James Traficant, the colorful Ohio politician whose conviction for taking bribes and kickbacks made him only the second person to be expelled from Congress since the Civil War, died Saturday at a hospital in Youngstown Ohio after a tractor accident. He was 73.
Traficant had been seriously injured Tuesday when a vintage tractor flipped on him as he tried to park it in a barn on the family farm near Youngstown, said Dave Betras, chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party.
The Democrat’s expulsion from Congress in 2002 came three months after a federal jury in Cleveland convicted him. Prosecutors said he used his office to extract bribes from business people and coerced staffers to work on his farm and his house boat on the Potomac River in Washington. He also was charged with witness tampering, destroying evidence and filing false tax returns. He spent seven years in prison.
Traficant loved to play the buffoon during his 17 years in Congress. He got plenty of notice within the staid, buttoned-down Capitol and airtime on C-SPAN for his messy mop of hair — revealed to be a wig when he went to prison — his typical wardrobe of cowboy boots, denim or polyester suits, and his bombastic speaking style.
His made-for-TV rants on the House floor invariably ended with the signoff “Beam me up,” which Traficant borrowed from “Star Trek” to show his disgust or bemusement at whatever he found particularly outrageous.
“Mr. Traficant was a complex man,” Betras said. “He gave voice to the frustrations and anxieties of the common man. The public felt he was one of them, and, because of that connection, they supported him in good times and in bad. He was a larger than life character who will long be remembered.”
Traficant was born May 8, 1941, in Youngstown and was a quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh, where he played with future NFL coaches Mike Ditka and Marty Schottenheimer.
He worked as a drug counselor for 10 years before running for Mahoning County sheriff at a colleague’s suggestion.
He endeared himself to voters in the early 1980s by defying the courts and going to jail for three nights rather than foreclose on the homes of workers laid off from the city’s dying steel industry.
The antagonism between Traficant and federal law enforcement authorities lasted throughout his public career, with Traficant trumpeting it as proof that he was on the side of “the little guy” against powerful government interests.
He faced his first federal bribery and corruption trial in 1983, when he was Mahoning County sheriff. Prosecutors accused Traficant of taking bribes to protect mobsters’ criminal activity. He defended himself in court, although he was not a lawyer, and won. He argued that he was conducting a one-person sting.
He was elected to Congress the following year and was easily re-elected eight times.
He championed “Buy American” requirements on virtually every spending bill and prided himself on landing federal grants for hometown prospects, including highways, a sports arena and Youngstown’s airport.
Yet he often exasperated fellow Democrats by breaking ranks, such as his decision to vote for Republican Dennis Hastert as speaker and his differences with President Bill Clinton on trade and other issues. He denounced Justice Department tactics and belittled Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, as a good prospect to run for governor of Beijing.
In 2000, as he geared up for re-election, Traficant was indicted in a grand jury investigation that targeted corruption and organized crime in the Youngstown area and led to the convictions of scores of people, including judges, a prosecutor and a sheriff.
But Traficant was the biggest prize, and he was not as lucky in his second trial as in his first.
He claimed the government had tried to frame him because of his criticism of the FBI, CIA and Internal Revenue Service.
During the two-month trial, he did a curbside interview on live network TV outside the courthouse each morning and then went inside to challenge U.S. District Judge Lesley Brooks Wells, who tried to dissuade Traficant from representing himself.
He often slumped alone at the defense table preparing handwritten motions as a team of prosecutors and investigators pressed the government’s case under the eye of Justice Department attorneys.
He was expelled from Congress in a 420-1 vote on July 24, 2002, three months after being convicted on 10 corruption-related counts. He could have avoided the indignity of expulsion by choosing to resign, but he remained defiant to the end.
“I’m prepared to lose everything. I’m prepared to go to jail,” Traficant told colleagues as they debated his political fate. “You go ahead and expel me.”
Six days later, at his sentencing, he abruptly fired his attorney.
“Take your things and move,” he told the lawyer, who then switched seats with Traficant.
He was sentenced to eight years in prison and led from the federal courtroom in handcuffs.
Traficant called life in prison “tough.”
“Most political figures go to some camps in country clubs,” he said. “I didn’t.”
His case over, Traficant ran for re-election from prison as an independent in 2002 and lost to former aide Tim Ryan. Traficant got 15 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
He was released from prison in September 2009 and the following year ran for the Youngstown-area congressional seat as an independent. He received 16 percent of the vote, again losing to Tim Ryan, and then faded from the spotlight.
From then on, he lived a quiet life on his farm, doting on his grandchildren.
The barn where his tractor tipped over played a key role in his criminal case.
A Youngstown businessman had the barn built for Traficant in return for a favor. The businessman later billed Traficant for the full construction cost after the congressman continued asking for favors. Traficant ended up paying him far less than what the barn was worth, and the businessman testified against him.