CLEVELAND - James Traficant, the colorful politician whose conviction for taking bribes and kickbacks made him only the second person to be expelled from the U.S. Congress since the Civil War, died Saturday. He was 73.
Traficant was seriously injured Tuesday after a vintage tractor flipped over on him as he tried to park it inside a barn on the family farm in Ohio. He died four days later in the hospital, 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 convicted him. Prosecutors said he used his office to extract bribes from businesspeople 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’s notoriety was rivaled only by his eccentricity.
He 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 TV 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 sign-off “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, and 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.
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.
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 curb-side 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 was expelled from Congress in a 420-1 vote by the U.S. House on July 24, 2002, three months after being convicted on 10 corruption-related counts. He was the second person to be expelled from Congress since the Civil War, the first being U.S. Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers of Pennsylvania over the Abscam scandal. Traficant could have avoided the indignity of expulsion by choosing to resign, but he remained defiant to the end.
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.