Rep. Jefferson Eyed for Homeland Security Panel

Democrats pledged to rid Congress of corruption. But now they want to put Rep. William Jefferson on the Homeland Security Committee. The Democrat from Louisiana was taken off the Ways and Means panel last year after the FBI found $90,000 in his freezer.

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When President Bush flew to New Orleans yesterday, onboard Air Force One was the congressman who represents much of the hurricane-damaged area. And while Democrat William Jefferson was with the president, House Democrats back in Washington were defending his appointment to a sensitive committee. That's because Jefferson is under federal investigation and because $90,000 in cash was found in his freezer.

Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR: It's a prickly ethical dilemma for Democrats who campaigned on a promise to rid Congress of what they labeled the culture of corruption. What to do with one of their own who's been under investigation for more than a year now but against whom no charges have been filed. House speaker and then-Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi removed Jefferson from the Ways and Means Committee in the midst of last fall's campaign after the cash in the freezer episode was revealed.

But Democratic leaders now want to give Jefferson a seat on the Homeland Security Committee. The top Republican on the panel, Peter King of New York, says that makes no sense.

Representative PETER KING (Republican, New York): It's beyond me how you can take someone off a tax writing committee for ethical reasons and then put him on a Homeland Security Committee, which has to be one of the most important, which is privy to intelligence and various investigations going on throughout the country.

NAYLOR: Republicans want to put Democrats in the uncomfortable position of holding a vote on Jefferson's committee appointment, something that's normally approved by acclamation. And a few Democrats have expressed public reservations. Jefferson is not the only lawmaker under investigation. At least two Republican congressmen, including the senior Republican on the appropriations committee, Jerry Lewis of California, are believed to be the subject of federal probes. But Republican leader John Boehner argues there is a difference.

Rep. JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): These other members on both sides of the aisle where allegations have been made typically by outside groups have not involved FBI raids of their homes, FBI raids of their offices, or where they found $90,000 worth of cash in the freezer. There's a very big difference and I think it's obvious to everyone.

NAYLOR: While the money was in Jefferson's home, that FBI raid of Jefferson's office may be one reason why the Louisiana congressman has not been charged. His lawyers want documents seized during the raid returned, citing what they say is a violation of Jefferson's congressional rights to withhold documents from the executive branch. Yesterday, Speaker Pelosi pushed back against the GOP criticisms.

Rep. NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): The Republicans are so bankrupt of ideas to address the concerns of America's working families that they have to resort to these kinds of issues that aren't even issues. I think it speaks to the fact that they have no ideas.

NAYLOR: Democrats say they plan to bring Jefferson's appointment to the House floor for a vote in two or three weeks.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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