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The Conservative Curmudgeon
September 9, 2009

Rep. Jefferson’s Freezer:
Only the Tip of the Iceberg of Congressional Corruption

by Allan C. Brownfeld

ALEXANDRIA, VA — Early in August, former Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-LA) was convicted of corruption charges in a case made famous by the $90,000 in bribe money stuffed into his freezer. Federal jurors found Jefferson guilty of using his congressional office as a criminal enterprise to enrich himself, soliciting and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to support his business ventures in Africa.

In making his closing argument before the jury, defense attorney Robert Trout attempted to put all of Washington on trial. “We all occupy the gray area — it’s just part of our human nature,” he explained. “We’re going to make mistakes.... we may do reckless things."

To illustrate his analogy, Trout displayed a graphic for the jurors. On one side of a yellow line were the words “recklessness,” “negligence,” and “mistakes” — and a headless man in jacket and tie raising his hands in a shrug. “The point here is what Members of Congress are expected to do in their jobs,” said Trout. “If seeking political help was a crime, you could lock up half of metropolitan Washington, D.C.”

Trout compared Jefferson’s work to promote companies in which his family members had stakes to constituent casework, “something to be expected of our Members of Congress.” Trying to persuade foreign governments to do business with these companies, he said, was part “of a congressman’s customary use of his office. It is clearly a matter of settled practice for congressmen to pitch products of American companies.”

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who attended the trial, noted that, “It was a bit of a stretch to suggest that Jefferson — caught on tape demanding financial payouts and caught on film taking $l00,000 from an FBI informant — was just doing what other lawmakers do.”

While the Jefferson case is admittedly an extreme example of congressional corruption, his attorney’s defense that, in effect, “everyone does it” is not as far-fetched as it may appear. Other Members of Congress may not have $90,000 in their freezers, but too many are guilty of questionable activities — making the very term “congressional ethics” something of an oxymoron.

Just as Jefferson’s trial began, we learned of Senator John Ensign's (R-NV) affair with an aide and the subsequent payments to her family by his parents. The Senate Ethics Committee has been taking testimony on sweetheart mortgage deals given to Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Kent Conrad (D-ND). Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is the subject of several ethics investigations; matters include his occupancy of four apartments at below-market rents in a Harlem building owned by a prominent real estate developer, and his admission that he neglected to pay some taxes by failing to report $75,000 in rental income earned from a beachfront villa in the Dominican Republic. In June, the House ethics committee launched a probe into trips taken by Rangel and other lawmakers to the Caribbean.

Discussing Rangel’s support for raising taxes while hesitating to pay his own, The Wall Street Journal editorially declared: “Ever notice that those who endorse high taxes and those who actually pay them aren’t the same people? Consider the curious case of Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, who is leading the charge for a new 5.4 percentage point income tax surcharge and recently called it ‘the moral thing to do.’ About his own tax liability he seems less, well, fervent.... Mr. Rangel promised last fall to amend his tax returns, to pay what is due and correct the information on his annual financial disclosure form. But the deadline for the 2008 filing was May l5 and as of last week (July 27) he still had not filed. His press spokesman declined to answer questions about anything related to his ethics problems.”

During the trial of William Jefferson, defense attorney Trout held the Louisiana congressman up as a better man than many of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill. Jefferson “never offered or promised any earmark,” he said, reminding jurors of former Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and his “Bridge to Nowhere.” Neither, he said, did Jefferson propose any legislation to aid his business interests. “That’s how Jack Abramoff got himself into trouble — they’re not doing that,” he said.

Whether Congress is able to monitor its own ethical behavior is a question being asked more and more. Members of the House ethics committee who are investigating a pattern of lawmakers steering federal funds to generous defense contractors, for example, have just had their own pet military projects approved by the same committee whose activities they are probing. The 10 committee members sponsored 29 earmarks — $59 million in federal funding for projects they requested in their districts or states — under a military spending bill that passed the House in July. The bill was approved by the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, whose practice of steering earmarks to clients of a well-connected lobbying firm close to the chairman, Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), is the subject of the ethics committee’s investigation.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), chairman of the ethics committee, received three earmarks under Murtha’s bill. In June, Lofgren's committee announced it was investigating ties between Members of Congress and PMA group, a lobbying firm run by one of Murtha’s close friends. Murtha and fellow committee members Peter Visclosky (D-IND) and James Moran (D-VA) have longtime ties to PMA and have orchestrated hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks to PMA clients in recent years. The PMA group closed after an FBI raid last year, and Visclosky’s congressional records were subpoenaed in May by a grand jury investigating defense contracts.

Rep. Jefferson’s $90,000 in the freezer may be a bit extreme — and clearly illegal — but “earmarks” in return for congressional contributions is simply a different form of bribery, although made legal by the very Congress that participates in the practice.

Congress appears unable to properly enforce any kind of realistic ethical standards. As long as Members of Congress have power to influence virtually every aspect of our society, many special interests will continue to have a stake in purchasing favorable decisions. The money in Rep. Jefferson’s freezer, in reality, is only the tip of the iceberg.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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© 2009 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation