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Rep. Jefferson loses Democratic caucus vote

Black Caucus leader cites racial unfairness

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Rep. William Jefferson: "The punishment is unauthorized. It also is unnecessary."

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William Jefferson
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With members of the Congressional Black Caucus crying double standard, House Democrats met behind closed doors Thursday and voted to strip Rep. William Jefferson of his seat on the Ways and Means Committee.

The move was led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who already had asked Jefferson to step down voluntarily, a request her embattled counterpart rebuffed.

"This isn't about proof in a court of law. This is about an ethical standard," Pelosi said in a brief statement after the vote. "I wish that the White House would take our lead on this." (Watch Pelosi discuss the severity of the allegations against Jefferson -- 1:20)

Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, Democratic Caucus chairman, said the vote on Jefferson was about 2-1, but he would not divulge the exact tally of the secret ballot, nor would he divulge his own vote.

Ways and Means is a powerful committee that oversees tax legislation. Now that the Democratic Caucus has approved Jefferson's suspension from the committee, the matter will head to the full House for a vote. Clyburn said he didn't know when.

Jefferson, 59, an eight-term Louisiana congressman facing a corruption investigation, attended Thursday's caucus meeting, where he addressed his colleagues, briefly spoke to reporters and left.

Pelosi letter

In a Wednesday letter to Pelosi, Jefferson offered to step down from the committee voluntarily on three conditions: a clear rule must be established for voting legislators off committees; other committee members under investigation must be forced to step down; and Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Louisiana, who represents the adjoining district in Louisiana, must be allowed to temporarily fill Jefferson's seat on the committee.

In the letter, Jefferson wrote that if Pelosi agreed to the terms, then "the dispute in which we are now engaged regarding my service on the Ways and Means Committee is ended without the need for further distress, debate, discussion or divisiveness."

Jefferson has argued that the disciplinary rules of the Democratic Caucus apply only to members who are indicted or are in leadership posts, neither of which apply to him.

Rep. Mel Watt, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the decision "unprecedented" and concurred with Jefferson in comments to reporters after the vote.

House rules state that a legislator must be convicted before being removed from a committee, and Democratic Caucus rules state that heads or ranking members of committees must be indicted or be presented with formal charges before being removed.

Jefferson has not been charged with a crime.

"What we've done today is set a standard for regular members that's actually lower -- or higher, depending on how you look at it -- than the standard we set for our chairs or ranking members," Watt said. "We've set a standard that's higher than the House rules require, and that would be fine if we knew what the rule is going forward."

Race factor

Asked if he thought race was a factor in Pelosi's decision, Jefferson replied before the vote, "It's not happened before. The first time it's happening, it's happening to an African-American."

The assertion that race is a factor has already been floated by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Watt, who question why Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, a white Democrat who also is under investigation, was allowed to keep his seat on the equally powerful Appropriations Committee.

Mollohan, whose personal finances are being investigated after a complaint filed by a conservative group, stepped down voluntarily from his post on the Ethics Committee, pending resolution of the inquiry.

Watt warned last week that singling out Jefferson would not be received well by black voters.

Thursday, he said, "Our constituents will import their own interpretation into this, and a number of them will import that there's a different standard in our caucus based on race."

Jefferson also raised race in his letter to Pelosi.

"When an African American member of an exclusive committee is asked to resign his committee because of news reports or allegations of wrongdoing, it gives the appearance of unfairness and even racial discrimination if another member continues serving on an exclusive committee under Justice Department investigation as well, particularly if the other member is white, and is not subject to the same treatment," he wrote.

Clyburn, who is a former chairman of the black caucus, said he bears no hard feelings for Pelosi.

"Ms. Pelosi has a right and I think the responsibility to make political decisions in the best interest of this caucus," he said. "These things come with the territory. You have to do what you have to do."

The case

In a May affidavit, the FBI alleged that Jefferson accepted bribes in return for using his office to facilitate business ventures in Africa. (The case against Jefferson)

Jefferson allegedly accepted a $100,000 bribe in June 2005 from an informant cooperating with federal agents in an investigation, according to the FBI. In an August 2005 search of Jefferson's Washington home, agents said they found $90,000 in the lawmaker's freezer.

Pelosi referenced the FBI allegations in her statement after the vote, issuing a warning to fellow Democrats: "I told all of my colleagues, 'Anybody with $90,000 in your freezer, you have a problem with this caucus.' "

Jefferson, whose district includes New Orleans and some of its suburbs, has denied wrongdoing and has vowed to remain in office.

A Kentucky businessman and a former aide to the congressman have pleaded guilty to corruption and have agreed to cooperate with investigators.

In January, former Jefferson aide Brett Pfeffer pleaded guilty to bribery charges.

Vernon Jackson, of Louisville, Kentucky, became involved with Jefferson while trying to secure contracts in Ghana and Nigeria for his telecommunications company, iGate Inc., according to the FBI, which claims that Jefferson conducted "official acts" in exchange for stock in foreign companies.

The aforementioned $100,000 allegedly accompanied foreign stock as payment for Jefferson sending a letter to the vice president of Nigeria and other official acts, the FBI claims.

Jackson, who pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy and bribery charges, has admitted paying more than $400,000 in bribes to a congressman who government sources identify as Jefferson.

The allegations against Jefferson present problems for House Democrats, who have been lambasting Republicans for what they call "a culture of corruption" in a midterm election bid to overtake the House.

CNN's Andrea Koppel contributed to this report.

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