Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), under investigation by the FBI, went on the defensive Wednesday in the wake of a damaging ABC News report that the Congressman allegedly used National Guard resources to gather personal belongings from his New Orleans home amid the Hurricane Katrina rescue operation.
Jefferson is apparently gearing up for a tough legal fight. He recently retained defense attorney Robert Trout of the Washington, D.C., law firm Trout Cacheris, in addition to his New Orleans-based attorney, Michael Fawer. Trout is a former federal prosecutor. Jefferson also recently set up a legal defense fund.
Jefferson, according to sources, spoke to his colleagues at the Congressional Black Caucus meeting Wednesday. During the session, the Louisiana Democrat defended his tour of his damaged district on Sept. 2 and insisted that the ABC story that aired Tuesday night distorted the facts and misrepresented his actions.
In an interview, Melanie Roussell, a Jefferson spokeswoman, reiterated her boss’s belief that the story was unfair, noting that National Guard officials refused to let the Congressman tour the devastated area without the presence of armed guards.
She said that Jefferson was only doing his job by trying to assess the damage in his district and that he was concerned about his neighbors, whom he knew had not evacuated their homes.
“There is no story,” Roussell said. “There’s no misuse of anything. If he had been able to tour the city on his own, he would have done so. And he would have preferred to.”
But even as some of Jefferson’s colleagues defended their friend, some Democrats wonder about the broader implications that the FBI investigation could have for their party. The Congressman had his homes in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., searched last month as part of an ongoing FBI investigation.
Authorities are investigating whether Jefferson illegally pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a start-up technology firm during an FBI-authorized sting, according to published reports.
“People appreciate the seriousness of the allegations,” said one CBC member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t think anyone has drawn any conclusions or is attempting to prejudge the matter.”
Others, however, made it clear that they were prepared to stick by Jefferson.
“I’m going to be fully supportive of him all the way through to the ultimate disposition and beyond,” said Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), chairman of the CBC.
Watt praised his colleague’s character and called him “an outstanding legislator and a wonderful friend.”
But the CBC chairman acknowledged that in the end, the disposition of the Caucus is not politically important.
“Mr. Jefferson doesn’t need my support,” he said. “He is an elected representative answerable to his constituents. He’s not answerable to the Congressional Black Caucus.”
According to the ABC News report, Jefferson emerged from his house after about an hour with three suitcases, a laptop and a box about the size of a refrigerator.
Roussell said that information was inaccurate and that Jefferson took two suitcases, his daughter’s laptop and a box that contained another suitcase, which was to be shipped to his daughter.
“The story gives the impression that he asked the National Guard to go with him to retrieve his personal items,” she said. “That was not the purpose of it.”
The ABC News report and the ongoing investigation of Jefferson may have broader implications for Democrats, as they seek to capitalize on ethical improprieties by Congressional Republicans.
Democrats have sought to highlight the ethical troubles of Republicans such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) and House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (Ohio) as proof of a broader culture of corruption within the GOP-run Congress.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he “doesn’t know much about” the August searches of Jefferson’s home, office and vehicle, aside from the fact that an investigation is ongoing.
But the Maryland Democrat said that “if somebody has acted unethically or committed criminal offenses, we need to hold them accountable.”
“Let’s see what the facts are,” Hoyer said later. “But if the facts are such that there is an ethical violation or there is a criminal violation, then I think it is appropriate for the ethics committee and for perhaps the Congress to act, period, whether it is a Democrat or a Republican.”
Hoyer added that the Jefferson case “raises the public’s concern about the ethics and legality with which the Congress is operating, and we ought to look into that.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee circulated the ABC News story to reporters Wednesday morning under the headline “In Case You Missed It.”