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House approves speedy Jefferson probe

The House ordered a speedy internal investigation that could oust indicted Rep. William J. Jefferson from Congress before his bribery trial.
Jefferson Indicted
Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., was indicted June 3, 2007 following a bribery investigation involving business deals he tried to broker in Africa.Lauren Victoria Burke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The House ordered a speedy internal investigation that could oust indicted Rep. William J. Jefferson from Congress before his bribery trial.

Mindful of anti-corruption sentiment among voters last November, the House passed two resolutions Tuesday that require the ethics committee to investigate charges more quickly than in the past.

Jefferson, meanwhile, resigned his seat on the Small Business Committee in response to his indictment on federal charges of taking more than $500,000 in bribes. Democrats already had moved to take that seat from him. Jefferson admitted no wrongdoing.

The nine-term congressman had few allies among leaders of his own party.

The charges against Jefferson, "if proven true, should lead to the expulsion of the member in question," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who earlier ousted Jefferson from the Ways and Means Committee, issued a similar statement Monday.

GOP pushing for expulsion
That wasn't enough for Republicans, still smarting from losing control of Congress in the November elections partly over ethics breaches of their own members.

Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio offered a resolution directing the ethics committee to report on whether the charges in the indictment merit Jefferson's expulsion. The House passed it, 373-26. Thirteen members voted present.

"Be it resolved," the resolution read, "that the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is directed to investigate without further delay alleged illegal conduct and violations of House rules by Representative William J. Jefferson and report its findings and recommendations to the House, including a recommendation regarding whether Representative Jefferson should be expelled from the House."

Though harsh, the resolution was toned down by the time of its evening vote. An earlier version included a July 11 deadline for the ethics panel but it was removed because it broached parliamentary rules, according to a draft obtained by the Associated Press.

Expelling a House member before a conviction would be unprecedented, according to the Congressional Research Service. But it was not clear that would happen in Jefferson's case, because the ethics committee could refuse to rule on whether he should be thrown out of the House, according to a Democratic leadership aide.

Still, Republicans and a few Democrats said publicly or privately that Jefferson should step down.

Asserting innocence
Several House members said preparing a legal defense would take time Jefferson otherwise might spend representing his hurricane-ravaged New Orleans district.

"I would encourage Mr. Jefferson to take this under advisement and encourage him to step down," said Rep. Christopher Carney, R-Pa.

"My position is similar to the gentleman from Pennsylvania," said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo. "I would suggest that (Jefferson) do justice to himself, prepare his defense, and that his district have someone else."

Hoyer, meanwhile, proposed a second resolution that directs the ethics committee to respond to the indictment of any House member by empaneling an investigative committee within 30 days. Hoyer's resolution passed 387-10, with 15 members voting present.

"I respect the decision of my colleagues regarding these resolutions," Jefferson said in a statement issued by his office after the votes. "I am innocent of these allegations and confident that members of the Ethics Committee will arrive at the same conclusion through investigation."

Jefferson's indictment Monday sparked a fresh round of partisan fingerpointing over which caucus is more ethical.

Political turnaround
Republicans gloated over the indictment of a Democrat and ridiculed Pelosi for waiting until Tuesday to announce her 10 members of an ethics pool from which an investigative committee would be chosen. Democrats pointed out that Republicans are coming late to the congressional crackdown on ethics, considering the list of GOP members indicted or otherwise in trouble in the 12 years the GOP was in control.

The bickering extended to the ethics committee, whose chairwoman denounced Boehner's resolution without naming him and provoked a rare public retort from the panel's ranking Republican.

It's unusual for the House in a resolution to specifically instruct the ethics committee to report whether a member's expulsion is warranted, as does Boehner's. Usually such resolutions leave it to the committee to recommend appropriate sanctions.

"It is inappropriate for any other member to impose on these proceedings," Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, chairwoman of the Standards of Official Conduct committee, said in a statement that did not mention Boehner by name. "I refuse to allow these proceedings to be politicized by House Republican leadership."

She announced that the ethics committee was empaneling a subcommittee to probe Jefferson, choosing members from the 20-member bipartisan ethics pool.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the ethics committee's ranking member, denounced Tubbs Jones' statement and said he had done what he could since the beginning of the Democratic-controlled Congress to empanel a committee to investigate Jefferson.

The indictment said Jefferson received more than $500,000 in bribes and sought millions more in separate schemes to enrich himself by using his office to broker business deals in Africa. The charges came almost two years after investigators raided Jefferson's home in Washington and found $90,000 in cash stuffed in his freezer. Jefferson maintained his innocence but resigned from the Small Business Committee nonetheless.

"In doing so, I, of course, express no admission of guilt or culpability in that or any other matter that may be pending in any court or before the House of Representatives," Jefferson wrote Pelosi. "I have supported every ethics and lobbying reform measure that you and our Democratic Majority have authored."

After the FBI alleged the $90,000 stash was bribe money, Pelosi succeeded in stripping Jefferson of his seat on the Ways and Means Committee - over Jefferson's objection.

The congressman was re-elected in November to a ninth term in the House. Opening the 110th Congress as House Speaker this year, Pelosi granted him the seat on the Small Business Committee.