Mr. Jefferson Indicted

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

TO READ the indictment of Rep. William J. Jefferson is to wonder how, if the allegations are true, the Louisiana Democrat, so busy soliciting and dispensing bribes, had any time left over for his day job. The 16-count indictment handed up yesterday by a federal grand jury in Alexandria is staggering in the scope and audacity of the bribery schemes it portrays Mr. Jefferson as having peddled, from sugar plant and waste recycling projects in Nigeria to telecommunications deals in Ghana to oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea to satellite transmission contracts in Botswana to offshore oil rights in Sao Tome and Principe. All this might explain why it took nearly two years for prosecutors to secure the indictment after a search of Mr. Jefferson's home found $90,000 wrapped in tin foil in his freezer.

The indictment describes how Mr. Jefferson, who has a law degree from Harvard and a masters in taxation from Georgetown, allegedly arranged for a lengthy menu of payoffs to shell companies he set up with family members: "monthly fees and retainers, consulting fees, percentage shares of revenue and profit, flat fees per item sold, and stock ownership in the companies seeking his official assistance." The lawmaker is accused of accepting some $500,000 in bribes. "I make a deal for my children," Mr. Jefferson allegedly told an associate as he was trying to bump up his ownership stake in one company from 7 percent to as much as 20 percent. "It wouldn't be for me."

Corruption on this scale isn't unheard of -- Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) is serving time for taking $2.4 million in bribes -- but Mr. Jefferson's alleged activities are nonetheless sickening. If the charges are true -- he has asserted his innocence -- this is the sort of criminality that no set of ethics rules, however carefully constructed, can guard against.

Mr. Jefferson has already been ousted from his seat on the Ways and Means Committee, a move by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that looks even wiser in retrospect. He remains on the Small Business Committee. At the very least, Democrats should revoke that assignment. At best, Mr. Jefferson, whose New Orleans district could benefit from a congressman's undivided attention, should do what he ought to have done some time ago, which is to step down. Mr. Jefferson is entitled to the presumption of innocence as he prepares to defend himself in court; he is not entitled to the presumption of a congressional seat.

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