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Political bribery scandals: A pox on both their houses!

Just when public opinion of Congress had plummeted to depths rarely before witnessed, a new episode has come to our attention whose twists and turns would challenge the imagination of even the most gifted political satirist. The case involves a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Representative William Jefferson (D-New Orleans), who has apparently been under investigation for some time. In fact, a former aide of Jefferson’s has just been sentenced to eight years imprisonment on bribery-related charges allegedly involving the Congressman, while yet another associate has reportedly pleaded guilty to paying Jefferson $400,000 in bribes to influence business deals in Africa.

Mr. Jefferson has recently been the subject of a “sting” operation during which he was videotaped taking a briefcase containing $100,000 from the car of a business executive from whom he had allegedly solicited a bribe, but who went to the FBI instead and agreed to “wear a wire” in her dealings with Mr. Jefferson. A subsequent search of Jefferson’s home uncovered $90,000 in marked bills from the briefcase hidden in his freezer. Not content with this find, the FBI next searched his Congressional office on Capitol Hill, carrying off all manner of documents in addition to the hard-drive from his computer. In the history of the republic, no such search of a federal legislator’s office had ever been carried out by representatives of the executive branch.

No fool, the glib Mr. Jefferson quickly denied any wrongdoing and denounced the unprecedented search as an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers – protests echoed by many in and out of Congress, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Obviously taken aback by all this, the President has ordered the documents seized in the FBI’s raid sealed by the Justice Department for a 45-day cooling-off period.



TV talking heads and constitutional scholars immediately joined the fray opining that a constitutional crisis could be in the offing. Those in support of the FBI’s action claim there is no immunity from search for members of Congress anywhere to be found in the Constitution. Those opposed cite the “speech and debate” clause in Article I that immunizes members of Congress from prosecution for what they may say on the floor of each House, and extrapolate from that guaranty protection from searches of their offices. They also view the search as the latest power grab in what they see as the Bush Administration’s unremitting drive to expand the influence of the executive over the legislative branch.

Virtually overlooked in all the hubbub is the fact that the FBI’s search was authorized by a federal judge who has now threatened to resign if the Justice Department decides to return what was seized in the raid to Mr. Jefferson. Instead of a search warrant, critics claim the FBI should have sought a court order requiring compliance with a subpoena for the documents, a subpoena that Mr. Jefferson had been stonewalling for several months. Failure to comply would have resulted in Mr. Jefferson’s arrest, they point out. Given the multiple investigations of Congress reportedly underway, however, there may be more reasons why members of Congress are protesting the FBI’s actions than meet the eye. This may be especially true among those closely associated with the now infamous lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, convicted of various crimes (including conspiracy to bribe public officials), and his disgraced traveling companion, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Galveston), indicted by a Texas grand jury for money laundering.



Be all this as it may, one wonders what action an increasingly dismayed, dispirited and disaffected electorate can take to curb the “culture of corruption” and inside-the-beltway games of “gotcha” in Washington, while at the same time bringing members of Congress to realize that it is the interests of American citizens – not special interest groups, foreigners, corporations, lobbyists, fat cats or cronies – that they have been elected to represent and protect. Here’s an idea: next November let’s all vote for (or write in) any candidate we like EXCEPT a Democrat or Republican. A pox on both their houses!

– Fred Kalhammer is a retired Foreign Service Officer and Stateline resident


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