Pelosi May Give Jefferson a Lesser Committee Assignment

By Charles Babington and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

House Democratic leaders, who have vowed to run a more ethical Congress, are struggling with how to respond to the reelection of Rep. William J. Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat whose Washington home freezer once held $90,000 in alleged bribe money.

Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), poised to be the next speaker, stripped Jefferson of his seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee in June and has hinted that she may place him on no committee when the 110th Congress convenes next month. But a source close to Pelosi said yesterday that she is more likely to place him on a lower-profile committee and hope the controversy dies down.

Pelosi will decide after consulting with colleagues in coming days, said the source, who would speak about the matter only on background.

Jefferson, 59, surprised many in Washington on Saturday by comfortably winning a ninth term from his New Orleans-based district. He repeatedly notes that he has not been indicted, and he won endorsements from high-level politicians such as New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.

In August 2005, federal agents raided Jefferson's homes in Washington and New Orleans as part of a corruption investigation into business dealings in Africa. The $90,000 in cash was among their findings.

The source familiar with Pelosi's thinking said that the incoming speaker wants to distance herself and her caucus from Jefferson and legal problems but that she thinks she cannot ignore that voters returned him to office when details of the investigation were well known.

Sources familiar with the probe said Jefferson will be indicted, probably in the first half of 2007. The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said investigators have been looking at about a dozen business deals in the United States and Africa in which Jefferson allegedly used his official position for financial gain.

An indictment has been delayed because of a protracted legal battle over documents the FBI seized from Jefferson's office in May, according to sources. U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who signed the search warrant, later ruled that the raid was constitutional.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington delayed matters further by ruling that Jefferson had a right to challenge the FBI from reviewing documents he felt were protected under the "speech or debate" clause. Recently, the Court of Appeals gave the FBI the go-ahead to begin reviewing materials that Jefferson had acknowledged were not privileged.

The Court of Appeals will address the challenged documents early next year. The ruling leaves open the option for federal investigators to wait for all the seized documents before indicting, or to indict on some of the alleged schemes and return later with additional charges in what is called a superseding indictment, sources said.

Roscoe C. Howard Jr., a former U.S. attorney in Washington now with the law firm Troutman Sanders, said: "There's a lot of reasons for indicting and then going back with a superseding indictment. There's certain reasons for waiting."

One reason for seeking an indictment sooner than later, he said, is that Jefferson is a public servant "who answers to a public body and people want to know answers."

But Howard said that if the prosecutor hits Jefferson with a round of charges and then hammers him again in a superseding indictment, "you're going to end up with allegations of prosecutorial misconduct" from Jefferson, trying to put the government on the defensive.

Two Jefferson associates -- former congressional aide Brett Pfeffer and Vernon L. Jackson, owner of iGate, a Louisville-based high-tech company -- have pleaded guilty to charges they bribed Jefferson to use his political influence to push through a lucrative contract in Africa to sell technology for the Internet and cable television.

Jefferson's press secretary, Melanie Rousell, declined to address the likelihood of an indictment, saying: "The voters have elected him, and he is there to serve them and represent them, and that's what he will do."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company