Despite Probe, a Close Race

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By Shailagh Murray and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 9, 2006

Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) was given up for dead politically after the FBI found $90,000 in alleged bribe money in his freezer, and he barely survived a Nov. 7 primary election, garnering 30 percent of the vote in a crowded field of 12 challengers.

Now he is locked in a tough runoff with a well-funded Democratic challenger who is using poetry and schoolchildren to highlight Jefferson's ethical woes. Many of Jefferson's House colleagues are privately rooting for him to lose today so his troubles do not tarnish the new Democratic-controlled Congress. But while scandals cost the GOP 12 House seats last month, the eight-term Democrat is proving surprisingly resilient, and experts say the special election could go either way.

Jefferson has scooped up high-profile endorsements from New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, who finished third in the primary, while attacking opponent Karen Carter, who finished second with 22 percent of the vote, as too liberal. In one ad, Jefferson declares "I have never taken a bribe" and dismisses Carter, a 37-year-old lawyer and state representative, as "an ambitious young woman." The national Democratic Party has steered clear of the race.

Brian J. Brox, a political scientist at Tulane University, described the race as heated and hard to predict. "It looks like a fairly negative and nasty affair," he said.

A low-key lawmaker with a scholarly demeanor, Jefferson had his world turned upside down in August 2005, when federal investigators raided his homes in Washington and New Orleans as part of a corruption investigation related to African business activities. Sources familiar with the probe said Jefferson is certain to be indicted, probably sometime in the first half of 2007.

Jefferson has strongly denied engaging in illegal activity, and to the surprise and alarm of some of his Democratic colleagues, he has forged ahead with his reelection campaign. He argues that his flood-ravaged city needs an experienced hand in the House to usher through recovery-related legislation. "Now is not the time for an unproven person to go to Washington and try to fight for our recovery," he warned in one campaign ad.

But in June, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other leaders stripped Jefferson of his coveted seat on the Ways and Means Committee, a humiliating slap meant to send an election-year signal that Democrats do not tolerate ethical lapses. In October, the Louisiana Democratic Party voted to endorse Carter, who has matched Jefferson in fundraising. Both candidates have raised about $900,000, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Pelosi has had little to say about Jefferson's reelection bid. "It is up to the people of New Orleans to decide who they want to represent them," she said this week. A Pelosi spokeswoman noted that there is no guarantee Jefferson would secure a committee assignment in the new Congress, should he win reelection.

Throughout the campaign, Jefferson has attempted to portray Carter as a left-wing fringe figure who supports late-term abortions, same-sex marriage and human cloning. Carter has hit back; one of her ads shows a children's spelling bee in which contestants spell "hypocrite" and "corruption." A radio ad contrasts Carter's Katrina response with reports that Jefferson used a National Guard detail to survey damage to his home. The congressman has insisted that he was not allowed to enter the area unescorted.

The radio message is delivered in the poetic style of " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas":

Karen Carter made headlines, pleading for buses and gas

To help desperate people in the Dome and on the Claiborne overpass.

In the meantime, Bill Jefferson couldn't be found.

Oh, that's right, two Humvees and a chopper had taken him Uptown.

The FBI is also investigating Jefferson's wife and other family members. The probe began in March 2005 with an undercover sting spurred by a Northern Virginia woman, Lori Mody. She had approached the FBI, concerned that Jefferson and some of his business associates were trying to swindle her.

Two of Jefferson's associates pleaded guilty this year to bribing the congressman. Investigators are examining about a dozen business schemes in the United States and in Africa in which Jefferson allegedly used his official position in exchange for financial gain, according to court documents and sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

Given the volume of evidence that federal investigators are thought to possess, indictments in the case were expected months ago. But the probe has been slowed by legal wrangling over documents seized during a controversial FBI raid of Jefferson's House office in May.

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