June 16, 2006

Rep. Jefferson ousted from key panel by House

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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

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

A Republican spokesman said the vote highlighted Democratic

"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


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

Jefferson has sued the Justice Department to have materials
seized in the raid returned, a position backed by the House

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)