WASHINGTON - For only the fifth time in 213 years, the House last night ousted one of its own, its most boisterous maverick, Rep. James Traficant, the Democrat from Youngstown, on a 420-to-1 vote.
The sole vote against removing Traficant was cast by Gary Condit (D., Calif.), who is a lame duck congressman and has had his own scandal, involving an affair with an intern, Chandra Levy, who went missing before her bones were found in a Washington park.
Nine congressmen voted “present.” Trafficant joined three other congressmen in not casting a vote.
Traficant, 61, a convicted felon, did not go quietly and did not apologize as he became only the second congressman since the Civil War to be expelled.
Hoarse and tired from a seven-hour drive yesterday from his hometown, Traficant made an emotional, rambling, extemporaneous 45-minute argument that he was railroaded and that there was no physical evidence he committed a crime. He was convicted in federal court in Cleveland April 11 on 10 counts of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion.
A former Mahoning County sheriff who takes pride in his unkempt mop of gray hair, wild clothing, and earthy language, Traficant served as his own lawyer during his trial and his hearing before the House ethics committee. He said he was hurt by being expelled from Congress. But he added in an uncharacteristic, resigned tone, “I'm ready to go to jail.'' He is to be sentenced in federal court on Tuesday.
Before the House began its rare procedure punishing a member for abuse of his office, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R., Ill.) made a special plea for decorum during the evening session. Even though Traficant had delighted Republicans and alienated Democrats by voting for Mr. Hastert as speaker, he admonished Traficant to conduct himself properly - without the use of his trademark “indecent” or “personally abusive'' language - and to act to “properly dignify the proceedings of this House.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Traficant, who said he wants to keep fighting “like a junk yard dog,'' had to be reminded not to engage in profanity.
“Am I different? Yeah. Have I changed my pants? No. Deep down you know you want to wear wider [pant legs]. Do I wear skinny ties? Yes. Do I do my hair with a weed whacker? I admit it,'' he said. But he said he had been a good congressman for nine terms who delivered for his constituents and represented people who had no other recourse.
With the ouster, Gov. Bob Taft may decide whether to call a special election to fill the seat until January or wait until the Nov. 5 general election, when voters will decide who will represent Traficant's redrawn district. Mr. Taft has said the cost of a special election would be a factor in deciding. Traficant has predicted he will be re-elected as an independent and serve from prison.
All five Toledo-area members of the House - Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), Paul Gillmor (R., Old Fort, Ohio), Michael Oxley (R., Findlay), John Dingell (D., Dearborn, Mich.), and Nick Smith (R., Addison, Mich.) - voted to oust Traficant.
Before the House voted on Traficant's expulsion, it voted 285 to 146 not to wait until after he is sentenced for his convictions on bribery and demanding kickbacks from staffers. A total of 98 Republicans voted to delay the expulsion vote until Sept. 4; only 47 Democrats voted for the delay.
One of Mr. Traficant's best friends in the House, Rep. Steve LaTourette (R., Painesville, Ohio), led the move to delay the expulsion vote until after the August recess on grounds the vote was too historic to go ahead without making certain Traficant is guilty.
Mr. LaTourette said because Traficant is seeking a new trial, based on a witness who was not called during his trial, it was only fair to wait because “we don't know'' if Traficant is innocent. Rep. Howard Berman (D., Calif.) ranking Democrat on the ethics committee, who conceded expulsion of an elected member of Congress is a “profoundly antidemocratic process,'' said the committee fairly concluded Traficant was guilty. Mr. Berman said Traficant's claim of a government conspiracy against him was “preposterous.''
Mr. LaTourette, a former prosecutor who said he is not a “black helicopter guy'' or “a big conspiracist,'' said that if Traficant is guilty, he should be expelled but that the evidence against him is hearsay and does not involve solid evidence such as videotapes or fingerprints.
When the House last expelled a member, former Rep. Michael Myers (R., Pa.) in 1980, more than 1,000 documents were submitted to prove that Mr. Myers was guilty of taking a bribe from an undercover FBI agent. Three other members were expelled for treason during the Civil War.
Mr. LaTourette drew laughter when he said the $40,000 Traficant is alleged to have taken from staffers definitely “was not spent at Brooks Brothers,'' a reference to Mr. Traficant's penchant for ill-fitting polyester and denim suits.
Rep. Sonny Callahan (R., Ala.) said it was unfair to “ring the bell of guilty'' against a colleague without being sure of his guilt and until legal appeals are over.
Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas) also wanted a delay. “I don't accept [Traficant's federal trial] as a good, fair trial,'' he said, adding it was possible some witnesses were bribed.
But Rep. Joel Hefley (R., Colo.), chairman of the House ethics committee, which voted unanimously to recommend the House expel Traficant, said that the House was not a federal jury and that last night was the night for members to put the Traficant matter behind them. “None of us ever wants to sit in judgment of our peers,'' he said. “This was a very painful decision for all of us. This is no rush to judgment.''
Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D., Cleveland), a former judge and prosecutor and member of the ethics committee, said nobody really wanted to work on the Traficant case but it was a duty that had to be done. “What an experience!” she exclaimed.