The ethical questions surrounding Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) reached a fever pitch over the weekend as FBI agents raided his congressional office. CNN reported that the search, which lasted nearly 18 hours, marked the first time the FBI has ever investigated a lawmaker’s Capitol Hill office.
The search coincided with the release of court papers stating agents found $90,000 in cash in Jefferson’s freezer last August. There’s nothing illegal about keeping your savings in “various frozen food containers,” however odd that might be. But the serial numbers on the bills matched those from bills in the $100,000 payment Jefferson took from undercover FBI agents, with the exchange captured on videotape. (Jefferson actually joked on tape about the possibility of being under FBI surveillance.)
The office raid comes on the heels of iGate CEO Vernon L. Jackson and staff aide Brett M. Pfeffer’s pleading guilty to charges of bribing the congressman. Jefferson has maintained his innocence all along and promised to fight the allegations. But after Jackson admitted he “directly and indirectly, corruptly gave, offered and promised things of value” to the congressman, it’s becoming more difficult to believe Jefferson’s blanket denials.
Like every American, Rep. Jefferson deserves the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in court. However, the dark cloud hanging over the congressman makes it impossible for him to fairly represent his constituents – and given that he represents New Orleans, his constituents need strong representation in Washingtonnow more than ever.
On April 27, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took to the House floor to decry the weak lobbying reform bill, declaring the American people “expect and deserve better.” She promised if Democrats retook control of the House, they would pass stronger reforms and end the “culture of corruption in this House of Representatives.”
The growing scandal around Rep. Jefferson provides Ms. Pelosi with a unique opportunity to demonstrate the sincerity of her call for ethics reform. If Democrats are serious about cleaning up Washington, they could start by cleaning up their own house. Nothing would send a stronger statement to voters that Democrats are serious about ethics than Nancy Pelosi standing in front of the Capitol urging a Democrat to step down. At the very least Jefferson should recuse himself from any debate or votes which are directly or indirectly related to the matter under investigation – as Rep. Allan Mollohan (D-W. Va.) did when he stepped aside from the ethics committee’s pending resolution of an investigation into his finances.
It’s easy to criticize your opponents when they go astray. It takes true leadership to acknowledge mistakes within your own party and work to correct them. If Minority Leader Pelosi wants to be Majority Leader or House Speaker Pelosi she needs to show that she can hold her party to the same ethical standards she demands of others by calling for William Jefferson to step aside at this time.