After winning control of the House of Representatives on a campaign to end a culture of corruption on Republican-led Capitol Hill, Democrats are scrambling to respond to a 16-count indictment against one of their own.
The federal indictment charges nine-term Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana with racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, conspiracy, soliciting bribes, obstruction of justice, and – a first for a member of Congress – violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans corporate bribery overseas.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the charges "extremely serious." If proved true, they "constitute an egregioius and unacceptable abuse of public trust and power," she said in a statement Monday.
Preempting action by the Steering Committee to strip him of his assignment on the Small Business Committee, Mr. Jefferson voluntarily stepped down Tuesday from his last remaining committee post pending, he said, the "successful conclusion" of the charges against him.
House Republican leaders, for their part, are calling for a floor vote this week on whether to refer the indictment to the House ethics committee. "If the charges against Congressman Jefferson are true, he should be expelled from the House of Representatives," said Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, in a statement.
Responding to this GOP move, ethics committe chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones said an investigative subcommittee will be formed to look into the charges against Jefferson.
The indictment comes at a tough time for Democrats. Public assessment of their performance since taking charge of Capitol Hill in January has been worsening, polls show. On Democrats' other big election issue – the war in Iraq – they disappointed antiwar activists last month by approving President Bush's war-funding request for this fiscal year.
"The Jefferson case was much less important to Democrats when they were in the minority," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. "Coming after a watered-down ethics bill, the story is about failing to reform a system they promised to change."
"For those frustrated on Iraq as well, it becomes part of an ongoing story on whether the Democrats can follow through on what they promised. The ... Jefferson case is ... now part of a balancing act the Democrats are trying to do between pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus [to be fair to Jefferson] and political pressure to make sure this doesn't become the story of the month, taking attention from the war in Iraq," Mr. Zelizer adds.
An aggressive move against Jefferson by House leaders, at least now, risks alienating African-Americans in the congressional delegation and in the Democratic base. Many see Democrats as applying a double standard regarding how they treat allegations of corruption. Speaker Pelosi forced Jefferson to give up his seat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee but allowed Rep. Alan Mollohan (D) of West Virginia, who was also facing a federal investigation, to keep his seat on the Appropriations Committee.
"The allegations leveled against Mr. Jefferson are serious. But they are allegations and in our system must not be treated as guilt," says House majority whip James Clyburn (D) of South Carolina, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. "We must allow the judicial process to run its course, after which there will be plenty enough time to express our political will."
When Democrats campaigned last year to take back the House, corruption cases were focused mainly on Republican lawmakers. In March 2006, former GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California was sentenced to more than eight years for accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes. Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas resigned his position as majority leader in October 2005 after being indicted in Texas for fundraising violations in the 2002 campaign. In January, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio – one of several lawmakers under investigation for ties to convicted ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff – was jailed for trading political favors for gifts and campaign contributions.
The case against Jefferson is more extensive than expected, say legal experts. The public first learned of the case when the FBI recorded Jefferson accepting $100,000 from an informant in a sting operation in 2005. In August, agents searched Jefferson's Washington home and reported finding $90,000 of those funds in the freezer. "It's surprising to see how long the Jefferson indictment took: One would have thought that finding large amounts of money in a freezer would give you the ability to expedite an indictment," says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University here. "The fact that Jefferson was still unindicted made people wonder whether the other potential offenders were being pursued aggressively."
"The schemes charged are complex, but the essence of this case is simple: Mr. Jefferson corruptly traded on his good office ... to enrich himself and his family through a pervasive pattern of fraud, bribery, and corruption that spanned many years and two continents," said US attorney Chuck Rosenberg on Monday.
Jefferson's lawyer, Robert Trout, says Jefferson is innocent and plans to "fight this indictment and clear his name."
"This case is very complicated and quite strong," says Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. He should resign immediately, she says.