May 30, 2006 | National Review Online

Questions for the House

Admirers of the House Republicans can only sit in stunned amazement watching what is an increasingly disastrous spectacle over the FBI's execution of a search warrant on the congressional office of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D., La.).

This now includes not only an overwrought hearing convened Tuesday by House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R., Wi.), but ominous bombast at that hearing from Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Ca.), who thought it appropriate to remind everyone that the Constitution empowers the House of Representatives to impeach the attorney general.

This is crazy talk. But it does bring up a salient point: The House also has the power to impeach Rep. Jefferson.

Issa evidently thought it was worth broaching the I-word in connection with an attorney general who, after being stonewalled for ten months on lawful grand-jury subpoenas (which Congress has long known about), finally went to a federal judge to seek court authorization for a search—only after the Justice department designed an elaborate screening procedure in deference to speech-and-debate concerns.

For that we should talk about impeachment … but not for Jefferson?

Well, let's look at the record on that one.

The videotaped $100,000 bribery happened in July 2005—fully ten months ago.

Of that cash, $90,000 was seized from Jefferson's freezer on August 3, 2005. (And as my Corner post last night noted, the Justice department revealed on Tuesday that there is evidence Jefferson tried to obstruct that search).

On the same day, August 3, 2005, the Justice Department served a grand-jury subpoena on Jefferson. It is reasonable to infer, since Justice got the search warrant for the residence at the same time, that Justice appreciated the significant difference between searching a congressman's home and searching his congressional office—even though, in truth, a legitimate speech-and-debate claim could apply to either equally. Plainly, out of deference to Congress, Justice proceeded by subpoena as to evidentiary items in Jefferson's office in hopes that it would be unnecessary to take the more provocative step of seeking a judicial search warrant.

Other subpoenas apparently followed in the late summer of 2005, to both Jefferson and his chief of staff. Speaker Hastert, according to a memorandum filed by the Justice department on Tuesday, was notified about the subpoenas by Jefferson on September 15, 2005, and again on November 18, 2005. The Justice department has been trying to get production on those subpoenas ever since—to no avail.

Meanwhile, in January 2006—five months ago—Brent Pfeffer, once a congressional aide of Jefferson's, publicly pled guilty in federal court to bribing and conspiring to bribe Jefferson. While this does not seem to have stirred Congress, a federal judge just last week thought it was sufficiently serious to merit a sentence of eight years in federal prison.

And just a few weeks ago, in early May, Vernon Jackson, the president and CEO of the company at the heart of the bribery scheme, pled guilty to paying Jefferson $400,000 in bribes. He has yet to be sentenced (and, like Pfeffer, is said to be cooperating in the investigation).

Notwithstanding all of this, for month after month, as Jefferson day-after-day participated in the business of the American people, there is no indication that Congress itself ever did anything—anything—to address this blight. With its public reputation for institutional integrity at stake, the same guys now talking about impeaching the attorney general or hauling him and the FBI director up to the Hill to answer tough questions did absolutely nothing about the blatant evidence of radioactive corruption in their midst.

Part of the idea behind giving Congress speech-and-debate protection from the executive branch and the courts is the notion—perhaps now a quaint notion—that Congress will be motivated, literally, to keep its own house in order.

So what has congressional leadership done lo these ten months—while all the searches and subpoenas and guilty pleas ensued—to deal with Jefferson? The leaders have had a lot to say about separation of powers since the office search. But separation of powers is about being trusted to keep your own side of the street clean. What have they done about that?

And if the lame answer to that question is that their hands are tied because Jefferson hasn't been convicted of anything yet and is therefore presumed innocent, why on earth are the leaders attacking the only people in this equation who are actually trying to do something about a public embarrassment that disgraces their institution?

— Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.