June 8, 2006

Democrats to decide congressman’s fate next week

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House Democrats will decide next
week whether to remove Rep. William Jefferson from a powerful
committee pending the outcome of a federal investigation of the
Louisiana Democrat on possible bribery charges.

"We will take it up next Thursday," said Rep. James
Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat who chairs the Democratic
Caucus in the House of Representatives.

House Democrats huddled behind closed doors late Thursday
following a rare meeting by party leaders who recommended that
Jefferson be removed from the Ways and Means Committee,
according to one Democrat. The panel has vast power over tax,
international trade and health policy.

The House Democratic Steering Committee, leadership group,
voted for Jefferson's "temporary removal" from the panel, the
House Democrat told Reuters. That was followed by a brief
meeting of all House Democrats, who will reconvene next week to
vote on Jefferson's status.

If House Democrats vote to kick Jefferson off the panel,
the full House would then vote on his removal.

"He is not stepping down," Jefferson's spokeswoman Melanie
Roussell told Reuters, indicating a looming showdown between
the congressman and his fellow Democrats.

The Justice Department is investigating whether Jefferson
took more than $400,000 in bribes to promote Internet
technology in West Africa. Jefferson denies any wrongdoing.

The investigation been known publicly since August, when
the FBI raided Jefferson's homes in Washington and New Orleans.

A former Jefferson staffer and a Kentucky businessman have
pleaded guilty to bribing him in connection with African
telecommunications venture. The FBI has said it videotaped
Jefferson accepting a bribe and found $90,000 in his freezer.

Rep. Melvin Watt, the North Carolina Democrat who chairs
the Congressional Black Caucus, said he was "absolutely not
happy about the process that's been followed here or the
recommendation." Watt noted that Jefferson has not been
indicted and should not be presumed guilty.

Last month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a
California Democrat, failed to persuade Jefferson to
temporarily step down from the committee voluntarily.

Democrats were hoping to swiftly deal with the ethics
problem to show during this election year that they are tough
on such matters. They want to keep the focus on several
Republicans facing criminal probes that Democrats charge have
contributed to a "culture of corruption" in the
Republican-controlled House.

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas
Republican who gave his farewell address to the House, is under
indictment. At least one other Republican, Rep. Bob Ney of
Ohio, is under federal investigation. Several former
congressional aides have also been caught in scandal.

DeLay and Ney, like Jefferson, deny any illegal activity.
Ney has voluntarily stepped down as chairman of the House
Administration Committee.

The Jefferson probe took a controversial turn last month
when FBI agents entered his Capitol Hill office and seized a
computer hard drive and two boxes of papers.

The search outraged House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an
Illinois Republican, who said law enforcement officials
violated the constitutional separation of powers between
legislative and executive branches.

President George W. Bush sealed the seized records for 45
days to allow time for the two branches to work out a deal.

(Additional reporting by Joanne Kenen, Joanne Allen and
Vicki Allen)