Remember William "Cold Cash" Jefferson? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Clean-Up Crew hope you've forgotten. Jefferson is the former Louisiana congressman caught with gobs of money in his freezer nearly four years ago in an FBI sting. He finally went on trial this week on a multitude of federal bribery and racketeering charges.
Refresher: FBI agents confronted Jefferson with video showing him accepting $100,000 in marked bills from a government informant. Prosecutors say he took the money to bribe a Nigerian official in a business deal. "We got to motivate him real good," Jefferson told the informant, according to a Justice Department transcript. "He's got a lot of people to pay off."
Prosecutors also allege that Jefferson demanded or accepted many other payments to his family-owned firms in exchange for his aid in winning regulatory approval for projects in several West African countries. All but $10,000 of the marked cash was found foil-wrapped in the freezer of Jefferson's Capitol Hill residence. On tape, Jefferson "questioned how his reputation could survive" and wondered aloud to the feds whether the search warrant affidavit could be permanently sealed to keep the information from being made public.
Jefferson's defense team is making an audacious claim that his actions were all "private" and had nothing to do with his official capacities as a lawmaker. Jefferson promises to deliver an "honorable explanation" for deep-freezing the money (arts and crafts project? science experiment?). No word on whether he'll explain why he plotted to leave the tax-paying public in the dark.
Also no word on how his family members could have possibly cashed in on his name, influence and prestige if Jefferson were just another citizen acting "privately." The New Orleans Times-Picayune's Stephanie Grace reported this week that "the tight-knit clan with the damaged name includes several siblings who also benefited from Jefferson's power and prominence -- and who stand accused in a newly revamped federal indictment of forming a criminal enterprise to steer an appalling amount of federal, state and city money into their own pockets.
"Last year, Jefferson's political operative brother Mose and his assessor sister Betty, along with Betty's daughter, were charged with systematically bilking government-funded social service programs. Another sister is cooperating with the feds."
So, where is the congressional clean-up crew?
Refresher: In January 2006, still basking in the glory of her ascension, Pelosi announced a "Clean House Team to Address (the) Republican Culture of Corruption." A press release trumpeted: "It is long past time for the Congress to address the systemic Republican culture of corruption that has undermined the American people's confidence in this institution," Pelosi said. "I am proud that some of the best minds in our Caucus will be leading the Democratic effort to clean up the corrupt Republican Congress. These great leaders will work to restore truth and trust to the People's House."
The Jefferson case has all the Beltway business-as-usual ingredients that Pelosi vowed to eliminate when she took power: nepotism, abuse of power, corporate cronyism and gross violations of the public trust. But Jefferson is a black Democrat who has been fiercely defended by both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Democrats are all too willing to lambaste corruption among their political foes, but fear the wrath of race-card players in their own party. It has muted criticism of tax-cheating, self-dealing New York Rep. Charlie Rangel, under investigation for numerous ethical improprieties in his personal finances and fundraising activities; congressional sisters Loretta and Linda Sanchez, under investigation by the House ethics committee for a payroll mess; and crony of color Rep. Maxine Waters, who had a personal and financial stake in Boston-based OneUnited, a minority bank that received $12 million in federal TARP bailout money.
Putting the Democratic culture of corruption front and center is not a headache Pelosi needs -- especially as a new Rasmussen poll shows her party now losing to Republicans on the core issue of governmental integrity. The Rasmussen Report reveals:
"Republicans also now hold a six-point lead on the issue of government ethics and corruption, the second most important issue to all voters and the top issue among unaffiliated voters. That shows a large shift from May, when Democrats held an 11-point lead on the issue."
It's a sharp and timely reminder that while death, taxes and "temporary" bailouts are forever, political fortunes in Washington are never immutable.