By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
It takes a particular kind of nerve to be filmed taking $100,000 in alleged bribe money out of an FBI informant's car, have the FBI later find the same cold, hard cash wrapped in aluminum foil in your freezer -- and then adamantly claim that you have done nothing wrong.
But Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana has that rare trait -- to the horror of his fellow Democrats who are hoping to convince voters that it's the Republicans who are corrupt. "There are two sides to every story," Jefferson said, restating his innocence in a Capitol Hill news conference yesterday. "There are certainly two sides to this story."
Maybe so. But an 83-page FBI affidavit released over the weekend -- after a raid of Jefferson's congressional office -- alleges that Jefferson was caught on video taking a certificate for a 30 percent stake in a Nigerian company in exchange for his political influence, including intervening with the vice president of Nigeria.
The affidavit also says that, outside the Pentagon City Ritz-Carlton, Jefferson received a "leather briefcase which contained $100,000 cash in denominations of $100 bills" -- and that $90,000 of it wound up in his freezer, concealed "inside various frozen food containers." It says he referred to the cash as "African art" and laughed with a partner about "all these damn notes we're writing to each other as if . . . the FBI is watching."
Well, congressman, the FBI was, and your business partner was wearing a wire. Guilty pleas by another former partner say you took more than $400,000 in payments.
While our legal system presumes innocence until guilt is proved, Jefferson appears to have the most damning predicament since Florida Rep. Richard Kelly, caught in Abscam stuffing $25,000 in bribes into his coat pockets, claimed he was conducting his own investigation of the investigators.
Fifty reporters and 10 television cameras showed up yesterday afternoon to watch Jefferson give his account. Even the comedian Dave Chappelle, in the building for other purposes, stopped by to gather some material, signing autographs as he waited.
Jefferson, against a backdrop of armed police guarding the entrance to the Rayburn office building, interlocked his fingers and rubbed his thumbs together anxiously. His eyes turned moist, and perspiration formed on his brow. When he spoke, he was almost inaudible in the noisy corridor.
He said it would be "extraordinarily foolhardy" to talk about the case. But, then again, it would not be the only foolhardy thing Jefferson had done lately. Didn't he know that the Pentagon City complex where he was stung was an FBI favorite? Both Monica Lewinsky and Pentagon official Larry Franklin (of the AIPAC espionage affair) were undone by agents in the same place Jefferson put the $100,000 in his Lincoln Town Car while "video taped by the FBI from several vantage points."
Turning to the Constitution, Jefferson said the search of his office, the first such search of a congressional office, was "an outrageous intrusion into separation of powers." A reporter pointed out that the searchers had a warrant. It "is a violation of separation of powers . . . along with other arguments of comity," Jefferson repeated.
It was a curious time to be talking about comity, but Jefferson is a man of many comities. For example, when he demanded that his stake in the Nigerian company be increased from 7 percent to 30 percent, he said he was doing it for his five daughters. "I make a deal for my children," he was taped saying.
Jefferson, while denying his Democratic colleagues' fervent wishes that he resign, wasn't quite so bold as he was last week, when he said, "I certainly did not sell my office" and vowed to "reestablish the truth." Asked yesterday if that was still his position, he said only: "I certainly think that."
In his defiance, Jefferson seems to be following the model of former representative James Traficant (D-Ohio), who after his conviction for bribery and before his expulsion from the House in 2002 told his colleagues, "I didn't break any law."
Like Jefferson, then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), under investigation last year over a home purchase and a yacht, at first tried the Traficant Model. "I have acted honorably and honestly," he proclaimed. Eventually the Duke-stir admitted to a vast bribery scheme involving a defense contractor. "Now I know great shame," he said tearfully.
Jefferson is vying with Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) to be the most defiant member of Congress in the face of a criminal probe. In a plea agreement, a former longtime Ney aide ensnared in the Jack Abramoff scandal alleged that the Abramoff team gave Ney and his aides free and discounted trips to various vacation spots and received help for clients. "I haven't done anything wrong," is Ney's view.
But Jefferson upstaged Ney in the defiance competition with his news conference yesterday. Jefferson said he planned to run for reelection. Further, he added in all modesty, "I have been extraordinarily effective."
A PBS reporter asked Jefferson if he would "concede that it does not look good."
"I can't talk about the facts of the matter with respect to whether things look good or don't look good," the congressman replied.
Fox's Jim Mills tried a different tack: "If you did not take a $100,000 bribe, why not just say it now?"
"I simply will decline to answer," Jefferson replied, displaying the cool of a man who keeps his cash in the freezer.