Party Urges Jefferson To Leave Committee

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006

Democrats voted last night to strip Rep. William J. Jefferson (La.) of a plum committee assignment while he is embroiled in a federal bribery investigation.

The 99 to 58 vote followed weeks of public and private wrangling, as Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) sought to take a strong election-year stance on ethics, while Jefferson's allies -- mainly fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus -- protested that he was being singled out for unfair treatment.

Jefferson left immediately after voting and said he would spend the evening considering his next move.

"I'm just going to go to my office," Jefferson said. "I'm just going to wait and see."

If he refuses to step aside from the Ways and Means Committee, as urged by the Democratic Caucus, the next step would be a vote on the House floor to remove him from the prestigious committee. Even his allies want to avoid that.

Black Caucus members said their concern was the lack of any rule pertaining to lawmakers in Jefferson's situation. He has not been indicted in the case but could face serious charges. Jefferson says he is innocent of wrongdoing.

Before the Democratic Caucus met, Jefferson offered to resign under two conditions: that a rule be written establishing that any member under investigation may be asked to step aside, regardless of whether charges are filed; and that Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), whose district adjoins Jefferson's, be named his temporary replacement on Ways and Means.

Pelosi declined the offer.

"Our concern is that the rule is really political expediency," said Rep. Melvin Watt (N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Rep. Danny K. Davis (Ill.) said the legal question was foremost. "I don't think this has to do with race," Davis said. "Members of the Democratic Caucus are above and beyond that."

Not all of the resolution's opponents were black caucus members. Some sought a new rule that would apply to Jefferson's situation, so members could debate language on the books. Rep. Steven R. Rothman (N.J.) moved to table the resolution to remove Jefferson until the issue had been addressed, but that failed 91 to 61.

The investigation involves Jefferson's alleged role in African business dealings. The pressure from Pelosi and others was stepped up when the FBI revealed it videotaped Jefferson accepting $100,000 in $100 bills from a government witness, explaining that he would pass it on to the vice president of Nigeria to assist in a telecommunications deal. All but $10,000 of the cash was later found in Jefferson's freezer in his Washington home.

Jefferson has refused repeated behind-the-scenes entreaties, including those by several prominent Black Caucus members, to voluntarily step aside. Venting his frustration in an op-ed column Saturday in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, he accused Pelosi of playing politics with his career and reputation.

"Her behavior is rooted in a political strategy she believes will enable the Democrats to gain the majority in the House and realize her dream of becoming Speaker of the House, which disregards the interests of the people of Louisiana, ignores firmly established House precedent, and fails to observe the rules of fairness and nondiscrimination," Jefferson wrote.

He noted that he has not been charged with a crime, and that "historically, even when a member of Congress has been so charged, he or she steps aside from a committee or subcommittee chairmanship, but not from the committee itself."

Pelosi denied that she is being unfairly harsh. "I told all my colleagues, anybody with $90,000 in their freezer, you have a problem at that point."

Jefferson and some of his Black Caucus allies have noted Pelosi's relative silence on the legal troubles facing Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), whose commercial investments are being scrutinized by federal investigators for potential connections to his duties as a member of the Appropriations Committee.

Mollohan acknowledged this week that he misstated more than a dozen transactions on his financial disclosure forms and said he had amended them "to correct any inaccurate impressions about my finances." He resigned earlier this year as the ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee but retains his Appropriations Committee seat.

One of Jefferson's former business partners, Vernon L. Jackson, and a former top aide, Brett M. Pfeffer, have pleaded guilty in the investigation, confessing to conspiring to bribe Jefferson.

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