Black lawmakers reject push to strip legislator of post
Tell Democrats to give Jefferson benefit of doubt
WASHINGTON -- A drive by the Democratic leadership to strip embattled Representative William J. Jefferson of his committee post triggered a backlash yesterday as the Congressional Black Caucus opposed the move and said the Louisiana lawmaker deserves a ``presumption of innocence."
The caucus chairman, Representative Melvin L. Watt, Democrat of North Carolina, told reporters that some black voters might ask why action was sought against ``a black member of Congress" when there was neither precedent nor rule for it.
Jefferson, a Democrat, has not been indicted and has denied all wrongdoing in connection with a federal bribery investigation that has netted two convictions. He has rebuffed repeated calls from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and others to step aside until any involvement is clarified.
Watt spoke after a Democratic leadership group voted to strip Jefferson of his committee post, at least temporarily. The rank-and-file Democrats were summoned to debate the issue, but a vote was postponed until next week.
A vote by the full House would be required to force Jefferson to step aside. ``I can guarantee" he will not voluntarily step aside, said Melanie Roussell, Jefferson's spokeswoman.
The maneuvering occurred as part of a determined attempt by Pelosi to ease Jefferson from his position. ``I feel he should step aside," the minority leader told reporters. She declined further comment, but spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said any allegation that race was involved was ``absolutely untrue. This is about upholding the highest ethical standard for every member of the Democratic caucus."
Democrats intend to campaign against Republicans this fall by accusing them of presiding over a ``culture of corruption." Jefferson's presence on the committee presumably would allow Republicans to blur the issue in the midterm elections.
Several officials said Watt had spoken up at the meeting of the rank-and-file Democrats to invoke a rule that provides for a five-day delay.
Emerging from the session, he distributed a statement that said the Congressional Black Caucus perhaps has a ``unique appreciation of our nation's constitutional guarantee of the presumption of innocence."
The statement added that the group ``therefore opposes suggestions that some have made to force Representative Jefferson to resign from Congress or to remove him involuntarily from his position on the Ways and Means Committee in the absence of precedents that have been historically applied and will be consistently applied in the future."
Speaking for himself, Watt was more pointed. He said the leadership was open to an allegation that it was acting out of political expedience. ``It's about to blow up in their face," he added.
Referring to black voters, who are among the most loyal Democrats in the electorate, he added, ``You've got a whole base of people out there who believe that the Democratic Party takes them for granted already."
If action is taken only against someone who ``is a black member of Congress, then our community will legitimately ask, `What in the world are you doing?' "
Two men have been found guilty in the probe. Brett Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide, was sentenced to eight years in prison last month for conspiring to commit bribery and aiding and abetting the bribery of a public official. Vernon Jackson, 53, chief executive of iGate Inc., a Louisville, Ky.-based telecommunications company, pleaded guilty May 3 to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Jefferson. Additionally, the FBI said that it videotaped Jefferson last summer taking $100,000 in bribe money and that agents later found $90,000 of the money stashed in a freezer in his home.
FBI agents carried out a weekend search of Jefferson's congressional office last month, triggering an outpouring of criticism from congressional leaders contending that the agents had encroached on Congress's constitutional powers.
In response, Bush ordered that the material taken be turned over to a Justice Department official not involved in the investigation.
Race was seen as a further complication in the scandal. Jefferson is black, and some Democrats say black voters could be alienated if he is forced aside.
Pelosi recently prevailed on Representative Alan B. Mollohan, Democrat of West Virginia, to step aside as a senior member of the ethics committee after questions were raised about some of his legislative actions. But he remains a member of the Appropriations Committee, with broad authority over the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars a year.