Rep. William Jefferson's Political Firestorm

NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams talks about the week in politics with the Rev. Joseph Watkins, a political consultant, and Ron Walters, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland. Among the topics is the current scandal involving Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA).

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS AND NOTES.

The biggest news out of Washington this week: the widening bribery scandal involving Congressman William Jefferson. We wanted to know what our DC Insiders have to say about it. Here's NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams, with our Washington Insiders on our Political Corner - Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Thanks, Ed. We're joined now by Ron Walters, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland. The professor's latest book is called, "Freedom is Not Enough." And he's here with me at NPR studios in Washington.

And joining us from Philadelphia is Reverend Joseph Watkins, a member of the Government Relations Group at Buchanan Ingersoll. Reverend Watkins was a member of the first President Bush's White House staff. He joins us from WPHT in Philadelphia.

Thank you both for joining us on Political Corner.

Professor RON WALTERS (Professor of Political Science, University of Maryland; Author, "Freedom is Not Enough"): Good to be with you, Juan.

Reverend JOSEPH WATKINS (Member, Government Relations Group at Buchanan Ingersoll): Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Let's start with, Congressman Jefferson and the scandal here in Washington: $90,000 in his freezer. Congressman Jefferson says there's another side to the story. There's concern about whether or not the FBI has the right to go into a congressman's home and conduct a search, even with a court warrant.

Professor Walters, where does this stand, in terms of its impact on Congressman Jefferson and the ability of Democrats to hold that seat, as they try to regain control of the Congress?

Prof. WALTERS: Well, Juan, if you listen to Black talk radio, like I do, there's a lot of suspicion that this really materialized, and was intended to materialize at the time of the New Orleans elections. Some of this information has been held by the Department of Justice for almost a year. And so there is a question now, why bring it out at this time.

The intention, of course, in a Republican-oriented political system, both at the state level and in Louisiana, was to dislodge him. And there are now calls in the state of Louisiana for him to resign.

WILLIAMS: Is that coming from black and white?

Prof. WALTERS: No, not coming from blacks. Notably it's coming out of the blogosphere, it's coming from some low level white politicians.

WILLIAMS: Reverent Watkins, we talked about this issue on NEWS AND NOTES with Ed Gordon, before. But I thought here on Political Corner, we needed to focus on it, because it is such a hot political story here in Washington. And I wonder if, whether or not from your perspective, what's going on with Congressman Jefferson reflects negatively on black America?

Rev. WATKINS: Well, I hope not. I certainly don't wish the congressman any ill. This is an unfortunate thing for him and for his family. And, certainly, it's going to be resolved at some point in the legal system. And at the same time, I would say this: there's such an eagerness on the part of some in politics to point the finger and to say, well, this really points to a culture of corruption and so on and so forth from this party of that party.

It's really not at all about that. There are people on both sides of the isle who, from time to time, have problems. And this is a problem that Congressman Jefferson has. And it's going to be a tough hurdle for him past because not only do they have the $90,000 that was recovered that was stored in the freezer at his home. But also they've apparently got videotape him taking a briefcase containing $100,000 out of a parked car.

And that's really - well, it's just hard to refute that kind of stuff, when you've got videotape evidence of him doing that. It's going to be very, very hard for Congressman Jefferson. He has alleged of course that this is racism and it's being done by certain people to discredit him. But, I think that there's a lot of pressure on him right now to consider what's in the best interest of the peoples of his district.

Now, he's even got Republicans who are, not necessarily on his side, but who have problems with some of the ways that some of the searches that have been conducted in the past. House Majority Leader John Boehner actually told reporters in an off camera briefing that he had serious concerns about the search that took place in Jefferson's office. But at the same time, Jefferson has very, very serious problems. And at some point, if he doesn't step aside it's going to really hurt the Democrats.

WILLIAMS: Now, you just heard Ron Walters, say that there's some conspiracy theory's out there about whether or not this was done strategically, timed so as to hurt Ray Nagin, the African-American Mayor of New Orleans in his election bid. And, of course, and the thought is somehow, that it might, therefore, be a plot against another black candidate.

Nobody holds Jack Abramoff's background, his religion against him or Tom DeLay's. But in this situation, with a black congressman, race does seem to become a factor, Reverend Watkins.

Rev. WATKINS: Well, this is a very, very sad thing, a very unfortunate thing. I don't think, however, that this is a conspiracy. That - I think that when charges are leveled, it's because the authorities have done months and months and months of investigation. And the investigations just take time to unfold, and when they become public, generally speaking, they have everything in place to bring the charges forward.

Prof. WALTERS: But Juan, you know, there are a couple of questions here remaining. One is that if they do have such drop-dead evidence, as a video, why was it then that they went into a congressman's congressional office? I mean, that is, seems to me that there's a case here that maybe, yes, as Reverend Watkins says, unfolding. But it seems to me, that if have uncontroversial evidence, why go to the extreme measures of going into his office?

The other thing is that, people point out that no one has gone into Tom DeLay's office. And so this looks like, sort of selective treatment on the part, of an African-American member of congress.

In any case, the culture of corruption charge, yes, I think it's been a political point on the part of the Republican Party to try to prove that the culture of corruption spans both ways. And giving this a high profile is another one of those ways that they kick up Jefferson, into that pile. And then they're able to make that argument.

WILLIAMS: On this point, does that excuse the idea that he has been videotaped, taking this money?

Prof. WALTERS: We haven't gone into the merits of the case. I'm not there yet.

WILLIAMS: Okay.

Prof. WALTERS: But let me say, because when you get to the merits of the case, you have to consider also the context of the people. Last year, I was in Dallas, at a literary festival for my book. Every member of the City Council who was black was under investigation.

Now that is compiled a long record of the harassment of black elected officials. Congressman Mervyn Dymally put out a report when he was in the Congress and showed this massive use of the investigative power of law enforcement officials, was at the national and state level. So, there's reason here to be suspicious about this case, until all the facts are on the table. And they're not.

WILLIAMS: All right. Ron Walters is a professor of political science at the University of Maryland. His latest book, Freedom Is Not Enough. And he's with me here in Washington. And Joe Watkins is in Philadelphia. He's a member of the Government Relations Group at the Buchanan Ingersoll. And, of course, he was a member of the first President Bush's White House staff.

Thank you both for joining us.

Prof. WALTERS: Good to be here.

Rev. WATKINS: Thanks so much, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome. Back to you, Ed.

GORDON: Thanks, Juan. Join us every Thursday for Juan Williams and his Washington Insiders, right here on Political Corner.

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