Dueling scandals mar election year

Democrats have criticized GOP ethics, but now face fallout from Jefferson case

May 23, 2006|By FAYE FIORE | FAYE FIORE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- It seemed more befitting of a crime drama than a page from congressional history: $90,000 in allegedly ill-gotten $100 bills, wrapped in aluminum foil, stuffed in the freezer of the gentleman from Louisiana.

The idea that Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, might have been caught in a bribery scandal - he has not been charged with any crime, and he again denied any wrongdoing yesterday - is nothing new. Even the amount isn't extraordinary.

Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the former Republican representative from California, was recently convicted of accepting almost 27 times as much in illegal gifts and graft.

What stands out about the contents of Jefferson's freezer, detailed by the FBI in an affidavit, is the old-style, low-tech simplicity of it: bundles of notes, wrapped like leftover lasagna, stuffed into a kitchen appliance.

"Why the freezer? Why not the mattress?" asked Lara Brown, a political scientist at California State University, Channel Islands.

The means may have been old-fashioned, but the fallout could be timely - one more in a pile of recent scandals to cement voters' low opinion of Congress in an election year.

The Democrats have been using as election-year fodder the ethics storms swirling around the opposition party: Cunningham, now serving eight years for bribery and tax evasion, and the once powerful and well-connected GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to defrauding clients and conspiring to bribe lawmakers.

Now, the Democrats have fallen upon troubles of their own: Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, who resigned from the House ethics committee when the FBI began looking into his personal finances; Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, who checked into the Mayo Clinic for an addiction to prescription drugs; and Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney of Georgia, who poked a Capitol Police officer when stopped at a security checkpoint.

An 83-page FBI affidavit released Sunday alleges that Jefferson offered to help a Northern Virginia businesswoman win contracts to install telephone and Internet contracts in Nigeria and Ghana in exchange for a 30 percent kickback.

The businesswoman was allegedly cooperating with the FBI, which caught on tape a conversation in which Jefferson instructed her to deliver "cash." Days later, agents searched Jefferson's Northeast Washington home and opened the freezer.

Jefferson's troubles are "a throwback to the kind of corruption one would have expected in the '40s and '50s," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and writer of Feeding Frenzy, a book on the political implications of scandal. "He has made it much more difficult for Democrats to sell the `culture of corruption' argument as just being a Republican phenomenon."

During a news conference yesterday at the Capitol, Jefferson denied any wrongdoing.

"I don't remember anything along the lines of money in the freezer," said Don Ritchie, a Senate historian. "We've been calling them `frozen assets' around here."

The other historic first to come from the Jefferson investigation is the FBI's weekend search of his congressional office. Lawmakers' dwellings have been searched before, but never the sacrosanct Capitol offices, prompting suggestions by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, that a violation of separation of powers had taken place.

"The principles of separation of powers, the independence of the legislative branch, and the protections afforded by the `speech or debate' clause of the Constitution must be respected in order to prevent overreaching and abuse of power by the executive branch," Hastert said.

Faye Fiore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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