Jesse Jackson Takes to the Hill in Crusade Against 'Oilgate'

Inserting himself further into the Enron fracas, the Rev. Jesse Jackson appeared on Capitol Hill Wednesday and likened the plight of the former Enron employees by his side to the struggles of the civil rights movements of the 1960s.

Before a meeting with Democratic lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Jackson called for a litany of reforms (campaign finance, election, government oversight) and relief packages for the aggrieved workers. He called the employees’ economic plight “the new south agenda.”

Jackson also revealed that his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition organization received what he called “modest” and “irrelevant” contributions from Enron, but said returning that money or donating it to charities aiding former employees of the company as many politicians have done in recent weeks would be a “frivolous gesture.”

Jackson said many non-profits received money from Enron over the years and none of them suspected that the company was anything other than one with “a fine civic reputation.” He said giving any of the money back, at a time that millions of employee pensions have already been lost, would be an empty gesture.

“They need something real and substantial,” he said of the Enron workers, “not symbolic gestures.”

When asked why the Enron employees warranted more attention than the employees laid off from his own Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the vocal civil rights advocate was also dismissive.

“This is a different story,” he said of said of his organization’s problems. “During a time of recession,” he added, it would be “imprudent” to carry a staff that cannot be maintained with the revenues coming into the organization. Jackson had to lay off 50 of his 100-member staff because fund-raising levels had been waning.

Critics of Jackson — many of whom the reverend has dismissed as conservative attack dogs — called his foray in the Enron fiasco hypocritical in light of what they said are accounting irregularities at his own organization.

"For somebody who has had problems for 20 years with bookkeeping and accounting practices to raise the issue of Enron is shameless," said Ken Boehm, whose National Legal and Policy Center in Virginia filed a formal complaint with the IRS just last year.

In the complaint, Boehm charged that Jackson’s Citizenship Education Fund violated its not-for-profit status by accepting six-figure contributions from corporations in apparent return for his blessing on business transactions and merger applications previously opposed by his Wall Street Project.

Jackson vehemently denied any wrongdoing, but was forced to change his tax returns to include a $120,000 salary that was paid to a staff member with whom he fathered an out-of-wedlock child in 1999. The amount paid to Karin Stanford was withheld from earlier tax filings for CEF, along with the names of several other staffers who made more than $50,000 each that year.

“If it were an isolated set of facts, that would be one thing, it’s a totally re-occurring pattern,” Boehm said.

Wednesday, Jackson once again dismissed the critics and said the complaints were untrue. He said his main focus now is on what he referred to as “oilgate.”

“At some point the principle transcends the party,” he said of his efforts on Capitol Hill. “Let the chips land where they may.”