WASHINGTON – High drama is playing out in the House of Representatives amid a growing political furor over the launch of an official ethics probe into Rep. William Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat charged with federal corruption charges.
The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday night — 373-23, with 13 voting "present" — to require the House ethics committee to begin an investigative subcommittee to look into Jefferson's dealings. Twenty House members did not vote.
The House also voted to approve a Democrat-sponsored resolution requiring an investigative subcommittee any time a House member is indicted or charged with a crime. That measure passed by a vote of 387-10.
And on Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the second-highest ranked House Democrat next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, suggested it was time for Jefferson to step down -- although he didn't explicitly call for his resignation. Hoyer of Maryland sponsored the measure requiring future investigations of indicted members.
Asked if Jefferson should resign, Hoyer told reporters that Jefferson's "effectiveness is substantially impaired," and he should take that into consideration in his decision on whether to remain in Congress.
Hoyer added that even though Jefferson has not been convicted of anything, "members are held to a higher standard than the public" is, regardless of judging guilt or innocence, and the charges leveled against Jefferson are hefty.
Hoyer on Tuesday said the charges against Jefferson, "if proven true, should lead to the expulsion of the member in question."
On Monday, a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., handed up an indictment charging Jefferson with with 16 counts of bribery, obstruction of justice, wire fraud, money laundering and racketeering. Following a two-year probe, officials alleged that the nine-term representative used the power of his office to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — benefiting himself and his family — from U.S. businesses and to influence foreign officials.
The indictment says Jefferson received more than $500,000 in bribes and sought millions more in separate schemes to enrich himself by using his office to broker business deals in Africa. The charges came almost two years after investigators raided Jefferson's home in Washington and found $90,000 in cash stuffed in his freezer. If convicted on all charges, Jefferson could face a maximum sentence of 235 years.
While the previous Congress was investigating Jefferson, the end of the Congress had effectively dissolved that panel, and a new one had yet to be formed. The delay was one source for Republican-led criticism that Democrats were dragging their heels in investigating one of their own.
Tuesday's action might stave off some of the partisan sniping that was boiling, but nerves were raw leading up to the vote.
The main resolution reads: The "Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is directed to investigate without further delay alleged illegal conduct and violations of House rules by Representative William J. Jefferson and report its findings and recommendations to the House, including a recommendation regarding whether Representative Jefferson should be expelled from the House."
The resolution is an unusual one in that, often, such ethics resolutions do not specify that the panel should consider expulsion, generally leaving that up to the discretion of the panel. That was another source of partisan discomfort — partly leading the chief Democrat on the ethics committee to issue a statement attempting to call off partisan attacks on the panel's job.
House rules do not require Jefferson to step down from his post at this point. If he were to be convicted and sentenced to more than two years in prison, he could be stripped of his voting privileges. House members can be expelled by their fellow lawmakers, but that action is taken only in extreme cases, and it has never been taken against a House member who has not been convicted of a crime.
Jefferson issued a brief statement afterward: "I respect the decision of my colleagues regarding these resolutions. I am innocent of these allegations and confident that members of the Ethics Committee will arrive at the same conclusion through investigation."
Jefferson on Wednesday received message of measured support from the Congressional Black Caucus, which has fought with Democratic leaders on his behalf throughout the ordeal.
"While the charges against Congressman William Jefferson are gravely serious and warrant thorough deliberation, the law of the land entitles every citizen to presumed innocence until the court of law deems otherwise. Therefore, we trust the merits of the case against Congressman Jefferson will be examined in a court of law instead of the chambers of public opinion," said Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.
Tuesday's votes followed a day of steadily rising political attacks over Democrats' handling of Jefferson's case and ethics in general in the new Congress, and questions over Republican ethical issues spilling over from the last term.
Jefferson told Democratic leaders on Tuesday that he would step down from his single committee post on the House Small Business Committee, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was expected to push later this week for Jefferson's official ouster from his committee, but that was not enough for many lawmakers who said they believed he should resign.
In another unusual step, the chair of the House ethics committee issued a statement decrying political pressure on the committee coming from GOP camps.
Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, who chairs the House ethics committee, said the allegations were "extremely serious" and the investigation is proceeding, but the panel won't be influenced by partisan pressure.
"It is inappropriate for any other member to impose on these proceedings. ... I refuse to allow these proceedings to be politicized by House Republican leadership," Jones said in a prepared release.
Her statement prompted dismay from the top-ranked Republican on the ethics committee, Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington. He issued a statement saying he was was "sincerely disappointed" that Tubbs Jones issued her statement -- without his consent, as is usual on the ethics committee, and said her version of things "does not accurately reflect our conversation or the full facts of this matter."
He said that, for his part, he has been in favor of a panel to look into Jefferson since the new Congress began.
Despite the political uproar, Jefferson tried to show the appearance of normality. Jefferson's staff issued a statement late Tuesday, saying his offices are conducting "business as usual," and staffers "in both New Orleans and Washington, D.C. continue to work for the people of the 2nd District of Louisiana despite legal charges filed against Congressman Jefferson yesterday.
"Jefferson's staffers in both cities are still available to assist the people of New Orleans and parts of Jefferson Parish in matters of a federal nature. They, like Greater New Orleans residents, are also eager to help rebuild and fully reestablish communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina."
Late Tuesday, Republicans and Democrats continued to call for Jefferson's resignation.
"I would encourage Mr. Jefferson to take this under advisement and encourage him to step down," said Rep. Christopher Carney, R-Pa.
"My position is similar to the gentleman from Pennsylvania," said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo. "I would suggest that [Jefferson] do justice to himself, prepare his defense, and that his district have someone else."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.