Jefferson Conspiracy Anything But a Conspiracy, by Stella Dulanya

Imagine the scene: government agents raid a Washington, D.C. home and find $90,000 in cash wrapped in foil and hidden in a freezer.  Further investigation reveals it may be part of a network of secret financial transactions involving the bribery of African officials and the misuse of American taxpayer funds to advance personal business interests.

Is this the plot of the next James Bond movie?  No, it’s part of the recent indictment of Representative William Jefferson (D-LA).

As Jefferson maintains his innocence, some supporters allege a racial and political conspiracy.  Whatever the case, the bottom line is the congressman’s predicament is a threat to himself, the people who elected him and the Democratic leadership in Congress that remains largely silent as their credibility evaporates.

While Jefferson is innocent until proven guilty, the case behind the charges is ominous.  He faces 16 counts, which include racketeering, soliciting bribes, wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy.  Two former aides already pleaded guilty to charges of aiding and abetting bribery and have agreed to testify in exchange for lesser punishments.  The $90,000 found in Jefferson’s freezer, by the way, were marked bills belonging to the FBI that were given to Jefferson by an informant.

According to U.S. attorney Chuck Rosenberg, Jefferson is believed to have received more than $500,000 in bribes and sought millions more in nearly a dozen separate schemes to use his influence to enrich numerous family members as he “corruptly traded on his good office and on the Congress.” 

Despite these facts, some still seem to have blind faith in Jefferson’s innocence and instead see a conspiracy.  For instance, just hours after the indictment was announced, Ed Phoebes posted this message on “William Jefferson is being hounded because he’s black… The Right only wishes to distract the American people from the multitude of scandals on their side of the aisle.”  Justice for Jefferson, a group in his New Orleans district that includes the local NAACP chapter president, claims Jefferson’s indictment is a White House operation orchestrated to defame Jefferson and his party.

Last year, current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and her Democrat colleagues successfully campaigned on the promise of leading “the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history.”  Jefferson is the first indictment of the session, and the party has remained oddly silent.

Despite tarnishing his party’s pledge, the Congressional Black Caucus — an exclusively Democratic group in which Jefferson once held a leadership position — backed Jefferson and criticized their congressional colleagues who earlier removed Jefferson from a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.  CBC member Representative Donald Payne (D-NJ) not only donated $3,000 to Jefferson’s legal defense, but also pledged to stand by his embattled colleague “a thousand percent.”

Nevertheless, Jefferson now has no committee assignments.   Negative press kept Speaker Pelosi from placing him on the Homeland Security Committee as was originally proposed, and he resigned from the Small Business Committee after the indictment.   This raises the question of whether Jefferson (or any member in his legal position) can effectively serve his constituents without a committee assignment.  This problem is compounded in Jefferson’s district, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

In all of this, it’s actually the Republicans who appear to have learned their lesson.  After the scandalous indiscretions that drove Representative Mark Foley (R-FL) from office and the illegalities that landed Representatives Randy Cunningham (R-CA) and Bob Ney (R-OH) in jail, the GOP leadership in Congress is taking more decisive action.  Representatives Rick Renzi (R-AZ) and John Doolittle (R-CA) were immediately relieved of their committee assignments when it appeared they may be the focus of federal investigations.

As for the Democrats, another scandal-plagued member — Representative Alan Mollohan (D-WV) — retains his seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and even chairs the subcommittee that oversees the budget of the FBI (but says he will not vote on matters involving the agency investigating him for misusing his position).

At the moment, William Jefferson, the man who is now known as “Mr. Freeze” and “Dollar Bill,” has a $140,000 legal defense fund and a faithful following screaming for justice.   Ironically, those accusing the conservatives of running a smear campaign against Representative Jefferson to distract the American people seem unwilling to acknowledge the facts and evidence outlined in the indictment.  Consider the Justice for Jefferson press conference: When the Associated Press asked attendee Sitawi Jahi about Jefferson’s cold cash, he admitted that it was “hard to explain.”

Before jumping to a conclusion, it would do people good to check the facts. 

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Stella Dulanya is a research assistant for the national advisory council of the black leadership network Project 21.  Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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