|House removes Jefferson from committee|
By Bruce Alpert
WASHINGTON The full U.S. House of Representatives voted Friday to remove Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans from his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee while he remains the target of a federal bribery investigation.
The move, by unanimous consent, came just hours after the House Democratic Caucus voted 99-58 late Thursday to recommend Jefferson�s ouster from the tax-writing panel.
Jefferson, who has not been charged and has maintained his innocence, said he is disappointed with the vote. He said he believes he could fight the ouster in court, but probably won't do.
Jefferson, who is black, predicted that the decision will hurt the party with African-American and Hispanic lawmakers, most of whom supported his view that the action isn't justified. Jefferson said the ouster breaks with House precedent and penalizes his constituents who need their representative on Ways and Means to help rebuild from the damage of Hurricane Katrina.
Historians said it was the first time in the 217-year history of Congress that a rank-and-file member had been removed from a committee. Party leaders and committee chairmen have been forced to step aside in the past.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hoping to establish the Democrats as the party of ethics reform during this election year, had pushed hard for Jefferson to voluntarily step aside.
Pelosi said Jefferson still enjoys a presumption of innocence and has the opportunity to defend himself in court. But she said she was so focused on persuading him to voluntarily give up the post or force a vote by the full House to oust him because she is determined that Democrats "uphold a higher ethical standard."
Membership on a committee is a privilege extended by members of each party's caucus, while election to Congress is determined by the voters, she said.
Federal investigators say Jefferson funneled more than $400,000 in payments to a company operated by his family in return for his assistance in winning Internet and cable contracts in Nigeria and Ghana for a small Kentucky firm. Two associates, including a former congressional aide and the CEO of the Kentucky firm, iGate Inc., have pleaded guilty in what the government calls an elaborate bribery scheme.
After talking to the Democratic Caucus for 10 minutes Thursday night, Jefferson calmly spoke to a crowd of nearly 50 reporters waiting outside.
"I pointed out that in my district, Katrina devastated it. We've done wonderful work here on the Ways and Means Committee, from the Go-Zone legislation to incentive housing production back home to unemployment compensation to welfare restoration to Medicaid issues and all the rest. . . . We've all done those and we've done them quite well as anyone on my committee would point out," Jefferson said.
Jefferson conceded that "serious allegations" have been made against him "by third parties and perhaps by some in the press" but said there is no procedure in House rules to oust a member from a committee based on allegations. He noted that he has not been charged with any crime and that to deprive him of membership on the committee would unfairly hurt his constituents.
In a letter to Pelosi on Wednesday, Jefferson offered to give up his Ways and Means seat under two conditions: that the party apply the same standards to other members under investigation and that it name Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, to replace him because he too represents a district that has been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Pelosi rejected the offer, spokeswoman Melanie Roussell said.
During the caucus meeting, Rep. Steven Rothman, D-N.J., made a motion to table the removal resolution so that the caucus could develop rules on how to deal with members under a criminal investigation. It was defeated 91-61.
"I felt this was extremely arbitrary and invited potential abuse," Rothman said, "the standard being if things look bad, remove him or her from the committee."
Rep. Albert Wynn, D-N.J., said four members pushed the motion, including Rothman and Melancon. Afterward, Melancon's spokeswoman said her boss served as the timekeeper for the advocates of the table resolution. She said she didn't know if Melancon spoke on behalf of the resolution and wouldn't say how he voted on the tabling motion or the resolution to seek Jefferson's removal from the Ways and Means Committee.
Pelosi said the debate did not produce angry arguments, but a clear debate on the issues.
"That is about an ethical standard that is different. I wish the White House would follow our lead," said Pelosi, alluding to President Bush's decision to retain his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, now that he has been told he won't face an indictment in an investigation of the leaking to the news media the name of a covert CIA agent.
During his remarks to reporters, Jefferson was asked if he felt the action being taken against him is racially motivated.
"Well, it's never happened before, and the first time it's happening, it's happening to an African-American. It does raise issues," he said.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7861