Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Arrogance of Congressmen and Senators

The big story out of Washington, D.C., the past few days has the been the bribery scandal involving Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who was caught on videotape accepting $100,000 from an FBI informant at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arlington last July and of which the FBI found $90,000 concealed in food containers and tin foil in a freezer in his Northwest DC home, according to a 83 page court affidavit released on Sunday. That affidavit served as the basis for FBI agents to execute a search warrant at Jefferson's office in the Rayburn House Office Building. While Jefferson's outrage to the search of his office was not unexpected and expectedly humorous (apparently, he was just holding that $100,000 for a friend and that $90,000 they found in his freezer, he just put the money in there because he didn't want it to spoil), the outrage from his fellow Congressmen and Senators from both parties was quite surprising:

The Saturday raid of Jefferson's quarters in the Rayburn House Office Building posed a new political dilemma for the leaders of both parties, who felt compelled to protest his treatment while condemning any wrongdoing by the lawmaker. The dilemma was complicated by new details contained in an 83-page affidavit unsealed on Sunday, including allegations that the FBI had videotaped Jefferson taking $100,000 in bribe money and then found $90,000 of that cash stuffed inside his apartment freezer.

Republican leaders, who previously sought to focus attention on the Jefferson case as a counterpoint to their party's own ethical scandals, said they are disturbed by the raid. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that he is "very concerned" about the incident and that Senate and House counsels will review it.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) expressed alarm at the raid. "The actions of the Justice Department in seeking and executing this warrant raise important Constitutional issues that go well beyond the specifics of this case," he said in a lengthy statement released last night.

"Insofar as I am aware, since the founding of our Republic 219 years ago, the Justice Department has never found it necessary to do what it did Saturday night, crossing this Separation of Powers line, in order to successfully prosecute corruption by Members of Congress," he said. "Nothing I have learned in the last 48 hours leads me to believe that there was any necessity to change the precedent established over those 219 years."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement that "members of Congress must obey the law and cooperate fully with any criminal investigation" but that "Justice Department investigations must be conducted in accordance with Constitutional protections and historical precedent."

To borrow a phrase from ABC's John Stossel: Give me a break. The last time I checked my constitution, Congressmen and Senators could be criminally investigated, indicted and convicted just like any other citizen could be. There's no special sanctity with a Congressmen's or a Senator's office that prevents law enforcement officials from executing a search warrant like they would at any other citizens' workplace. This separation of powers argument being thrown around by some on the Hill is downright laughable. While the search of Jefferson's office is unprecedented, I'm willing to bet that this search warrant was more carefully scrutinized than your typical search warrant brought before a federal judge, which is probably why the FBI wrote such a long affidavit to support their search warrant. I don't think this search warrant executed on William Jefferson is going to lead to weekly searches of Congressmen's offices by the FBI. If Congressmen and Senators are so worried about the FBI searching their offices, I offer a simple solution: Don't take bribes.

My already low opinion of Congress just went a little lower today.