Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey advertise their product as the Greatest Show on Earth. But for my money that designation is better applied to the show going on right now in a federal courtroom in Cleveland, where nine-term Rep. Jim Traficant (D-OH) is fighting to stay out of jail. Traficant is charged with assorted offenses involving accepting bribes, filing false tax returns, and taking cash kickbacks from the salaries paid to his congressional staffers.
Traficant is the closest thing there is to a C-SPAN-created star. In an institution -- Congress -- filled with the most vanilla people imaginable, Traficant has long stood out for his tremendous lack of sartorial splendor (the worst haircut and wardrobe on Capitol Hill), his ornery populism, and the trademark phrase he utters when wrapping up a speech on the House floor: "Mr. Speaker, Beam Me Up!"
For nearly two months Traficant's act has been playing before a judge and jury. And what an act it's been, largely because of his insistence on representing himself, though not a lawyer by training. Plenty of people, including the judge in this case, have reminded Traficant of the old dictum that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. There is no surer route to conviction than to take your case in your own hands.
The Gentleman from Ohio might be excused for dismissing that notion. In 1983 Traficant did the unthinkable -- he beat the rap on federal bribery and racketeering charges while serving as his own counsel.
At the time Traficant was the newly elected sheriff of Youngstown, Ohio, a mobbed-up cesspool of corruption wonderfully captured in a 2000 New Republic feature entitled "Crimetown USA." Traficant was in thick with the various Mafiosi, and was caught on tape accepting bribes from Charlie "The Crab" Carrabia and his brother Orlie (also "The Crab").
Faced with the overwhelming evidence, Traficant offered a novel defense: He was conducting an unorthodox sting operation to break the Cosa Nostra influence in Ohio's Mahoning Valley. "The point I want to make is this. I got inside the mob. I F---ED the mob." This despite the fact the tapes showed Traficant explaining to the Crabs that if they were to get caught, Traficant would rely on exactly that defense.
Traficant was acquitted, and won election to Congress a year later.
The likelihood of lightning striking twice for Traficant is slim, but probably shouldn't be discounted entirely. Still, it's an uphill fight. The prosecution has produced over 50 witnesses swearing to all sorts of improprieties. Traficant routinely traded official favors for free contracting work or envelopes full of cash. He helped strong-arm one bank into giving $900,000 in loans to a friend who had originally been denied the money. The friend defaulted the next year. Staffers were required to kick back large portions of their taxpayer-financed congressional paychecks. On one occasion, under the guise of office "team-building," Traficant had his Washington staff out to his houseboat on the Potomac River. They ended up scraping, painting, and making repairs. Perhaps worse than the sundry illegalities, the testimony so far has shown Traficant to be a skinflint.
Traficant's performance this go-round may not keep him out of prison (a maximum of 63 years for the 10 charges), but it has provided nonstop levity. Like a Seinfeld character, he refers to himself in the third person. He routinely cracks up the courtroom with offhand remarks, as when he muttered, "I could sit there and pass gas, quite frankly" after another of the routine admonitions leveled at him by the judge.
His relationship with U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells has been adversarial, to say the least. "You are now part of a RICO!" he yelled at her after a ruling he didn't particularly care for. "You're out to screw a targeted member of Congress!" Accusing Judge Wells of corruption is all in a day's work for Traficant ("I have decided you are completely with the prosecution"), whose cross-examination of witnesses has been marked by allegations of conspiracy and bouts of yelling. News accounts of him examining one of the prosecution's star witnesses had Traficant hysterically screaming, "You are a liar!…You are lying under oath!"
Is it working? Probably not. The evidence against him is strong, unlike his accusations of conspiracy. And too many of Traficant's own witnesses have boomeranged, providing further evidence of wrongdoing. The thinking is that Traficant is toast. A former staffer told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "It's almost obscene the way he's beckoning a conviction. Maybe he hopes to win an appeal. Maybe his whole strategy is to do such a horrible job that on appeal he can argue bad representation."
Even if Traficant beats these charges -- which is unlikely -- he's probably out of a job, anyway. The Ohio legislature carved up his congressional district in redistricting this year. Traficant will run in a new district, but it won't have much of the base of voters who have forgiven him all sorts of past transgressions. Defeat seems likely, assuming he's free to run. So farewell, Jim Traficant, you will be sorely missed by C-SPAN audiences starved for entertainment.
Beam me up.