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Ethics Restarts Jefferson Probe

Democrats moved swiftly Tuesday to pre-empt GOP efforts to take the upper hand in the fallout stemming from Monday’s wide-ranging criminal indictment of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.).

While House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) had announced Monday that he would offer a privileged resolution to force the ethics committee to investigate the matter and to kick Jefferson off his current and pending committee assignments, those matters were largely resolved before the House met for votes Tuesday evening.

Jefferson stepped down from his seat on the Small Business panel Tuesday, and the ethics committee announced it would launch a new probe of the Louisiana lawmaker.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also offered a competing resolution requiring an ethics committee investigation within 30 days of any Member being indicted. At press time, both resolutions were expected to pass overwhelmingly.

“I agree with the Minority Leader that the allegations that have been made are extraordinarily serious, and if they are proven true they should lead to the expulsion of the Member in question,” Hoyer said. “They, of course, have not been proven true, they are allegations.”

Not all Members supported the efforts. An emotional Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) — a former ethics committee member who once defended now-jailed Rep. James Traficant (Ohio) on the House floor — decried both efforts as “dumbing down the House.” LaTourette said by approving the resolutions, it would make all Members vulnerable to “rogue prosecutors” who could use indictments as political tools. “I think this is a sad day for this House,” he said. “I intend to vote against both of these resolutions.”

By Tuesday evening, Jefferson already had removed himself from his remaining seat on the Small Business Committee in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “In doing so, I, of course, express no admission of guilt or culpability in that or any other matter that may be pending in any court or before the House of Representatives,” Jefferson wrote. “I have supported every ethics and lobbying reform measure that you and our Democratic Majority have authored, and I make this request for leave to support the letter and the spirit of your leadership in this area.”

Democratic leaders already had made it clear they would convene a meeting of the Steering and Policy Committee to recommend his removal had he not done so. However, Jefferson’s decision was in stark contrast to his public dispute with Pelosi in 2005 when she led the successful effort to force him off of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Additionally, House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) announced Tuesday afternoon that the panel would create an investigative subcommittee on the Jefferson matter. She did not name which lawmakers would conduct the inquiry.

Jones issued a statement without ethics ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), but she said the two lawmakers had agreed on the matter. Jones accused Republicans of politicizing the Jefferson case.

“It is inappropriate for any other member to impose on these proceedings. As a Committee, we will fulfill our responsibility to the House of Representatives. I refuse to allow these proceedings to be politicized by House Republican leadership,” she said. “Under normal circumstances, a statement would not be issued concerning this matter, because ethics issues are non-partisan. But because Republicans have attempted to politicize this process, I was compelled to issue this statement.”

Jones suggested in her statement that the ethics committee had not renewed its initial inquiry into Jefferson from May 2006 when the 110th Congress began, but revealed that the ethics panel had been in communication with the Justice Department on the status of the investigation three times, most recently on March 15, 2007.

In a related matter, Pelosi announced Tuesday her 10-member ethics pool, which is the group of lawmakers who will serve on investigative subcommittees as needed. The panel includes Democratic Reps. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Joe Crowley (N.Y.), Keith Ellison (Minn.), Mike Honda (Calif.), Jay Inslee (Wash.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Gregory Meeks (N.Y.), Grace Napolitano (Calif.), Steven Rothman (N.J.) and Vic Snyder (Ark.).

Boehner, who had named his pool weeks earlier, criticized Pelosi for waiting for an indictment to name her pool. “It’s a sad record,” he said.

The National Republican Congressional Committee was quick to note that two of those Democrats, Lee and Meeks, have contributed to Jefferson’s legal defense fund, which could rule them out on this matter. In 2005, GOP Reps. Tom Cole (Okla.) and Lamar Smith (Texas) — then members of the ethics panel — recused themselves from an inquiry into then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) because they had contributed to his legal defense fund.

The Jefferson indictment sparked a series of back and forth jockeying and partisan jabs in the House Tuesday as Democrats sought to maintain their position as agents for change in Congress, and Republicans trumpeted a high-profile corruption scandal that finally does not involve one of their own.

Democratic leadership aides circulated a series of talking points Tuesday attacking Boehner’s record. “Don’t let the bold statements of the last 24 hours fool you: John Boehner is a Johnny Come Lately when it comes to cleaning up corruption in Congress,” it stated. “Almost no Member of Congress has a more checkered past when it comes to ethics than John Boehner.”

Republicans are hopeful that the scope of the Jefferson case will be enough to chip away at long-standing Democratic claims that Republicans alone are to blame for a “culture of corruption” in Congress.

“It’s a super human criminal feat to pull off a caper like Jefferson was trying to pull off,” said House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.).

Jefferson, who has fiercely maintained his innocence, was indicted on 16 counts that included obstruction of justice, racketeering and money laundering in a more than two-year federal investigation into his business ties involving African nations.

While Jefferson removed himself from his committee slot Tuesday, it served as a reminder that there is no blanket rule in the House on the matter. The Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus have internal rules governing their own, but there is no uniform standard.

For instance, Reps. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and John Doolittle (R-Calif.) have stepped down from their committees this year after FBI raids in connection with probes of them, but they have not been indicted. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) remain on Appropriations despite being under federal investigation.

“I don’t know that a black and white rule is possible,” Blunt conceded.

Jefferson’s support is waning as calls for his resignation grow from within his own party — freshman Democratic Reps. Nick Lampson (Texas) and Steve Kagen (Wis.) have called on Jefferson to resign “for the good of the Congress and for the good of the nation,” according to Kagen.

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