Jefferson's Long Odds
If recent history is any judge, Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) is facing some long odds in his fight with the Justice Department. Jefferson has been indicted for alleged criminal acts, including taking bribes.
Examining media accounts and other historical documents, Capitol Briefing has found that since 1980 at least 17 members of Congress have been indicted while still in office, initially pleading not guilty to the charges in federal or state courts. [These totals do not include admitted felons such as former Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who pleaded guilty before indictments.]
Of those indicted lawmakers, just one eventually walked out of a courthouse a free, non-convicted man. And it took then-Rep. Joseph McDade (R-Pa.) four years and three months to get his not-guilty verdict in a bribery and racketeering case involving defense contractors. That's the longest running case involving a member of Congress in recent history.
Jefferson's only other potential example of salvation, legally speaking, is former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who was indicted on state charges of laundering corporate contributions in 2002 back in September 2005. Out of Congress more than a year, DeLay still has not gone to trial on those charges as legal motions are still being filed and no trial date is set.
Every other lawmaker indicted during this time either quickly pleaded guilty or was eventually found guilty by a jury trial. On June 8 Jefferson pleaded not guilty to the charges of bribery, conspiracy and a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for allegedly trying to win trade deals for businessmen in Africa in exchange for more than $400,000. He said he would fight the charges to until all legal options are exhausted.
"I am innocent. We are going to fight," Jefferson said, saying finances would not prevent him from mounting his defense. "We will sell every stick of furniture in our house ... to clear our name. It's no time to give up."
However, there are few clues as to how long Jefferson's legal battles will take, possibly a few more months -- particularly if he gives up and pleads guilty to any of the 16 counts of his indictment -- or many years. Several defense attorneys privately told Capitol Briefing the Jefferson trial could be a long ways off, with legal motions still being haggled over regarding a raid last spring on his congressional office, which Jefferson argues was a violation of the Speech and Debate Clause of the Constitution. [That gives members of Congress certain protections from the executive branch trying to criminalize what are legislative functions.]
"Most of these are complex cases--involving various pre-trial issues and motions and also involving numerous witnesses," one lawyer said.
Another attorney noted that lawmakers, particularly Congressmen in an era when the institution is held in such low esteem, are not the most sympathetic defendants.
"Politicians brought before juries in these cases stand very little chance--even on aggressively asserted theories. McDade really stands out," the attorney said.
A few other notable facts about indictments against sitting members of Congress:
â€¢ Four eventually pleaded guilty to some of the charges after losing re-election or retiring from office, the longest interval being Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.); the former Ways and Means chairman was indicted in June 1994, lost his election that fall, but didn't plead guilty until the spring of 1996.
â€¢ Just two recent senators have been indicted while in office, David Durenberger (R-Minn.) and Harrison Williams (D-N.J.). Durenberger retired rather than run for re-election in 1994, after an April 1993 indictment, and pleaded guilty in 1995 to misdemeanor counts of over-charging rent to federal agencies for property he owned. Williams was convicted of bribery in the Abscam scandal and left the Senate in 1982.
â€¢ The other six representatives indicted in the Abscam trial faced some of the quickest verdicts on their legal futures in political history, with each of them either pleading guilty or getting convicted in less than seven months.
â€¢ Then-Rep. Joshua Eilberg (D-Pa.) was indicted the closest to Election Day, Oct. 24, 1978' prompting him to lose his re-election battle for his Philadelphia district. Harkening to today's Justice Department scandal, Eilberg caused a controversy by pressuring President Carter to fire the U.S. attorney investigating him, prompting another scandal.
Here's a round-up of most, if not all, of the indictments against sitting members since 1980. Those with an asterisk were caught up in the Abscam scandal.
|Tom DeLay (R-Texas)||9/28/05||TBD|
|David Durenberger (R-Minn.)||4/3/93||Pleaded, 8/23/95|
|Joshua Eilberg (D-Pa.)||10/24/78||Pleaded, 2/24/79|
|William Jefferson (D-La.)||6/4/07||TBD|
|John Jenrette (D-S.C.)*||6/13/80||Convicted, 10/7/80|
|Richard Kelly (R-Fla.)*||7/15/80||Convicted, 1/6/81|
|Raymond Lederer (Pa.)*||5/28/80||Convicted, 1/9/81|
|Joe McDade (R-Pa.)||5/6/92||Acquitted, 8/2/96|
|Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.)||8/28/92||Pleaded, 5/25/93|
|Michael Myers (D-Pa.)*||5/27/80||Convicted, 8/30/80|
|John Murphy (D-N.Y.)*||6/18/80||Convicted, 12/3/80|
|Mel Reynolds (D-Ill.)||8/21/94||Convicted, 8/23/95|
|Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.)||6/1/94||Pleaded, 4/10/96|
|Patrick Swindall (R-Ga.)||10/17/88||Convicted, 6/20/89|
|Frank Thompson (D-N.J.)*||6/18/80||Convicted, 12/3/80|
|James Traficant (D-Ohio)||5/5/01||Convicted, 4/12/02|
|Harrison Williams (D-N.J.)*||10/30/80||Convicted, 5/1/81|
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