By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Monday's indictment of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) touched off an ethics battle in the House yesterday, with leaders from both parties moving quickly against Jefferson even as they accused each other of having no real interest in tighter ethics rules.
In short order, the House last night approved a Democratic motion that would make an ethics investigation automatic upon the indictment of any House member and then approved a Republican motion that could lead to Jefferson's expulsion.
The GOP resolution, offered by Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), referred Jefferson's case to the ethics committee, demanding that the panel report back on whether his expulsion is merited. The Democratic rule change, introduced by Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), would give the ethics committee 30 days after an indictment to initiate an investigation or explain why it declined to do so.
For his part, Jefferson gave up his last remaining committee position, a seat on the Small Business Committee, telling Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) the move is not an admission of guilt but a reflection of "recent developments in a legal matter."
Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), chairman of the ethics committee, announced that her panel will reconvene an investigative subcommittee assembled last year to probe allegations against Jefferson. That panel disbanded with the end of the last Congress. But she bristled at Boehner's resolution as an encroachment into her jurisdiction.
"As a Committee, we will fulfill our responsibility to the House of Representatives. I refuse to allow these proceedings to be politicized by House Republican Leadership," Tubbs Jones said in a statement.
Pressure mounted on Jefferson -- in Washington and in his New Orleans district -- to resign. The New Orleans Times-Picayune said the lawmaker has "become a liability for his district and Louisiana" and added: "His presence will be a constant reminder of Louisiana's reputation for political shenanigans."
"It is vitally important that we keep our eye on the ball in terms of funding and moving the city forward," said Arnie Fielkow, vice president of the City Council. "I don't see how Representative Jefferson can be focused on this while facing all these charges."
The reaction in the African American community was more mixed. Beverly McKenna, publisher and editor of the Tribune, the city's black newspaper, said she woke up yesterday and decided not to editorialize about the indictment. "This whole situation is so painful for me," she said. "The Jeffersons are good friends of mine."
Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) called the indictment "disappointing."
For Republicans, Jefferson's indictment on 16 counts of corruption, racketeering and bribery marked an opportunity to shift attention from their own ethics issues, which have nearly half a dozen GOP lawmakers under federal investigation and forced three members to resign. But their moves also leave them exposed to countercharges of hypocrisy.
GOP leaders made no moves to expel Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) from the House after their indictments last year, going out of their way to try to preserve a path for DeLay's return to the leadership and saying Ney would have to decide whether to resign.
They are taking the unprecedented step of pushing the expulsion of a member before his conviction. In 2002, the House ousted James A. Traficant (D-Ohio) after he was convicted on bribery and corruption charges. In 1980, the House expelled Michael "Ozzie" Myers (D-Pa.), after he was convicted of taking $50,000 in the Abscam scandal.
Before that, the only other expulsions fell on two House members and a member-elect, all from Missouri, who were ousted on treason charges in 1861, at the outset of the Civil War.
Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio) took to the floor to decry both motions as a continuation of "the dumbing-down of the House."
"Even members of Congress are entitled to a presumption of innocence," he protested.
But Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said there is nothing precipitous about the GOP's move, because Jefferson has been under a investigative cloud for more than a year -- ever since the Justice Department revealed it had discovered $90,000 bundled in the lawmaker's freezer.
As for the Republicans' protection of DeLay and Ney, he said, "The speaker of the House said we were going to have a different standard in this Congress, and we're trying to establish a different standard with our members, and we're going to help her establish a different standard for her members."
Blunt, however, decried as "outrageous" a 30-month prison sentence that former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby received for perjury.
"After Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney, I'm very proud my colleagues from the other side of the aisle have finally found their moral voice," said Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.).
Special correspondent Julia Cass in New Orleans contributed to this report.