Black politicians should be held to high standard

May 26, 2006|By EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON

The instant the news broke that FBI agents raided the office of black Louisiana Rep. William J. Jefferson and announced that they had a videotape of him allegedly stuffing bribe money into a freezer, some blacks loudly grumbled that the Democrat was the victim of a racial double standard.

They noted that the FBI did not ransack the offices of Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney, also under legal fire, or California Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who resigned after pleading guilty to fraud, conspiracy to commit bribery and tax evasion. They also noted that federal prosecutors and FBI agents generally issue subpoenas or informally request that lawmakers being investigated turn over documents or other relevant materials.

But the Jefferson case is special. He has been on the legal hot seat for months. He's been the target of an ongoing criminal investigation and a House ethics probe. He left a bitter taste in the mouths of many New Orleans residents during the Hurricane Katrina debacle when he allegedly commandeered a National Guard truck to check on his personal property and save personal belongings.

The case is also special because Mr. Jefferson is black, but for a different reason than some blacks claim. Though he mercifully did not scream "racism" at his abbreviated and prickly press conference, many other black politicians do when they're indicted, jailed or accused of financial improprieties or ethics violations. All, like Mr. Jefferson, were once hailed as the best and brightest among political newcomers. They were expected to instantly improve conditions in their underserved communities.

When they're popped, they wail that they should not be held to a higher standard of accountability than white officials who get caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

Yet they should be held to that higher standard. Their mostly black constituents view them not as politicians but as leaders and advocates. They look to them to represent their interests and to confront institutional power.

Any legal smear on them, which in some cases may be questionable, soils their name. This makes it much harder for blacks to have and retain confidence in them. This diminishes their political power and influence and creates distrust and dissension among black voters. This, in turn, makes it that much more difficult for blacks to generate any enthusiasm to get out to vote or get involved in community improvement actions.

It's not just scandal that hurts black officials. It's also the race card. In far too many cases, blacks accused of wrongdoing reflexively deflect, dodge and muddy the charges and accusations against them - and even their guilt - by screaming racism. They strongly imply that racist prosecutors unfairly target them. They then promptly wrap themselves in the martyr's cloak of persecuted civil rights fighters.

This is not a small point. In the past, when black politicians have been accused of criminal or ethics violations, or have been caught with their hands in the public till, they have reflexively screamed racism to deflect attention from their crimes.

Black officials such as Mr. Jefferson are and will continue to be keenly watched by state and federal prosecutors for any hint of impropriety. If they engage in any forbidden activities with money, they will swiftly be called on the legal carpet.

The burden of proof then is on them to prove to those who look to them to battle for their political interests that they can and will do everything to avoid even the slightest smudge of scandal. That may be unfair, but that's the price that they must pay to be regarded as credible and honorable black leaders and advocates.

Mr. Jefferson said he would not resign. He's up for re-election this year, and even if by some miracle he escapes prosecution, the voters should show good sense and end his tenure.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and social issues commentator, is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black." His e-mail is hutchinsonreport@aol.com.

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