Sunday, February 06, 2000

Traficant steels himself against legal, political challenges

Regional corruption probe oozes into his campaign

The Associated Press

        CLEVELAND — The prospect of being indicted would be daunting to most congressional candidates, but is energizing the re-election campaign of feisty U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.

        The former University of Pittsburgh quarterback is refusing to be put on the defensive by a federal corruption investigation although he faces a strong challenge in the March 7 Democratic primary in his 17th District in northeast Ohio.

        Mr. Traficant said Friday the staff of the U.S. attorney for northern Ohio in December had asked for telephone, payroll and other documents. The required records were supplied Jan. 6.

        In a statement, Mr. Traficant said he is sure the Justice Department wants to link him to organized crime.

        “But as much as they want to, they have been unable to link me in any way to organized crime or any criminal acts. The reason why they have not been able to tie me to any illegal activity is very simple: I have done nothing wrong. End of story.”

        Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Morford, who has headed the probe of mob-linked corruption in the Youngstown area, said Thursday he could not confirm or deny a Traficant investigation.

        The organized crime investigation has resulted in more than 50 convictions, including Charles O'Nesti of Youngstown, a former district director for Mr. Traficant who in 1998 pleaded guilty to perjury and racketeering conspiracy charges.

        Traficant spokesman Paul Marcone said Thursday the congressman had no other comment on the investigation.

        But two days after issuing his statement, Mr. Traficant was talking about the investigation while campaigning Sunday in his home district, promising to fight any charges in court. He said a federal indictment appears to be inevitable.

        Mr. Traficant told a Democratic club in Niles, a Youngstown suburb, that the FBI and the Treasury and Justice departments had put themselves on the spot by investigating him just before an election, and “they'll have to come up with something.”

        In 1983, a jury acquitted Mr. Traficant of federal charges that he took $163,000 in mob money as Mahoning County sheriff.

        He served as his own attorney — even though he is not a lawyer — and argued he took only money he intended to use as evidence in making criminal cases against mobsters. Mr. Traficant rode a wave of popularity from his self-defense to election to Congress in 1984.

        Political observers in his home district say he remains a legendary figure to a loyal base of support.

        “He's a cat with nine lives,” said William Binning, a former Mahoning County Republican chairman who is now a political science professor at Youngstown State University.

        “He became a folk hero here, because he defended himself and got himself off,” Mr. Binning said. “He became the most powerful political figure in the Mahoning Valley and still is. It's been quite a run.”

        Two other well-known public figures in Youngstown are challenging Mr. Traficant in the primary: State Sen. Robert F. Hagan and Mahoning County Auditor George Tablack.

        To win, they will have to find a flaw in Mr. Traficant's political endurance in a blue-collar region still feeling the effects of steel plant closings in the late 1970s.

        “I think he's lost a little ground, because it (the federal probe) brings up all the valley's been through the past couple of years, and it's also the first time he's had any serious opposition,” Mr. Binning said.

        David C. Ditzler, the county's Democratic chairman since June and also a sales manager for Thomas Steel Strip Corp. in nearby Warren, said Mr. Traficant is in a political fight “unlike any he has faced in the past.

        “This situation presents itself with stronger competition in Hagan and Tablack, but right now, he is obviously facing a barrage from all sides.”

        Mr. Ditzler said Mr. Traficant seems to be trying to spin the government's probe to his advantage.

        “He's a shrewd and a smart individual,” Ditzler said. “There are people out there believing they (federal prosecutors) are out to hit Jim again. His base support at this time, I think, will still remain.”

        Don Hanni Jr., a former Mahoning County Democratic chairman who at times has clashed politically with Mr. Traficant, said he thinks the government's request for records “is a political maneuver that will not develop into an indictment.”


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- Traficant steels himself against legal, political challenges