Bribery case puts Demos in tight spot

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Democrats' plans to make Republican corruption a central theme of their election strategy this year were complicated by alleged wrongdoing in their own ranks, leading the party to try on Monday to blunt the political effects of the unfolding case against Rep. William Jefferson.

Democratic leaders sought to distance the party from Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat who has been accused by the FBI of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. In doing that the leaders tried to draw a distinction between the allegations against him and what they said was a much broader pattern among Republicans of trading legislative influence for campaign donations, trips and other perks.

Jefferson appeared on Capitol Hill to deny any wrongdoing. Facing a bank of television cameras down the hall from his congressional office, which was raided by federal agents on Saturday night, Jefferson said he would not resign and that he expected to be cleared.

In court documents made public on Sunday, the FBI said Jefferson had taken bribes to help a small technology company win federal contracts and to help the company with businesses in Africa. The FBI said he had concealed $90,000 from the scheme in the freezer of his home in Washington.

"There are two sides to every story," Jefferson said, without providing any details.

For all the intense partisanship that has surrounded the wave of legal and ethical cases on Capitol Hill, the Jefferson case brought some Democrats and Republicans together on one point: that the all-night search conducted by the FBI raised questions about whether the executive branch had violated the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers by carrying out a raid on the official office of a member of Congress.

Sen. Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader, said Monday that he had concerns about the constitutionality of the search and was seeking a legal opinion.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader in the House, said that "Justice Department investigations must be conducted in accordance with constitutional protections and historical precedent." Some House Republicans said they were also disturbed by the way the search was handled.

"I think it is really outrageous," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., who is chairman of the Rules Committee.

The constitutional question aside, some Democrats acknowledged that the headline-grabbing case involving a colleague they know as "Jeff" had the potential to dilute one of their core political arguments against the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. No prominent Republican spoke out against Jefferson on Monday, apparently judging that the news coverage would make their point for them.

But Democrats harbored no hope that Jefferson would not become part of a Republican counterattack against Democratic efforts to portray the Republicans as a party that has lost its ethical bearings.

"There is no doubt that the charges, the conduct of any Democrat is going to be raised by those who question our attacks on a culture of corruption, as a way to divert attention from that," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas.

"They are different scales," said Emanuel. "One is a party outlook and operation; the other is an individual's action. They have institutional corruption."

But even before the case against Jefferson became public, Republicans were pointing to ethical questions about the activities of another Democrat, Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, who is under FBI scrutiny for his personal finances and his efforts to steer millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations that he helped to control. And on Monday, Democratic leaders were considering steps to isolate Jefferson, including the possibility of removing him from his seat on the Ways and Means Committee. Pelosi had already endorsed the idea of an ethics inquiry against Jefferson and one was initiated last week.

Jefferson said he intended to "continue to represent the people who have sent me here to try to respond to their needs and their issues." He said he expected to seek re-election, though potential challengers are emerging back home in New Orleans.

Jefferson also called the search, which evidently was the first ever executed at an official congressional office, an intrusion into the separation of powers. But Pelosi suggested the lawmaker bore some responsibility.

"Members of Congress must obey the law and cooperate fully with any criminal investigation, if they don't, they will be held accountable," she said in a statement.

Late Monday evening, Speaker Dennis Hastert issued a statement highly critical of the search.

"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," said Hastert, promising to seek a means to restore "the delicate balance of power."

Donald Ritchie, a historian with the Senate, said his office could find no record of a similar search, though the homes and business offices of lawmakers have been searched in the past.

At an unrelated news conference, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales called the search "unusual steps that were taken in response to an unusual set of circumstances. I'll just say that."

In their affidavit, federal prosecutors said they had taken special steps in conducting the raid to "adopt special procedures in order to minimize the likelihood that any potentially politically sensitive" material unrelated to the inquiry would be seized in either paper form or from office computers.

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