Congressional corruption

As proof that public corruption is a bipartisan endeavor, Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., was indicted Monday on charges of racketeering, soliciting bribes, fraud, obstruction of justice and money-laundering.

Last year, you’ll recall, Democrats railed against a “Republican culture of corruption” on the campaign trail despite the fact that authorities had previously videotaped Rep. Jefferson accepting a $100,000 bribe from an FBI informant, and that most of that cash was later found in the freezer of his Louisiana home.

If Rep. Jefferson, 63, is found guilty of just a few of the 16 charges detailed in the federal indictment, he could spend the rest of his life in prison. At a minimum, he might give former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., a run for the title of most corrupt congressman of all time. Last year, Cunningham was sentenced to eight years in prison for accepting more than $2 million in bribes from federal contractors.

Rep. Jefferson has maintained his innocence throughout the investigation, but the evidence against him doesn’t favor his defense. Brett Pfeffer, a former congressional aide, pleaded guilty to soliciting bribes for Rep. Jefferson and has been sentenced to eight years in prison. And Vernon Jackson, an executive with a telecommunications company, pleaded guilty to paying between $400,000 and $1 million in bribes to Rep. Jefferson in exchange for the congressman’s help in securing contracts with African nations. Jackson has been sentenced to more than seven years in prison. Both men have agreed to testify against Rep. Jefferson at trial.

Rep. Jefferson will enjoy the presumption of innocence as federal prosecutors move forward with their case. However, the cloud that comes with this public corruption indictment casts a shadow on all of Congress. When an elected official is charged with abusing his office and depriving his constituents of honest representation, Americans inevitably lose faith in their democracy.

The public’s most powerful tool in demanding integrity from their representatives is their vote. Last year, Rep. Jefferson’s New Orleans constituents returned him to office despite allegations that he accepted bribes. Because federal prosecutions can take years to complete, voters are likely to see Rep. Jefferson’s name on their 2008 ballots, too.

Here’s hoping they send Rep. Jefferson into retirement from public service.

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