Eminentoes

Lawless Lawmakers

Is it any surprise that many of them live on pirate ships?

By 10.9.07

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I think we're going backward.

Do a quick Google search of "Jefferson," for instance, and you go from the principal author of the Declaration of Independence -- a man of the Enlightenment who played a crucial role in shaping the U.S. Constitution -- to a Louisiana congressman with $90,000 in cash in his freezer, efficiently wrapped in aluminum foil in $10,000 increments and stuffed inside frozen-food packages.

The latter "public servant," Rep. William Jennings Jefferson, still in office and still not admitting that he did anything wrong, was videotaped by the FBI taking $100,000 out of an FBI informant's car on July 30, 2005, at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arlington, Virginia.

As the FBI affidavit describes the encounter, Rep. Jefferson received "a leather briefcase which contained $100,000 cash in denominations of $100 bills" -- with $90,000 of the marked bills from that exchange ending up shortly thereafter in the freezer at Jefferson's Washington home.

Caught on the wire that the FBI informant was wearing, Jefferson referred to the cash as "African art." In another taped encounter with the same informant, Jefferson, laughing, said, "All these damn notes we're writing to each other as if we're talking as if the FBI is watching."

Additionally, guilty pleas by Jefferson's former aides and associates state that the congressman received more than $400,000 in illegal payments.

"There are two sides to every story," says Jefferson, maintaining his complete innocence.

Facing up to 200 years in prison if found guilty as charged in a 16-count indictment for solicitation of bribes, racketeering, honest services wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and conspiracy, Jefferson, the first black to be elected to Congress in Louisiana since the Reconstruction, has demanded in court papers that his case be moved from Virginia, where 11 percent of the residents are black, to Washington, D.C., where the jury pool is 57 percent black.

"The circumstances here present a prima facie case that the venue was selected in the Eastern District of Virginia in order to obtain a jury pool with fewer African-Americans," claims Jefferson's attorney, Robert Trout. "Such purposeful discrimination would be a violation of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection clause."

Last December, some 16 months after the cash was found in his freezer, Rep. Jefferson was re-elected to serve his ninth term in Congress. In February, Jefferson's Democrat colleagues voted to give him a seat on the Homeland Security Committee.

In other news out of Washington, the New Yorker recently reported on the goings-on at the Capital Yacht Club, across the Washington Channel from the Jefferson Memorial. That's where Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho -- arrested for allegedly trying to toe-tap his way to sex with a plainclothes officer at a Minneapolis airport restroom -- lives on his 42-foot Bertram yacht called Suz II, named after his wife.

Craig's neighbor on D Dock is Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, currently under investigation by the FBI for taking illegal gifts from an oil company. Another D Dock neighbor was Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., now in prison for pocketing millions in bribes, including the $140,000 cost of Duke Sir, the congressman's 42-foot yacht.

"What people do on their boats, it's like Vegas," Rep. David Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., told the New York Times. Ackerman lives at the yacht club on his houseboat, the Unsinkable-II. The Unsinkable-I sank.

At the Gangplank Marina next door, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and James Traficant, D-Ohio, have both moved from their spots on the water to federal prison cells in bribery cases. In addition to pocketing envelopes of illicit cash, Traficant was found to be "using congressional staff to scrape barnacles off his boat, an activity he described as a male-bonding experience," the Times reported.

And crook-bonding. "Protected by locked gates and security, members of Congress rub elbows with lawyers and lobbyists, judges and bureaucrats, established government contractors and aspiring ones," reports the Times, describing the scene at the Capital Yacht Club. It's the perfect mix, in short, to grease the skids of sleaziness and corruption, as evidenced by the aforementioned steady stream of the ethically challenged who've traded their boat slips for jail cells.

A short distance across the channel from the club is the Jefferson Memorial, with this thought inside from Thomas Jefferson, written in 1774: "The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest."

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.