Monday, May 08, 2006


Jeffersonian Virtues

The latest turn in the Bill Jefferson bribery scandal presents Democrats with a critical challenge: are we going to treat this case as an embarrassment to deny, as the other side persistently did with Jack Abramoff, or as an opportunity to seize in bolstering our credibility as critics of Republican corruption. Sadly, it seems ducking is winning so far.

As was widely reported last week, the Louisville businessman who is accused of giving Congressman Jefferson (D-LA) a $400,000 bribe, Vernon Jackson, pled guilty in federal court to one count each of bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery.

Predictably, the Republicans pounced on the news to advance their laughable "everybody does it" defense and thus minimize their own considerable liabilities. Inexplicably, the Democratic leadership said just about nothing, thus leaving the Republican's absurd moral equivalence charge unchallenged and, more damagingly, opening up the party to legitimate attacks of hypocrisy. (See this story from the Hill last week to see what Democrats did say.)

Didn't our leaders notice that the reason the “culture of corruption” rap got any traction in the first place is that the Republican leadership spent several months ducking and denying their culpability in the Abramoff affair, making it look like they were apologists for and abettors of vote buying and money laundering?

The Republicans clearly learned from this mistake once the Cunningham scandal fully exploded into public view -- they dropped the Duke faster than Paris Hilton did her latest Greek shipping magnate and immediately condemned him. Apparently, our side has not. As noted on MyDD, the best Nancy Pelosi could do was to lamely say Jefferson should be investigated by the ethics committee when confronted by a question from the press.

What makes their silent posture all the more bizarre is to consider how the House Democrats un-circled the wagons around Cynthia McKinney after she became a public embarrassment.

Why is that they were willing to throw McKinney overboard in a relative heartbeat for slapping a Capitol Police Officer, but won't do anything to truly distance themselves from a badly tainted Member who is likely guilty of one of the most egregious crimes against the public trust -- and who threatens to erode the whole party's standing to campaign against Republican corruption? It can't be racial sensitivities -- McKinney and Jefferson are both black.

There are only two passably logical explanations. One, as suggested in a Roll Call report last week, is personal loyalty to Jefferson (as compared to the widespread dislike for McKinney). The other is legal loyalty to the principle of innocent until proven guilty (McKinney was literally caught red-handed on videotape).

But neither justification washes. Democrats' first loyalty has to be to the public interest, and we can't hope to have any credibility as corruption rooter-outers if we are out ignoring or excusing our own dirty behavior. Moreover, while it is not yet clear beyond a reasonable doubt that Jefferson broke the law, it seems a pretty sure thing that he at a minimum abused his office.

Indeed, the smoke here is just too thick to contend there is no fire. As the New York Times recounted last Thursday:

“Mr. Jackson acknowledged that he had paid $367,500 over four years to a company controlled by the family of a member of Congress described in court papers only as "Representative A, a member of the House of Representatives." In exchange, the court papers say, the lawmaker helped promote iGate's technology products to federal agencies, as well as to African governments and companies.

“In January, a former aide to Mr. Jefferson pleaded guilty to charges of aiding and abetting the bribing of Representative A, a clear reference to Mr. Jefferson because of other details revealed in the court papers.

“The former aide, Brett M. Pfeffer, said Representative A sought bribes, jobs for his children and other favors in exchange for official acts on behalf of a company seeking to set up an Internet and cable-television service in Nigeria.”

That seems strong enough evidence for Democratic leaders to at least express deep concern about Jefferson's conduct and to suspend him from the caucus and his leadership positions (board chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, co-chair of the Africa Trade and Investment Caucus) -- much like they recently did to another scandal-plagued Member of their caucus, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV).

And should the Justice Department’s investigation of Jefferson lead to an indictment, Reid and Pelosi should not hesitate to call for his resignation — just as they did with Tom Delay.

The bottom line here is that this is a test of Democrats' consistency and our integrity. Are we willing to be as tough on one of our own as we are our opponents when they are guilty of essentially the same crimes?

The fact is, the voters will be choosing sides in November. If we hope to make a credible case that we will govern more ethically and responsibly than the party of Abramoff, it’s time we did so too.

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