to run an acclaimed drug-counseling program and marry hairdresser Patricia Choppa, 59; wed for 34 years, the couple have a grown daughter, Elizabeth. (Traficant has a daughter, Robin, from another relationship.) In 1980 he was elected sheriff of Mahoning County. At the time Youngstown was known as Crime-town, USA, for its untrammeled Mob activity and violence. Roaming the city with a two-by-four in hand, the flamboyant Traficant set records for drug busts. “People here have great respect for him,” says Calucci, “because he takes the gloves off.”

But in 1983 Traficant found himself on trial for allegedly taking $163,000 in bribes from the Mob. Without benefit of a law degree, he successfully defended himself, convincing jurors that he had really been conducting a one-man sting operation. The next year he defeated incumbent Lyle Williams and went to Congress. In 1986, however, the IRS garnisheed his wages for never reporting the Mob money. Traficant later sponsored 1998 legislation that forced the IRS to prove its cases against taxpayers. As a result, IRS home seizures dropped from 10,067 within a year before the law was passed to 57 in the year afterward.

Now Traficant maintains that he’s the victim of a joint FBI-IRS vendetta—and sums up his own legacy in words that might not make it into the history books: “I’ve done a goddamn good job.”

Richard Jerome

J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C.

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