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Rep. Jefferson blames Pelosi for plight

Search of congressman's Capitol Hill office challenged in court
Rep. William Jefferson: The suspension "is not right for the people I represent."


William Jefferson
House of Representatives
Nancy Pelosi

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Rep. William Jefferson, who on Friday was stripped of his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said the House minority leader singled him out because she wants to be speaker of the House one day.

Jefferson, D-Louisiana, is the subject of an ongoing bribery investigation. No charges have been filed against Jefferson and he maintains his innocence.

The House vote to remove him from the committee was unanimous.

On Thursday the democratic caucus voted 99-58 to suspend him. Jefferson said Friday that wouldn't have happened without House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's maneuvering.

"In this case, it was strictly political," Jefferson said of the caucus vote. "[Pelosi] believes that it gives her a political advantage in this set of elections. She hopes that out of this she'll be speaker of the House one day, if the Democrats can take charge."

Republicans are the majority in both houses of Congress.

"I'm not one of Pelosi's favorite people, and that may be a part of why she's singling me out in this instance. I'm not quite sure what it is," Jefferson told reporters during a briefing Friday at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where he was bound for Baton Rouge to visit his daughter.

Federal agents claim Jefferson has accepted bribes in exchange for using his office to facilitate business ventures in Africa.

In court documents, prosecutors said Jefferson accepted a $100,000 bribe in June 2005 from an informant and that during a search of the legislator's Washington home in August, federal agents found $90,000 stashed in his freezer. (The case against Jefferson)

Jefferson said he stated his case to about 130 members of the democratic caucus before it voted Thursday in closed session and that it was well-received. He told reporters his remarks got a standing ovation.

However, before the Democrats voted, Pelosi made calls to about 30 representatives who showed up after his speech, he said.

"That's why the vote margin was the way it was," Jefferson said. "I think if the vote had been taken at that moment, I would have won."

Pelosi could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

After the democratic caucus vote, Pelosi -- who vowed to pursue Jefferson's ouster after he rebuffed her request to step down from the committee -- said the severity of the allegations warrant Jefferson's removal. (Watch Pelosi discuss the severity of the allegations against Jefferson -- 1:20)

There already have been two guilty pleas in the case, one from a former Jefferson aide, and the huge sum of money found in Jefferson's freezer didn't help his case, she said.

"I told all of my colleagues, anybody with $90,000 in your freezer, you have a problem with this caucus," she said.

Race factor

Many Democrats were not swayed by either Jefferson's argument that the sanction was unfair or by complaints from black lawmakers who say he is the victim of a double standard.

Speaking to reporters after the caucus vote, Rep. Mel Watt, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the decision "unprecedented." He said that House rules require a legislator's conviction and that Democratic Caucus rules require a committee leader's indictment before he or she can be ousted from a committee assignment.

"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, D-North Carolina, 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."

Black Democrats' constituents will assume that the caucus has different standards for legislators "based on race," Watt said.

The black caucus has pointed to the case of Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-West Virginia, who has been allowed to keep his seat on the equally powerful Appropriations Committee while his personal finances are under investigation.

South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, who chairs the Democratic Caucus, argued that the Democrats' steering committee -- which recommended Jefferson's suspension last week -- has the authority to initiate changes in the membership of committees.

Despite initially arguing that his removal would be unfair to his constituents, Jefferson said Friday that his absence from the committee won't affect his effectiveness in representing his district, which includes Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.

"I don't plan to do anything now but to continue with my service," he said.

Search challenged

The FBI's search of Jefferson's Capitol Hill office last month has caused a furor between the Department of Justice and the House, which said it violated the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

President Bush ordered the solicitor general's office to hold the materials taken from Jefferson's office for 45 days, to give the two sides time to resolve the impasse.

Jefferson's lawyer, however, asked a federal judge Friday to declare the search -- believed to the first of a lawmaker's office -- unconstitutional.

Attorney Robert Trout told U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan, who approved the search, that federal agents "pawed through every record," rather than being selective.

"They went through every hard drive and every scrap of paper," he said. "This particular search, by design, was to go through legislative records."

Trout and the House general counsel both asked to be present during the 18-hour search. Those requests were denied by the Justice Department.

House lawyers say members whose offices are being searched must be allowed to be present and be allowed to remove materials protected by the Constitution's "speech and debate" clause, which gives immunity to lawmakers in performance of their legislative duties, according to the court filing.

However, U.S. Attorney Roy McLeese said congressmen have no privilege to resist search warrants and that the search of Jefferson's office was legal.

"There is probable cause to believe materials seized from Jefferson's office will contain evidence of serious crimes," McLeese said.

Hogan said he would rule on the request in coming weeks.

CNN's Andrea Koppel and Deidre Walsh contributed to this report.

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