Traficant Appeal Heard; Jail Time Extended

Posted January 9, 2004 at 6:14pm

Former Rep. Jim Traficant (D) is anxiously awaiting an upcoming decision by three federal judges on whether his conviction should be overturned, but if the ruling doesn’t go his way the Ohio maverick will have to wait a bit longer than originally expected to get out of prison.

And while the once-bombastic lawmaker waits in the Federal Correctional Institute at Allenwood in rural Pennsylvania, the federal government has quietly begun dipping into the 62-year-old’s Congressional pension to satisfy the $150,000 fine imposed as part of his sentence in 2002.

With none of the public fanfare that accompanied Traficant’s 10-week trial on bribery, racketeering, fraud and other corruption charges, oral argument on Traficant’s appeal was held in Cincinnati last month before a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A ruling is expected in the next few months.

Although he represented himself during trial, Traficant, like any other federal prisoner, was not allowed to attend the roughly 30-minute hearing.

“I think it went reasonably well,” said Lloyd Pierre-Louis, Traficant’s attorney, in a telephone interview Friday. “This is a tough issue that is more of a novel issue in terms of the constitutional argument.”

Traficant is arguing that he was improperly subjected to double jeopardy because federal prosecutors and the House tried and convicted him for essentially the same crimes. Traficant was expelled from the House in July 2002 following his April conviction on the criminal charges.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which held a week of hearings on Traficant, used the trial transcript and evidence produced in court as the basis of its report recommending the ultimate penalty that can be imposed by the House.

Traficant is also using his appeal to attack the jury selection system employed by the court in Ohio. He contends that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, where Traficant was tried and which draws jurors from counties neighboring its offices in Cleveland, improperly excludes Youngstown residents from the jury pool. Youngstown served as Traficant’s political base during nine terms in Congress.

Richard Kerger, a Toledo attorney who presented the case before the appellate court, said he told the judges that they would not “tolerate a system that said that one county would not have its citizens considered for jury duty in a federal district 100 percent of the time. So how can you tolerate it for a system that does it 90 percent of the time, which is what is in place now?”

Kerger acknowledged that it is exceedingly difficult to overturn convictions in federal court, particularly when the defendant acted as his own attorney during the trial and likely missed opportunities to build a record of grounds for a successful appeal.

Unless the court overturns his conviction or he receives a presidential pardon, Traficant appears destined to serve out his sentence at the minimum-security facility in White Deer, Pa.

Traficant’s official release date was recently extended by 24 days, but no one will say why the time frame was moved back.

Federal prisoners receive a set amount of “good time” credits each year. If Traficant had been granted all the good time credits available to him over the life of his sentence, his official release date would have been July 17, 2009, which is about a year less than his formal sentence called for.

According to the Bureau of Prisons inmate information Web site, Traficant’s release date is now set for Aug. 10, 2009. A bureau spokesman said the agency cannot disclose any information about the reason for the date change.

Kerger, who said he corresponds by mail with Traficant but not by phone, said he does not know what caused Traficant to lose his good time credits.

“They give you a projected release date predicated on your having all good time. To the extent there is a disciplinary problem, one of the things they would do is count that as bad time,” Kerger said. “I am surmising that that is what happened here, there was some sort of rule infraction that caused them to revise the calculation of when he would get out.”

Getting out of prison won’t necessarily improve Traficant’s precarious financial calculation, however. Since August, the government has extracted monthly payments of $770.50 from his Congressional pension, according to court records. In addition, regular monthly payments of $50 coming from his prison work earnings are being applied to Traficant’s outstanding fines.

The garnishments were first reported last week by the Youngstown Vindicator.

Traficant’s Congressional pension, which he did not forfeit upon either his conviction or expulsion, has been estimated by the National Taxpayers Union to amount to approximately $37,120 in 2003.

While there is no public record available of the exact pension payment, using the NTU figure Traficant was receiving a before-tax pension payment of $3,093 a month. That means the federal garnishment amounts to 25 percent of the pre-tax monthly payment.

Traficant was slapped with a $150,000 fine and a $1,000 assessment by U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells. In addition, the jury demanded that Traficant forfeit some $96,000 in ill-gotten gains from his crimes.

Court records show that the $1,000 assessment has been paid in full. But Traficant still owes $132,441 on his fine. Last year, $4,810 obtained through a garnishment on the proceeds of items auctioned by Traficant’s family was applied to the fine.