A Louisiana Democrat facing a bribery investigation was kicked off a powerful congressional committee on Friday, ending an unwelcome distraction for Democrats as they try to keep the national focus on Republican scandals in an election year.
The House of Representatives voted unanimously and without debate to remove Rep. William Jefferson from the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee in an anticlimactic end to a high-profile showdown between the New Orleans lawmaker and Democratic leaders who had asked him to step down voluntarily.
The FBI has said it found $90,000 in Jefferson’s freezer while investigating whether he took bribes to promote Internet technology in West Africa.
A former Jefferson aide and a Kentucky businessman have pleaded guilty to bribery charges in the investigation.
Jefferson has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing. A spokeswoman declined to comment after the House vote.
Jefferson’s refusal to give up his seat strained relations between Democratic leaders like California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who hope to use Republican corruption scandals to win control of Congress in November, and Jefferson’s fellow black lawmakers, who say he should not be punished if he has not been charged.
Democrats met behind closed doors for several hours on Thursday night to thrash out the issue, eventually voting to remove Jefferson from the committee though there is no clear precedent for doing so.
Jefferson “has some legal issues he and his family must deal with, and Ms. Pelosi has political issues she had to deal with,” said South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, a member of the Democratic leadership who used to head a group of black lawmakers.
A Republican spokesman said the vote highlighted Democratic disunity.
“The Democrats’ tactic of playing with the ethics issue while their hands are dirty just blew up in their face,” said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner.
OUTRAGE OVER SEARCH
One aspect of the Jefferson investigation has united Republicans and Democrats. Leaders of both parties erupted angrily last month after the FBI searched Jefferson’s Capitol Hill office, arguing that the raid violated constitutional protections designed to shield lawmakers from executive branch harassment.
Jefferson has sued the Justice Department to have materials seized in the raid returned, a position backed by the House counsel.
At a court hearing on Friday the judge hearing the case indicated he was not likely to grant that request.
“The Justice Department has probable cause to conclude that the materials removed from Representative Jefferson’s office contain evidence of serious crimes,” U.S. District Court Chief Judge Thomas Hogan said.
Members of Congress “do not stand above the law they created, they are bound by it just as ordinary citizens are,” Hogan said.
Democrats had hoped a series of Republican ethics scandals, including former California Rep. Randy Cunningham’s conviction on bribery charges and the resignation of indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, would help them gain seats in November’s midterm elections.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)
© 2006 Reuters