With federal investigators hot on his tail and a dozen opponents lined up to take him out, Congressman Bill Jefferson of New Orleans faces his toughest campaign challenge since he first won Louisiana's Second Congressional District seat in 1990. He has not backed down from the fight.
The Jefferson defense team's PR firm has cranked out news releases in response to every new development (read: leak) concerning the ongoing investigation, and his congressional staff has likewise touted the benefits of his continued service in Washington via email announcements trumpeting hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants. Jefferson also has introduced legislation that would allow citizens to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the wake of Katrina-related flooding caused by massive design and engineering failures on the part of the Corps. Generally, federal officials and agencies are not subject to citizens' tort claims.
Even without the constant flow of bad press relating to the criminal investigation and highly publicized raids on his homes and office, Jefferson likely would be on the hot seat anyway because of the predictable voter backlash against incumbents after Hurricane Katrina.
But if all that were not enough, Jefferson now finds himself targeted by a pro-Democratic "reform" group that has ranked him among the "20 most corrupt members of Congress." Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) first published its "most corrupt" list earlier this year, citing 13 congressmen and senators -- the vast majority of them Republicans -- for ethical and legal violations. Two of the original 13 have already pleaded guilty to criminal charges: Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA), now serving an eight-year jail term for bribery; and Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), who has agreed to plead guilty to crimes that will likely send him to jail.
The group issued a new "most corrupt" list last month in a 241-page report titled, "Beyond Delay: The 20 Most Corrupt Members of Congress (and five to watch)" (www.beyonddelay.org). CREW touts the heavily footnoted report as an "encyclopedic" documentation of "the egregious, unethical and possibly illegal activities of the most tainted members of Congress."
"CREW created this exhaustive go-to guide on corruption in Congress to expose and hold accountable those members of Congress who believe they are above the law," Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW said today. "The officials named in this report have chosen to enrich themselves and their families and friends by abusing the power of their office, rather than work for the public good. Their collective corruption affects all Americans."
That the left-leaning CREW (www.citizensforethics.org) would include Jefferson on a list with such notorious GOP scoundrels is not exactly the kind of campaign kick the eight-term congressman needs right now. It comes several months after Jefferson's fellow Democrats, at the urging of party leaders in the House, booted him off the prestigious House Ways and Means Committee, thereby depriving him of the one plum that he could still hold forth to voters as he seeks re-election under an investigative cloud -- the advantages of his seniority.
In response to the CREW report, a spokeswoman for Jefferson blasted the group for reaching a conclusion before the congressman has had a chance to defend himself in court.
"It is irresponsible for this group -- who calls for responsibility -- to label anyone 'corrupt' based solely on unproven allegations," says Aranthan Jones, Jefferson's chief of staff in Washington. "Congressman Jefferson has said repeatedly that he has not committed any crime and he deserves the constitutional right, like everyone else, to the presumption of innocence unless proven guilty in a court of law. A responsible organization would respect that right as well."
Jefferson is not the only critic of CREW these days. U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MO), one of those named as corrupt, called the organization "nothing but a group of partisan hacks doing the dirty work of Democrats."
CREW describes itself as "progressive" and as "a non-profit, legal watchdog group dedicated to holding public officials accountable for their actions." The organization was founded in 2001 by Sloan, a former aide to U.S. Rep. John Conyers and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, both Democrats.
Naomi Seligman Steiner, CREW's deputy director, is a former spokeswoman for Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. According to Wikipedia, Steiner "suggested her group is the progressive counterweight to Judicial Watch," a right wing "public interest law firm" that pushed for President Bill Clinton's impeachment. In addition to the "20 Most Corrupt" report, CREW posts a Web site called "Jack in the House -- the House that Jack Abramoff Bought" (www.jackinthehouse.org).
"REP. JEFFERSON'S ETHICS ISSUES stem from his business dealings and from the misuse of federal resources," the CREW report on him begins. From there, the account describes the wide-ranging investigation into Jefferson's business dealings in Africa and the U.S., citing newspaper reports as well as federal documents, and concludes that he may have violated federal law as well as House rules.
The report summarizes Jefferson's dealings and the investigation into them in a straightforward style and tone. Here are a few examples:
• "In August 2005, federal agents searched his home in New Orleans and his home and car in Washington, D.C., as well as the home and office of his campaign accountant in New Orleans after Rep. Jefferson was videotaped accepting $100,000 in $100 bills from Lori Mody, a Northern Virginia investor and former technology executive who was wearing an FBI wire. During the raid on Rep. Jefferson's home, FBI agents found $90,000 in cash in $10,000 increments wrapped in foil in the Congressman's freezer.
"The 83-page search warrant affidavit released on May 21, 2006, described Rep. Jefferson as a man who solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, discussed payoffs with African officials, had a history of involvement in several bribery schemes and used his family to hide his interest in high-tech business ventures he promoted in Cameroon, Ghana, and Nigeria."
• "In what may or may not be related to the Nigeria matter, federal agents are also investigating whether Rep. Jefferson illegally pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars of investors' money from business transactions. Rep. Jefferson allegedly agreed to invest in the start-up company and use his congressional influence to bring in business."
• "In January 2006, one of Rep. Jefferson's former aides, Brett M. Pfeffer, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit bribery of a public official and aiding and abetting the bribery of a public official. ... By 2004, Mr. Pfeffer was president of an investment company owned by Ms. [Lori] Mody, who is a cooperating witness for the government.
"In a series of meetings between Ms. Mody, Rep. Jefferson, and Vernon L. Jackson, Mr. Pfeffer facilitated Ms. Mody's $45 million investment into iGate, and the exchange of money to Rep. Jefferson and his family in return for Rep. Jefferson's official acts. Mr. Pfeffer understood these official acts to include efforts to influence high-ranking officials in the Nigerian and Ghanaian government through correspondence and in-person meetings; travel to Nigeria and Ghana to facilitate these meetings; and meetings with personnel of the Export-Import Bank in order to facilitate potential financing for the Nigerian and Ghanaian deals."
• "In May 2006, Vernon L. Jackson, the CEO of iGate, pleaded guilty to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to the family of Rep. Jefferson. Mr. Jackson entered his guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia. According to the plea agreement entered into by Mr. Jackson, Rep. Jefferson helped arrange U.S. government contracts and set up an Internet service venture in Nigeria. In exchange, Mr. Jackson had agreed to pay Rep. Jefferson's wife and daughters $7,500 per month and 5% of his company's sales over $5 million.
"The alleged payments made by Mr. Jackson to Rep. Jefferson's family apparently were through a shell company, ANJ Group LLC, in Louisiana. More than $400,000 in checks and wire transfers were made through ANJ Group from Mr. Jackson to Rep. Jefferson from February 2001 to September 2004. Mr. Jackson's plea agreement states that in July 2003, Mr. Jackson agreed to increase Rep. Jefferson's share of iGate profits from the African deal to 35% from 5%. Rep. Jefferson's role involved meeting directly with high-level Nigerian officials to promote the iGate agreement and helping to smooth the deal with the U.S. Export-Import Bank."
THE CREW REPORT ALSO SPECULATES that Jefferson may have violated House rules as well as federal laws in the iGate affair and other dealings.
"By using his position as a member of Congress to financially benefit iGate, Rep. Jefferson may be depriving his constituents, the House of Representatives, and the United States of his honest services in violation of [federal law]," the report states.
Later, the report concludes, "Rep. Jefferson's actions on behalf of iGate in apparent exchange for donations made to him by iGate and its CEO Mr. Jackson appear to violate the illegal gratuity statute."
CREW further notes that Jefferson's conduct may have violated other federal laws, House conflict-of-interest rules, and House rules requiring all members of the House "to conduct themselves at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House." The report concludes that Jefferson's conduct, "which includes accepting donations and bribes in excess of $400,000, clearly does not reflect creditably on the House." CREW also encourages House members not to defer to the U.S. Justice Department in dealing with Jefferson's ethical violations.
One of Jefferson's anticipated defenses is that he was not acting in his official capacity as a member of Congress while dealing with iGate and its principals. However, the CREW report takes a dim view of that notion and recommends an investigation by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which has authority to recommend disciplinary action -- up to and including expulsion from Congress.
"Rep. Jefferson's conduct unquestionably is related to the discharge of his official duties as a Member of the House, as it raises the issue of whether he received financial assistance, a bribe or illegal gratuity as a quid pro quo for exercising his congressional influence," the report notes. "As a result, given the Committee's precedents, a Committee investigation into Rep. Jefferson's activities is appropriate."
Finally, the CREW report blasts Jefferson for using the National Guard to ferry him to his Uptown home days after Hurricane Katrina struck -- so that he could retrieve a laptop computer, three suitcases and a large box.
"The congressman entered his house and collected his belongings, returning to the truck, which was now stuck in the mud," the report states. "The National Guard ultimately sent a second truck to rescue the first truck and Rep. Jefferson and his belongings were returned to the Superdome. ... At a time when the nation was facing its worst natural disaster ever, and when New Orleans lacked the requisite federal resources to rescue all of its citizens in a timely manner, Rep. Jefferson's use of the National Guard to check on his house and retrieve belongings does not reflect creditably on the House."
Although CREW chides Congress for not policing itself better, Sloan, the group's executive director, states, "Luckily for the public, at least the Department of Justice still believes that political corruption is worth pursuing."
At every juncture, Jefferson's attorneys or other spokespersons for the congressman have blasted the government for "leaking" information to the press and public before a decision has been reached as to whether to charge him formally. The steady flow of information about the investigation also has raised questions about the timing of an anticipated indictment, specifically whether prosecutors should take his current bid for re-election into consideration -- and, if so, whether it's fairer to Jefferson to wait until after the election to bring charges against him, or fairer to voters to let them know that he's going to face criminal charges. There are no easy answers.
Now that the Sept. 30 primary is over, Jefferson's bid for re-election will be the hottest race on the Nov. 7 ballot. Thanks to the ongoing investigation, he faces as much opposition from Democrats as he does from the GOP.
- A.J. Sisco
- Congressman Bill Jefferson's re-election bid will be the hottest race on the Nov. 7 ballot. Thanks to an ongoing criminal investigation, he faces as much opposition from Democrats as he does from the GOP.