Party support for Jefferson waivering
By Bill Walsh and Bruce Alpert Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — Support for New Orleans U.S. Rep. William Jefferson began to waver within his own party Thursday as the two top Democratic House leaders called on the ethics committee to launch an investigation into bribery allegations that exploded again this week in a federal court.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, who runs the party’s whip organization, distanced themselves from Jefferson the day after a Kentucky businessman pleaded guilty in federal court to paying more than $450,000 to a company controlled by Jefferson’s family in exchange for official favors.
Jefferson has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing.
“In the case of Mr. Jefferson, I think the ethics committee should investigate him,” Pelosi said at a news conference as she stood in front of a banner reading, “Honest Leadership, Open Government.” “It is his private matter and he should be investigated because of the stories that have been in the press and the guilty plea yesterday.” A spokeswoman for Hoyer agreed that the allegations made public so far warrant an ethics probe.
Both stopped short of lodging their own ethics complaints, which would prompt a probe by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. But the committee has the power to pursue a matter on its own. A committee spokesman did not return a phone call for comment.
The bribery plea Wednesday from iGate Corp. CEO Vernon Jackson was the second implicating Jefferson in what federal investigators describe as a four-year scheme by the congressman to engineer business deals for iGate Corp. in Africa in exchange for money, travel expenses and shares in the company for himself and family members. Brett Pfeffer, a former aide to Jefferson, pleaded guilty in January, saying the congressman demanded bribes from a wealthy northern Virginia woman who agreed to invest in iGate’s African telecommunications ventures.
While his spokeswoman worked to turn back a flood of rumors Thursday that Jefferson was about to resign, the congressman sat in the House chamber during afternoon votes talking and laughing with colleagues, mostly those from the Congressional Black Caucus.
“I just talked to him,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. “He was upbeat and confident that it would be all right.”
Several Democrats said they are withholding judgment until a court renders a verdict. A Virginia grand jury is investigating the case.
“I believe in Bill Jefferson,” Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., said. Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., who donated $3,000 to Jefferson’s legal defense fund, said, “I’m behind him 1,000 percent.”
“I’m going to let him have his day in court,” Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., said.
The topic, however, clearly made other Democrats nervous. Several declined to talk about Jefferson’s legal troubles. Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., who has for years championed tougher ethics and campaign finance laws, said he wanted to read the court pleadings before offering a comment. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who runs the party’s election committee also declined to comment except to say that the case wouldn’t have national implications.
“That won’t have an impact beyond that race,” Emanuel said.
But privately, Democrats were not happy with the latest developments in the case.
The party had hoped to use ethics as a political battering ram against Republicans in the fall elections, focusing on criminal probes of Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Tex., and Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and the guilty plea of former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., who admitted to taking at least $2.4 million from defense contractors in exchange for steering them Pentagon work.
But Democrats have encountered problems of their own.
Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., recently yielded to pressure to step aside as the top Democrat on the ethics committee amid allegations of his involvement in sweetheart real estate deals. The timing of the allegations against Jefferson, according to one Democratic House aide, couldn’t be worse.
“It’s a disaster,” said the aide, who asked not to be named. “Not only does it diminish the Democratic plans to run against Republican corruption in the fall elections, but it comes at a time when New Orleans more than ever needs an effective representative not preoccupied with his own legal difficulties.”
Ed Patru spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee said the latest revelations and the ouster of Alan Mollohan from the ethics committee “take the teeth” out of the Democrats effort to portray corruption as a one party problem.
“It probably only a matter of time before he (Jefferson) is forced to resign,” Patru said.
Republican members chose not to pile on Thursday seemingly content to let events play out on their own.
Rep. Rodney Alexander, who became a Republican less that two years ago, represents the north Louisiana district encompassing Jefferson’s hometown of Lake Providence. He said he was saddened by Jefferson’s legal troubles — “I just hate it. He’s a good guy” — but was not sorry that the Democrats were having to wrestle with their own ethical difficulties.
“It kills their argument about a culture of corruption,” Alexander said. “It’s a good example of why people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
(Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (202) 383-7861. Bill Walsh can be reached at email@example.com or at (202) 383-7817.)