Cold cash vs. the culture of corruption

The legal troubles of Rep. William Jefferson.

Published May 22, 2006 1:31PM (EDT)

Just as the New York Times is reporting a "potentially pivotal change" favoring Democrats' hopes of making big gains in the House of Representatives, along comes word that a Democratic congressman has been caught on tape accepting $100,000 in cash from an FBI informant.

For months now, the legal troubles of Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson have provided Republicans with a sort of counterpoint to the stories of Duke Cunningham, Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, Jack Abramoff, Brent Wilkes, Dusty Foggo and the like. As one GOP blogger argued not long ago, "For every Duke Cunningham, there's a William Jefferson." Numerically speaking, that's pretty far off the mark, and it bears noting here that while Cunningham pleaded guilty to bribery charges and is now sitting in a federal prison in California, Jefferson has been neither charged nor convicted yet.

That said, this doesn't look good, and it's not going to help the Democrats sell their "culture of corruption" theme. The problem, or at least one of them: While cases like those involving Abramoff and Wilkes can be mind-numbingly complicated -- at best, they're hard to explain in something like a 30-second TV spot -- the latest allegations against Jefferson are all too simple.

The FBI, which searched Jefferson's House office Saturday night, says the congressman took the cash -- in $100 bills, thank you very much -- from a Northern Virginia investor who was cooperating with investigators working a 14-month-long corruption probe. As the Washington Post reports this morning, agents subsequently found $90,000 of the money in $10,000 stacks, each wrapped in aluminum foil and stuck inside a frozen-food container inside the freezer in Jefferson's kitchen.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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