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Political Fallout from the Jefferson Bribery Probe

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

This weekend, the FBI took the unprecedented step of raiding a Congressman's Washington, D.C. office as part of a bribery investigation. Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson was the focus of the search. And while he continues to deny any wrongdoing, some of are questioning the impact of the scandal inside the Beltway and beyond.

In recent months, lawmakers on both sides of the political fence have tangled with questionable ethics violations. Pundits say it brings to mind the Abscam scandal a quarter century ago, when six House members and a Senator were arrested for accepting bribes. If recent polls are any indication, public faith in Congress is dwindling.

For more on the scandal and how it affects politics and politicians, we're joined by Lanny Davis, former special counsel to Bill Clinton. Mr. Davis is currently a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Orrick, Herrington, and Sutcliffe, a litigation practice group. He joins us via phone from the nation's capitol.

And also by phone from Denver, Colorado, state senator Peter Groff. Senator Groff heads the University of Denver Center for African American Policy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gentleman, forgive me. Something in my throat. Good to have you with us. Greatly appreciate it.

State Senator PETER GROFF (Democrat, Colorado): Thank you.

Mr. LANNY DAVIS (Partner, Orrick, Herrington, Sutcliffe): Thank you.

GORDON: Mr. Davis, let me start with you. When we take a look at scandal, is there scandal that's easier to get over than others? For instance, can you get over a sex scandal quicker than you can get over a scandal that involves money?

Mr. DAVIS: That's a great question. I think the public takes much more seriously a scandal that involves bribery and corruption than it does private indiscretions or weaknesses.

But I do want to start this opener with a reminder to your audience. I said the same thing when Tom DeLay was indicted - you know, I'm a Democrat - saying what I'm about to say.

Congressman Jefferson is a 100 percent innocent man. Let me repeat that. He's a 100 percent innocent man until he's proven guilty. He hasn't even been charged with anything yet. In fact, all we have is an FBI raid and headlines. We don't even have an indictment.

Now, when Scooter Libby was indicted, I warned everyone on CNN when I did my appearance, he is presumed innocent under our constitution. An indictment can occur when a prosecutor asks a ham sandwich to be indicted. So what troubles me is that we're back to the days of the 1950s where Joe McCarthy could accuse somebody of being a communist and they're convicted.

Right now, Congressman Jefferson has been convicted in the headlines, among the pundits, even in the framing of questions in interviews like this. He is innocent, and there's no evidence of his guilt until we see that evidence in a court room.

GORDON: And we have been saying that ever since - at least on this program - ever since the headlines hit.

Mr. DAVIS: Excellent.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, Senator Groff. When you look at Washington, D.C. -if polls are to be believed, if in fact a Mr. and Mrs. America are to be believed - many of them see D.C. as an unethical environment, a culture of corruption. How fair, if at all, do you believe this is?

State Sen. GROFF: Well, you're talking about one member who had his office raided over the weekend. Three members who have had some ethical problems, one of which ended up in prison. So, there's still over 400 plus who seem to be doing things the right way.

I think Mr. Davis has a good point. What's happened here is the headlines have driven this story, and so people generally will not read through the paper or listen to everything on the news. They hear the headline. They read the headline. And then they say, well, you have to throw all of them out, except for mine. You've got to throw all of them out, they're saying, because they're all corrupt.

So, I think the fact that the headline here is driving the story is also driving these polls that say, you know, Congress is totally corrupt.

Mr. DAVIS: Could I also remind you that my analogy, historically, is something everyone - not just civil libertarians or liberals or conservatives - should be concerned about? I was raised in the 1950s with a father who warned me that what Joe McCarthy was doing was un-American. People literally had their lives ruined because he held up a piece of paper, made an accusation, and the uncritical media published those accusations with names in newspapers.

I am telling you that post-Enron, we're back in those days. Whether it's a CEO accused of corporate fraud or Congressman Jefferson or Congressman DeLay, the accusation is a surrogate in the public mind for guilt. And everybody should be afraid of this culture. It's not the culture of corruption. It's the culture of the presumption of guilt that I'm worried about.

GORDON: Isn't it, though, the cart before the horse? Chicken before the egg, in the sense that, really, Lanny, it should be both that one should be worried about - the culture of corruption as well as indicting someone in the media?

Mr. DAVIS: As long as - I have no problem with people being concerned about what our appearances of culture and appearances of corruption - people taking campaign contributions as Congressman DeLay did and then telling lobbyists, you can't enter our offices unless you make a campaign contribution. Those are facts that we know are not in dispute. That leads to very bad appearances that Washington is for sale. And we need to take that seriously.

If the public can make the distinction between appearances that look bad and crime which can only occur after a jury of your peers finds guilt, then I would agree with your distinction. But unfortunately, if you stand on a street corner and ask 100 people, is Congressman Jefferson guilty of taking a bribe? The answer would be probably 95 percent yes, based upon media. Just as it would be that somebody is a Communist in the '50s because Joe McCarthy made the accusation.

GORDON: Peter Groff, whether we want to believe it or not, we say innocent until proven guilty in this country, but often - at least in the minds of the public - it is the other way around. You think of names that live in infamy - Gary Hart, Jim Wright, Wilbur Mills, the Abscam Scandal, Marion Berry - there are many, many others. Do these figures paint a broader brush and touch those who are innocent, and if so, what does that do to the culture?

State Sen. GROFF: Well, I think the issue is there's such a low opinion of elected officials, particularly those at the federal level. When you have one or two people who seem to make a mistake or who seem to have some type of ethical lapse, it continues to poison the process. The Gary Hart process, I know the story I know very well because I'm in Colorado and know him personally and saw what that did to his career and to those who were around him. Even those folks who didn't know what he was doing, had no idea - had worked with him in a political sense, had been tainted by this.

So I think there is a poison in the water with regard to elected officials and to how we view them because of the way these stories are being portrayed. And when you look at how Congressman Jefferson was being treated in terms of having this unprecedented raid in his office, but not having that same raid in Congressman Nay's office or Congressman DeLay's office, then you have another issue that you're dealing with.

So I think that when you look at what's going on right now, certainly it's going to weaken the already very low support that elected officials have across the country.

GORDON: Lanny Davis, how do you fix that? I mean, really, since the post-Watergate era, Americans have looked to Washington with a jaundiced eye at best.

Mr. DAVIS: Very well put, and really is traceable back to Watergate, perhaps even to the '60s where politics became personal, where people tried to destroy their enemies rather than simply disagree with them. So this is going way back, and we're paying the fruits of what is really a gotcha cycle of Democrats doing it to Republicans, Republicans doing it to Democrats.

I think the only answer is for Democrats to take a stand when it's being done to Republicans, and vice versa. What Dennis Hastert did yesterday was extremely healthy. He came to the defense of Congressman Jefferson for this Gestapo kind of Saturday night raid by the Justice Department that hadn't even indicted him. And it does raise questions of discriminatory or disparate treatment that they did it to him and not to some of the others under investigation. But that was Speaker Hastert.

I think it takes Democrats such as myself reminding all of the Democrats who are rushing to the microphones to talk about the culture of corruption that Tom DeLay has not been convicted of anything. Nor has some of the others who have come under suspicion, and we have got to stop pounding all Republicans for the culture of corruption the very same way that we said it is unfair to accuse the Clinton White House of, quote, “scandals.” When you add up White Water, Travel Office, FBI files, all of the things that filled the air waves and filled the headlines added up to exactly zero indictments. Five cabinet secretaries in the Clinton administration investigated by independent councils. Zero.

And so, if Democrats can say the same thing about Republicans being impugned because they're accused, we would probably take a good step to ending this terrible cycle of gotcha politics.

GORDON: Peter Groff, with about a minute to go, all this being said, would Washington do itself a favor by going through the Hill on both sides of the aisle with a mop and a broom and tighten itself up, clean itself up a bit?

State Sen. GROFF: Well, I certainly think they can change some of the rules and reduce some of the perks that they're receiving. We're having that same discussion in the Colorado state legislature, just had it last session. But I think it's up to, it's up to the voters. It's up to the voters to look at their individual members and say, this person is somebody who is representing our interests who is doing it the right way.

I don't think that the media or those of us who look at - to Washington and say, there's a culture of corruption. And I think Mr. Davis is absolutely correct that the Democrats are going to fall woefully short if they continue with this practice by saying, look at them. Look away from us and look at them.

I think what we saw with majority leader Frist and what the speaker did yesterday and some of the stories that we're seeing in today's paper, that this is a problem for all members of Washington to deal with. So I think Democrats have to be very careful about trying to turn the mirror away from themselves and pointing it out. But it's up to individual voters to make that determination.

GORDON: All right, gentlemen, thank you so much. Lanny Davis is former special counsel to President Bill Clinton, and Peter Groff is founder and executive director of the University of Denver's Center for African American policy. Thanks again, gentlemen.

Mr. DAVIS: Thank you.

State Sen. GROFF: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, a new listing of politicians ranks them by power in Washington, D.C., but where do black politicians fall? And Elizabeth Vargas is out on World News Tonight, but why? We'll discuss those topics on our roundtable.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.