When FBI agents reach into a congressman's home freezer and pull out $90,000 in foil-wrapped bills, it is time for him to resign. When the Justice Department announces that the same congressman is on videotape taking a $100,000 bribe in a Virginia hotel garage, his resignation is overdue.
The case of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., is that simple. In a matter of public integrity, his party affiliation doesn't matter, and neither does his race, color, creed, Harvard law degree or the sad fact that his constituents happen to live in ruined New Orleans. If he somehow doesn't understand his position, then his political friends -- and above all his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus -- should be firmly explaining those realities to him.
During the past year, as federal agents have pursued the investigation of Jefferson, court filings and news stories have revealed substantial, compelling evidence against him. He is alleged to have taken part in a wide-ranging conspiracy to extort cash bribes and other payoffs from businesses seeking to invest in African countries where he has influence. One of the business executives involved wore a wire during meetings with the powerful Louisiana politician, and two of his former aides have pleaded guilty to participation in a bribery conspiracy.
Jefferson has yet to be indicted, let alone convicted of any crime. He is entitled to the presumption of innocence, no matter how strong the evidence against him. (It looks considerably stronger, by the way, than the evidence produced so far against certain Republicans held up to scorn every day by Democrats. That is why progressive public-interest organizations such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Public Citizen have been among his harshest critics.)
Ultimately Jefferson will have to answer for his conduct in court, where the government will have the burden of proving his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But there is -- or should be -- a difference between the standard for service in Congress and the standard for conviction and incarceration as a felon. Cooperation with law enforcement is a good measure of fitness for public service, which Jefferson has failed by resisting federal subpoenas for his records. That happens to be why the FBI finally conducted its constitutionally questionable raid on his House office last weekend.
The most powerful reason for Jefferson to quit, however, was displayed at his own press conference in the U.S. Capitol on Monday, when he announced that he would not step down (and cryptically suggested that there are "two sides to every story"). Asked directly whether he had taken a bribe, the congressman declined to answer. Anyone in public office who can't say "no" to that question should leave -- or be required to leave -- immediately.
In a midterm election year, with so many major stories of rampant Republican corruption on Capitol Hill and K Street, the disgrace of Jefferson is a reprieve for Republicans and a dilemma for Democrats. Faced with the prospect of his indictment, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has publicly asked him to step down from his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee. She is reported to have suggested privately that he resign from Congress. By doing so, she has already improved on the record of the Republicans, whose determination to protect Tom DeLay was appalling.
As a Louisiana machine politician with all the ethical baggage implied by that description, Jefferson has never been a paragon of political virtue. According to the Washington Post, he was overheard last year on an FBI wiretap asking his brother-in-law, a local judge, to help raise money for his daughter's state legislative campaign. (The judge was sent to federal prison in February for operating a corrupt bail-bonding scheme.) He also made ugly headlines in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he commanded National Guard troops and trucks to help him empty out his house. By then, he was already known to be the target of a federal bribery probe.
Yet when Pelosi finally asked him to step down from Ways and Means, he rejected her mild request. He released a bizarre letter claiming that his beleaguered constituents in New Orleans cannot afford to be deprived of him. Evidently he believes that he can continue in office, come what may. Sustaining him in this destructive delusion, unfortunately, is the Congressional Black Caucus -- whose dean, Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., sits with him on Ways and Means and counts him as a close friend.
The Hill, a weekly newspaper that covers Congress, reports that "furious" caucus members came close to publicly scolding Pelosi after she asked Jefferson to quit his committee post. Only an "emergency meeting" with the minority leader averted an embarrassing incident. According to the Hill, the dispute over Jefferson "has brought into glaring public light long-standing resentments felt by black lawmakers toward the Democratic leadership in the House."
The same story quoted an anonymous caucus staffer complaining that by asking Jefferson to quit Ways and Means, Pelosi had created "a new precedent for how members are going to be treated. Unfortunately, she's chosen to single out an African-American for this honor ... The African-American community, which overwhelmingly backs the Democratic Party, will not take this lightly. I hope she enjoys being minority leader."
It is hard to imagine any remark more insulting to the African-American community -- or more indicative of the stupid priorities of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Can it really be true that black voters will punish Pelosi because she demanded a minimal concession from a corrupt lawmaker who happens to be black? Can it really be true that black communities, which have suffered disproportionately from Republican rule, and none more so than Jefferson's Louisiana constituents, will make support of that corrupt lawmaker a point of pride? Can it really be true that black Americans will regard Jefferson as a victim of "discrimination," as he tried to claim in his reply to Pelosi?
More likely is that black voters, like most citizens of all ethnic backgrounds, regard Congress with skepticism and even suspicion -- and that black voters feel much more strongly than most that the Republican majority must be ousted. In this instance they are being poorly served by the caucus, whose members evidently don't differ much from the rest of the Washington elite in their narcissism, myopia and arrogance.
The support for Jefferson among his caucus colleagues is especially misplaced, because defending him will jeopardize their own advancement as well as the greater good. Whatever quarrels the caucus may have with Pelosi, its members and their constituents have much to gain from a Democratic victory in November. Should Democrats regain the majority, at least four black members will get committee chairs -- with the most important being none other than Rangel, who would at last cap his long career with the Ways and Means chairmanship. (Meanwhile the Republican right can be expected to broadcast those possible chairmanships, none too subtly, as a racial campaign theme.)
The broad national interest in political change coincides here not only with African-American interests but with the demands of integrity as well. Obviously Jefferson doesn't understand that he should go for all those reasons, so someone to whom he will listen should tell him. It is a shame, in every sense, that Rangel and his caucus colleagues are not up to the occasion.