|Congress votes to begin ethics investigation of Jefferson|
Posted by Washington bureau June 05, 2007 8:22PM
Republican led resolution, which could lead to his removal, overwhelmingly approved.
By Bruce Alpert
Washington bureau - NOLA.com
WASHINGTON -- One day after Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, was indicted on charges of soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to promote business projects, the House approved a Republican resolution calling on the ethics committee to investigate whether the allegations warrant his removal from Congress.
Any expulsion recommendation by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, more commonly known as the ethics committee, would require a two-thirds vote by the full House.
The vote for the Republican resolution was overwhelming, with 373 voting "yes" and only 26 voting "no."
The House also approved 387-10 a Democratic resolution that called on the ethics committee to investigate any member indicted on criminal charges in a state or federal court.
Bowing to political reality, Jefferson earlier Tuesday gave up his seat on the Small Business Committee, his only remaining committee assignment.
With some House Democrats saying they would support a resolution to remove him from the panel, Jefferson avoided a potentially embarrassing vote on the matter by asking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a leave of absence from the committee "pending my successful conclusion" of the charges filed against him Monday by a Virginia grand jury.
"In doing so, I, of course, express no admission of guilt or culpability in that or any other matter that may be pending in any court or before the House of Representatives," Jefferson said in a letter to Pelosi asking for the leave.
Jefferson's office, meanwhile, issued a statement that his district offices remain open and his staff continues to be available to help constituents with federal services and hurricane recovery.
The Republican resolution, adopted with strong Democratic support, requires the ethics committee to consider "without further delay" whether the 94-page federal indictment of Jefferson, which includes charges of soliciting bribes, racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice, merits his removal from the House.
House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who wrote the resolution, said the allegations against Jefferson are "so serious" that Congress owes it to the American people to determine whether Jefferson has broken the rules of conduct for members of the House or has brought "disrepute" on the chamber.
Rep. David Drier, R-Calif., said it has been a "long, long time" since the House was confronted with an indictment against a member as broad as the one against Jefferson, alleging solicitation of bribes on behalf of a wide range of business interests including telecommunications, recycling plants and oil exploration on two continents.
In a statement, Jefferson said "I respect the decision of my colleagues regarding these resolutions."
"I am innocent of these allegations and confident that members of the Ethics Committee will arrive at the same conclusion through investigation," he added.
Only one member spoke out against the GOP resolution. Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, a former member of the ethics committee, said the resolution opens the door to a process that could lead to the removal of members even if they are acquitted. LaTourette said he thinks the ethics committee should take action only after a criminal case runs its course, citing the 1992 vote to remove former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, "a good friend," after he was convicted on corruption charges.
Ex-chairman weighs in
Former Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., said the Jefferson case might be one of the rare instances when the ethics committee should act before final disposition of the criminal case.
"Often, the Justice Department doesn't want us monkeying in their case," Hefley said. "For instance, we might want to give witness immunity, and the Justice Department wouldn't want us to do that."
But in this situation, Hefley said, Jefferson's likely defense, that the business transactions labeled as illegal in the government's indictment were not related to his congressional duties, could still lead to a finding that he ran afoul of House rules that bar members from receiving income from private sources unrelated to investment earnings.
Hefley said members are often reluctant to recommend expulsion, except after a member has been found guilty of criminal charges, in deference to the constituents who elected the member to office.
Jefferson was re-elected in December, more than a year after many details of the investigation had been made public.
Concerns about impact
Most Republicans ended up voting for the Democratic resolution, as well as their own, despite their complaints that it was too broad, potentially forcing the ethic committee to examine members charged with speeding violations or other minor offenses.
Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., said it's important that Congress, despite the pressures to show the public how "tough it is" on ethics, not take action that runs afoul of the key component of the justice system - that a person is presumed innocent until found guilty by a jury of his peers.
Davis said Jefferson has the "strength" to deal with an indictment and continue to serve his constituents.
"I'm sure there are days and nights where he wished the day was different," Davis said. "But he appears to have the strength to overcome that and do the work of the Congress. And as far as members freezing up on him because of the allegations, I don't think members would do that because nobody is saying that his constituents -- with all that needs to be done after Katrina - have done anything wrong."
Ethics committee Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, said her panel would appoint a subcommittee, made up of one committee member of each party, joined by two members from each party nominated by their party's leadership to participate in ethics investigations, to examine the allegations against Jefferson.
Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7861.