For someone who’s tracked money in congressional politics for nearly 20 years, the prospect of witnessing bribery proceedings against two members of Congress within a six-month period – one Republican and one Democrat – is nothing short of breathtaking.
True, I didn’t come on the scene until after the Abscam scandal had come and gone, producing bribery convictions in 1980 for one senator and five congressman. But out-and-out bribery cases really don’t happen that often on Capitol Hill – which is why this past weekend’s revelations about New Orleans Democratic Congressman William Jefferson wound up on page one of newspapers across the country.
It also gave a bipartisan slant to this year’s bribery scorecard. Last November, California Republican Duke Cunningham pled guilty of accepting some $2.4 million in bribes. He resigned his seat the same day.
Yes, I know there’s been no trial yet in the Jefferson case. Sunday’s revelations were preliminaries, which the congressman’s lawyer said show only one side of the story. But it’s an awfully convincing side when they’ve got Jefferson’s own incriminating words on tape, plus $90,000 of hundred dollar bills wrapped in aluminum foil and stashed in his home freezer.
Cynics would say no one should be shocked, and a fairly large slice of the American public likely thinks all politicians are crooks. But they’re not – at least in the legal sense – and that’s why the bread and butter of my own research has always focused on the “soft corruption” of doing favors for big contributors.
Under the law, contributions to a congressman’s political campaign are perfectly legal, no matter what legislative favors are performed. The same money given to a congressman directly is a bribe, if a quid pro quo can be shown.
So far Jefferson has resisted all pressures to admit any wrongdoing or resign his seat. He said earlier this month he would continue his campaign for reelection even if he were indicted. But that was before this weekend’s revelations. We’ll see what happens next.
If nothing else, the disclosure about the freeze-wrapped hundred dollar bills adds a colorful new image to a saying I’ve been repeating for years: the quickest way to a politician’s heart is through cold, hard cash.