June 15, 2006

Democrats vote to remove Jefferson from committee

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House Democrats voted on Thursday to
remove Rep. William Jefferson from a powerful committee while
federal investigators weigh possible bribery charges against
the Louisiana Democrat.

Jefferson will not be forced off the tax-writing Ways and
Means Committee unless the entire House of Representatives
votes to do so.

The secret vote demonstrated Democrats' determination to
distance themselves from the New Orleans lawmaker at a time
when they hope to capitalize on Republican corruption scandals
to win control of Congress in November's elections.

"Passing judgment on your peers is very, very difficult,
but it is necessary," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
of California. "I told all my colleagues -- anybody with
$90,000 in the freezer, you have a problem at that point."

The FBI has said it videotaped Jefferson accepting a bribe
and found $90,000 in his 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 as part of the investigation.

Jefferson, who has not been charged, has denied wrongdoing
and refused to step down from the Ways and Means Committee,
which he says is a vital post to help constituents in his

"Unfortunately, Minority Leader Pelosi wants so badly to
win leadership in the House that she has persuaded the caucus
to sacrifice my constituents -- who, after (Hurricane) Katrina,
need my leadership on my committee more than ever," Jefferson
said in a statement released after the vote.

Jefferson said he had offered to step down if a fellow
Louisiana Democrat took his place on the committee, but Pelosi
declined his offer.

The eight-term congressman has found support among fellow
black lawmakers, who say he should not be punished if he has
not been indicted. They point out there is no rule to strip
lawmakers of their committee assignments simply because they
are attracting negative attention.

"We don't know what the rule is," said North Carolina Rep.
Mel Watt, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "Our
concern is that the rule is really political expediency."

Jefferson's refusal to step down places Democrats in an
awkward spot, as they must now pass a similar resolution on the
floor of the House and hope Republicans do not try to embarrass

One element of the investigation has temporarily united
Democrats and Republicans in the usually partisan House.

The FBI searched Jefferson's Capitol Hill office last
month, touching off a squabble between the Bush administration
and congressional leaders, who said the raid violated
constitutional protections designed to shield lawmakers from
executive-branch harassment.

Bush ordered materials seized in the raid to be sealed
while both sides sort out the issue. A court hearing on the
raid is scheduled for Friday.