Conspiracy Theories

Crazy Jim and Slick Bob

Two styles of sleaze


Jim Traficant may have forced his congressional staff to work at his family's horse farm, but he has done more than his share of manure shoveling over the years. Most audaciously, he has consistently argued that the charges for which he received an eight-year prison sentence the other day were concocted by vengeful FBI agents and federal prosecutors.

In addition to making staff members do personal work for him on the taxpayers' dime, the Ohio Democrat was convicted of demanding monthly kickbacks from one staffer's salary, using his influence as a congressman to help contractors who gave him money and did free work for him, and trying to conceal his graft by filing false tax returns and soliciting false testimony. Yet shortly before he was expelled from the House by a 420-to-1 vote, he insisted, "I had no intent to break any laws."

According to Traficant, the accounts of his corruption from a variety of sources should be rejected because the government "pressured these witnesses to death." The Justice Department was determined to put him away, he said, because he had embarrassed the government by beating an earlier bribery rap.

Traficant's conspiracy theory reflected his fundamental maladroitness as a crook, because it constantly reminded people that the FBI had videotaped him accepting $163,000 in mob money when he was sheriff of Mahoning County. Representing himself in the ensuing trial, he somehow convinced a jury that he took the money as part of a secret one-man sting operation.

Given his brazenness, it's amazing that Traficant was elected to Congress nine times. But his over-the-topness, reflected not only in his legal arguments but in his garage sale wardrobe, his poofy toupee, and his blunt, bizarre, and often hilarious public remarks, was a big part of his charm. His colleagues were chuckling at him right up to the moment they threw him out.

Robert Torricelli, by contrast, has never been well-liked by his fellow senators, but he is much smoother than Traficant. Accused by a former friend and campaign donor, David Chang, of doing pretty much what Traficant is going to prison for--throwing his weight around in exchange for money and gifts--the New Jersey Democrat so far has escaped with a slap on the wrist, albeit a sharp one.

The Justice Department decided not to prosecute Torricelli, mainly because Chang is a notorious exaggerator who admitted making illegal contributions to the senator's 1996 campaign. But it forwarded the evidence against Torricelli to the Senate Ethics Committee, which found much of it credible.

The same day Traficant got his eight-year sentence, Torricelli was "severely admonished" by the committee, which charged him with "poor judgment" and "a lack of due regard for Senate rules." Ouch.

The committee concluded that Torricelli had acted improperly by failing to fully reimburse Chang for gifts of a CD player and a big-screen TV set, and by allowing him to give expensive earrings to the senator's sister, his ex-girlfriend, and a staffer. It said he also erred by borrowing bronze statues from Chang. It did not mention the Scottish grandfather clock or Italian suits that Chang claimed to have bought for Torricelli.

The committee said it was "troubled by incongruities, inconsistencies and conflicts, particularly concerning actions taken by you which were or could have been of potential benefit" to Chang. This was a polite way of saying that Torricelli seemed to be lying when he denied giving Chang special help.

Among other things, Torricelli tried to facilitate Chang's business deals by contacting U.S. and foreign officials and bringing him to a meeting with South Korea's prime minister. The senator described these favors as routine constituent service.

Torricelli's response to the ethics committee's admonition showcased his skills as a prevaricator. "I agree with the committee's conclusions, fully accept their findings and accept full responsibility," he said. But he immediately added, "It has always been my contention that I believe that at no time did I accept any gifts or violate any Senate rules."

In other words, Torricelli accepts responsibility for something he says he didn't do. How magnanimous.

Despite his fantasies of persecution and his undeniable sleaziness, it's impossible to imagine Jim Traficant--the self-described "junkyard dog" who eschewed lawyers and threatened to kick his enemies in the crotch--being this slippery. Which helps explain why he'll be in prison for the next eight years, while Torricelli will probably be in the Senate.