Bill Jefferson faced a long row of hurdles at the outset of the 2006 campaign season. Winning re-election was merely the first -- and perhaps easiest -- among them, and that wasn't easy. Worse for Jefferson, the remaining hurdles get progressively more difficult to clear.
In fact, Jefferson has already failed to clear the second hurdle. Just days after his stunning re-election, he learned that he remains on "suspension" from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He was given a consolation prize in the form of an appointment to the House Small Business Committee.
Politically, Jefferson has been down-sized. Ways and Means is an A-List assignment. Small Business is not. It's not exactly Siberia, but it's definitely a notch below the committee that births the nation's tax policies.
Jefferson's star fell when a federal criminal investigation turned up $90,000 in marked Ben Franklins neatly wrapped in his freezer. Two of his associates have pleaded guilty and reportedly have implicated him in a bribery and extortion scheme involving high-tech businesses and high-ranking African officials.
Looking ahead to 2008, the Democrats don't want any unnecessary baggage. To that end, they are making an example of Jefferson in an effort stake out the legal and ethical, if not moral, high ground. The 21-month probe of Jefferson -- which reportedly includes video of him getting the marked cash from an FBI informant -- is just the sort of ballast that Democrats want to shed going into the presidential race. His 57-43 percent shellacking of state Rep. Karen Carter notwithstanding, Jefferson is damaged goods and, for now, utterly expendable as far as the national party is concerned.
Which brings us to the next hurdle: his indictment.
The Washington rumor mill was abuzz last week that he would be formally charged in early 2007. There are two contrasting schools of thought on that one.
On one hand, the feds should wait until they can get their hands on all the evidence seized in the controversial raid of Jefferson's congressional office last May. Most of the materials taken in the raid remain under seal and thus out of prosecutors' reach -- until the courts decide whether the raid met constitutional standards. If the government were to indict Jefferson before it had the opportunity to review that evidence, it could be taken as an admission that the raid was not really necessary. That's not the kind of admission the Justice Department would relish making. An indictment, therefore, is not likely until all that evidence is sorted out.
On the other hand, the government could indict Jefferson based on evidence it already has, which reportedly is substantial, and then issue a superceding indictment if -- or when -- it gets the evidence from the May raid. Superceding indictments are a favorite tool of federal prosecutors; it's their way of upping the ante when a defendant refuses to bargain. If the feds go this route, I wouldn't be surprised to see prosecutors openly discussing the possibility of a superceding indictment in response to questions about the propriety (or necessity) of the May raid.
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that an indictment of Jefferson is not a question of "if" but rather of "when."
Which brings us, or rather Jefferson, to the next hurdle: a trial in northern Virginia.
It's one thing to convince voters in post-Katrina New Orleans to give you a break. It's another thing altogether to win sympathy from conservatives living just outside the Beltway. Jefferson's trial will be a political and media circus, particularly if other members of his family are charged, as some of the alleged evidence indicates is a possibility.
That could be the biggest hurdle of all for Jefferson: living with the knowledge that he's putting not only his own future on the line, but that of his loved ones as well.
In athletic competition, the high hurdles event is a sprint. For Bill Jefferson, it's a grueling marathon. He has many miles to go.
- Jonathan G. Williams
- One thing everyone seems to agree on is that an indictment of Bill Jefferson is not a question of "if" but rather of "when."