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Legislator's win complicates ethics matters for Democrats

La. representative under cloud of a federal probe

WASHINGTON -- In awarding Representative William Jefferson a new lease on his political life, Louisiana voters this weekend also handed Democrat Nancy Pelosi another ethics dilemma as she prepares to become the new speaker of the House.

Jefferson won a runoff election Saturday despite being dogged by a federal corruption investigation and FBI allegations that he had $90,000 in bribe money in his freezer.

He won a ninth term by a surprising landslide, defeating fellow black Democrat Karen Carter with 57 percent of the vote in the first election for the Second Congressional District since Hurricane Katrina.

"What is called for now is unity, on the East Bank, West Bank, black and white, rich and poor throughout our district, with one objective, to recover this great and wonderful city," Jefferson said in claiming victory.

He has not been charged with any crime and has denied he did anything wrong. But he returns to Washington under a cloud that will complicate Pelosi's vow to make this "the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history."

Democrats ran against a "culture of corruption," which they said Republicans had fostered while in control of Congress. Election Day surveys showed that corruption and scandal were deciding factors in how people voted.

The victory by Jefferson, the first black member of Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction, forces Pelosi to weigh her pledge to run an ethical Congress against the influence of New Orleans's elected representative.

And it renews calls for the creation of an independent ethics body to investigate behavior by members of Congress.

"It's going to be quite a headache for the Democrats," Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said yesterday.

Last June, Pelosi pressed the House to strip Jefferson of a coveted committee assignment -- a seat on the Ways and Means Committee. Pelosi may come under pressure now to restore his committee assignment, or at least place him on a committee where he could benefit New Orleans.

After his victory speech, Jefferson said: "I don't try to second-guess Ms. Pelosi. I don't go there to work for anyone, I go there to work with the people down here. And I want to work with everyone there. I hope we'll have a chance to talk later."

Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said she did not know what Democratic leaders would do about Jefferson's committee assignments.

Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said yesterday that Pelosi must guard against appearing to bow to pressure. "At another level, the fact that he won reelection, that his constituents brought him back, speaks in his favor to get some modest committee assignment."

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