Is a Double-Standard being used to Judge Rep. Bill Jefferson?
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 6/6/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Former U. S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) served in Congress 36 years until 1995 when he lost re-election.
Charged with keeping ghost employees on his payroll, using Congressional money to buy gifts and trading in officially purchased stamps for cash, he pled guilty to the lesser charge of mail fraud, served 15 of a 17-month sentence in prison and was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
Similarly, former U. S. Rep. Joe McDade (R-Pa.) was indicted on bribery and racketeering charges in 1992 after the Federal Bureau of Investigation spent eight years probing his political activities.
Ultimately, a jury acquitted him in 1996.
Despite the severity of the charges and lengths of the investigations in the cases of Rostenkowski, McDade, and many other congressional lawmakers since the founding of the United States, the FBI had never raided a Congressional office.
Not until May 20 when 15 agents searched and seized documents from the Capitol Hill office of U. S. Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who has been accused of accepting bribes in exchange for using his influence in private dealings with high-tech businesses in Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana.
While Jefferson, a Harvard-trained lawyer and constitutional scholars around the nation debate whether the federal agency violated the separation of powers provision of the U. S. constitution, there are enough troubling questions for everyone.
Of course, Jefferson needs to explain the $90,000 found in his home freezer –and he pledges to do that at the appropriate time.
But the FBI also needs to explain what was so unique in the Jefferson case that caused it to raid his office – other than the fact that he is Black.
“You look at every motive there could possibly be. Of course, when you’re an African-American in elective office, you look to see whether that might be a motive. I don’t have any evidence of that. But, I can tell you that you have to look at everything,” Jefferson says in an exclusive interview with the NNPA News Service.
“We’re trying to see what the reasons are and we’re investigating very carefully why it happened to me. But we can’t put our finger on it; at least not without factual evidence until we can say to you with reasonable certainty this is why this was done.”
Jefferson has been advised by attorneys to remain silent on the facts of the case, including the cash found in his home freezer in Washington during an FBI raid on Aug. 3.
FBI documents allege the money came from a briefcase with $100,000 in marked $100 bills that he had received as a bribe from a cooperating witness.
The FBI says it videotaped the transaction.
The clash between executive and legislative powers has prompted Republicans to speak out against the FBI Capitol Hill raid, not because of any affinity for Jefferson, but on constitutional principles.
The acrimony is so deep that President Bush has ordered the seized documents to be held by an independent party until tempers can cool on both sides.
In addition, given a history of racism and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system towards Blacks, some experts are not ruling out racism as a motive. It is an issue they discuss gingerly.
“No one is above the law, including a congressman; especially a congressman. I believe that the allegations against Congressman Jefferson would have been investigated whether he was White or Black or whether this was a Democrat or Republican administration,” says Charles Tieffer, a constitutional scholar and law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
“But it is hard to understand why he was not investigated in the same way that all other congressmen before him have been investigated. But instead, his office was raided.”
Tieffer knows how other congressional representatives have been treated. He has worked as deputy general counsel of the House, a trial attorney with the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and as an assistant legal counsel for the Senate.
Tieffer was one of the legal experts called to testify before the House Judiciary Community during last week’s hearings about the controversial Jefferson raids and how investigations should be conducted in the future. In an interview, he says he is still perplexed by several aspects of the raid.
“A number of observers agree with me that if you study carefully what the FBI and Justice Department have put forth, they not only make no showing of an emergency situation requiring something special like a raid. But, more than that, they do not even claim that there was an emergency situation requiring something extraordinary,” Tieffer explains.
“So, while I would be extremely reluctant to make the assertion for which there is no direct evidence whatsoever – that it was because of his race that the raid occurred – something seemed to have misled the Justice Department and FBI officials into failing to understand or anticipate that the House of Representatives’ bi-partisan leadership, that is both [Republican] Speaker [Dennis] Hastert and Democratic Leader [Nancy] Pelosi would come together and denounce the raid as wrong.”
Tieffer speculates, ''One possibility is that the Justice Department officials simply did not imagine that a Black Democratic congressman would get bi-partisan support from both the Republican Party leadership and the Democratic Party leadership. They may have looked at him as an isolated figure that you could use tactics on that you might not be able to use on a senior White Republican congressman.”
Jefferson says he has received comforting support from his constituents in New Orleans, where he has been addressing Hurricane Katrina-related issues and last week spoke at Mayor Ray Nagin’s inauguration.
“I don’t have a lot of pressure back home from regular people to explain this and explain that. Basically, they are very supportive and I thank God for that,” he says.
“And I know that though in the larger community people are looking at things and they see them happen for the first time with me after 219 years, and they wonder, ‘Well, there have been other cases and apparently there was a way for them to get information from other offices and all the rest and why in this case?’”
Still, public sentiment and those from among his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus says that he has a lot of explaining to do.
Especially given that FBI documents claim that Vernon Jackson, president and CEO of iGate, a Louisville-based tech firm, and former Jefferson staffer Brett Pfeffer, were suspects in the investigation and have already confessed that they bribed Jefferson.
U. S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who sits on the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, is conflicted.
“Someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. He hasn’t been charged with anything. But, obviously, it doesn’t look good,” Scott says.
“But the burden is upon the administration to explain what is so special about this case. I’m waiting for an explanation about what is so special about this case. If there is no articulated rationale, then people should be free to surmise as they will.”
Jefferson says he has been pleased with the general support he has gotten from both sides of the aisles, especially the CBC, which rebuffed a recommendation from Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi that he step down from important committees.
Jefferson sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and serves as co-chair of the Africa Trade and Investment Caucus as well as the Caucuses on Brazil and Nigeria.
“It was about, ‘Wait a minute. This hasn’t happened here before. There’s no rule that authorizes it. Why should there be a push to have me leave my committee work or whatever. There was no precedence whatsoever in the history of the Congress,” Jefferson says.
“The most that ever happened was if a member were indicted, the issue then would be whether he was a chairman or a subcommittee chairman. If that person were in one of those roles, they would step aside from those roles, but never from that committee.”
The Jefferson controversy comes during an important election year for Republicans and Democrats. But leaders on both sides apparently see the FBI search precedent as of equal importance.
Hastert protested directly to President Bush, who responded by ordering that the documents be sealed and held by Solicitor General Paul Clement until a decision is made on how to proceed.
He proposed 45 days.
Meanwhile, Jefferson has filed a motion in federal court to have the documents returned to him. Tieffer says the issue could reach the Supreme Court.
“Neither of the three branches should have that kind of control or unlimited power over the other,” says Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree.
Ogletree says he sees no racial implication in the Jefferson case. But he sees a connection between the new surveillance tactics that the government is now exercising in the name of anti-terrorism.
“It’s the idea of how far the government can go…Beyond the outcome of the actual Jefferson investigation,” he states,
“I think a check on executive power will be one of the outcomes of this incident. The outcome of this will be that Congress will have to find a way to make sure it doesn’t put itself in jeopardy by allowing one person to be sacrificed when the next time they come, it might be them.”