November 19th, 2009 09:01 EST
Black Lawmakers In the Crosshairs
Although a House of Representatives ethics committee is known to be looking into the activities of at least 19 members of Congress, the only full-scale investigations underway are against seven Black lawmakers.
African Americans make up 15 percent of Congress but 100 percent of those subjected to a full-scale investigation, raising questions about a double-standard.
According to media accounts, House members under full investigation as of late July were Democrats Charles Rangel (N.Y.), Maxine Waters (Calif.), Bennie Thompson (Miss.), Carolyn Kilpatrick (Mich.), Donald Payne (N.J.), Laura Richardson (Calif.) and Donna Christensen (U.S. Virgin Islands).
An investigation of an eighth member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Jesse Jackson, Jr. of Illinois, has been delayed at the request of the Justice Department, which is examining Jackson`s alleged role in impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich pay-for-play corruption scheme.
Prosecutors are looking into whether Jackson or his associates tried to buy President Obama`s old senate seat. The House ethics committee inquiry is centered on whether Jackson used Washington and Chicago staff members to lobby for the seat.
Jackson and the other Black lawmakers have strongly denied breeching Congressional ethics rules. It is not unusual for inquiries to start, only to later have the subject of the investigation exonerated.
How targets are selected is being hotly debated.
Under the headline, "Racial disparity: All active ethics probes focus on black lawmakers," the political Website politico,com observed, "Not a single white lawmaker is currently subject of a full-scale ethics committee probe."
It continued, "The ethics committee declined to respond to questions about the racial disparity, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus are wary of talking about it on the record. But privately, some black members are outraged - and see in the numbers a worrisome trend in the actions of the ethics watchdogs on and off Capitol Hill."
The House ethics committee, known formally as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is made up of 10 members, five Democrats and five Republicans. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina is the only African American on the panel.
The Black members of Congress are being investigated on a variety of charges.
The personal finances of Rangel, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, are being investigated. Rangel said his son and a senior aide also have been questioned by the ethics committee.
Rangel said the committee interviewed him about a conference he attended last year with four other members of the CBC in St. Martin. Although the conference at a luxury Caribbean resort was said to have been sponsored by a nonprofit foundation, investigators say the trip was underwritten by such corporate giants as Pfizer, Citigroup and AT&T. Under House rules, private companies are prohibited from paying for congressional travel.
Rep. Waters is being investigated for arranging a meeting between the Treasury Department and the National Bankers Association, which represents Black banks. Her husband, Sidney Williams, owns stock in one of those banks, OneUnited, and served on its board until early last year.
Waters expressed confidence that she will be exonerated and said, "My longtime advocacy on behalf of women- and minority-owned institutions is well known and appreciated by these institutions, which have been historically denied access to government regulators to address their concerns."
Amid the discussion over the unfair targeting of African-American lawmakers, former Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana has been sentenced to prison. On Friday, Nov. 13, Jefferson was given a 13-year sentence following his conviction on 11 of 16 corruption charges. He was charged with soliciting bribes in schemes to help American companies consummate deals in Nigeria and Ghana in exchange for money paid to him directly and to companies controlled by his wife, their five daughters, his son-in-law and a brother.
Jefferson became the butt of late night TV jokes after an FBI raid on his Washington home in 2005 turned up $90,000 in his freezer.The money was wrapped in tin foil and placed in stacks of $10,000. It was stuffed in Pillsbury frozen pie crust and Boca meatless burger boxes and Yes! Organic Market bags.
The marked money was part of $100,000 Lori Mody, a businesswoman secretly cooperating with the FBI, gave Jefferson as they shared a four-hour, $1,023 dinner at a five-star Italian restaurant in Washington.
Ironically, despite all the jokes about "Dollar Bill," cold cash and frozen assets, Jefferson was not convicted on the charge associated with the recovered money. He was indicted for violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in connection with allegedly bribing then- Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar and other officials. According to federal prosecutors, Jefferson was supposed to give the money to Abubakar on his trip to the U.S. in 20005 but the official left before Jefferson made the transfer.
Jefferson was accused of taking about $500,000 in bribes and seeking millions more. His sentence of 13 years in prison is the longest for a member of Congress. By contrast, former Republican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California pleaded guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes, conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion. On March 3, 2006, he was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison.
Even when former members of Congress are sent to prison, there is racial disparity.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.