EDITORIAL: A chilling raid

The unprecedented FBI raid on Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) congressional office sends a chilling message to Congress and to African American elected officials.

In the twilight hours of May 20, 15 FBI agents spent 24 hours searching the congressman’s office. Jefferson has been under investigation since August on bribery allegations, and the FBI found $90,000 in his home freezer. But he has not been indicted, denies any wrongdoing and refuses to step down. No one can excuse corruption, but there is much more to this raid. Racism, trampling constitutional separation of powers, and ultra-right desperation all loom large.

The battle for control of Congress is raging. The president’s approval rating is in the basement. Republicans have been wounded by their widening “culture of corruption” that has put former Rep. Duke Cunningham in jail while Rep. Tom DeLay, under indictment for money laundering, is resigning. Then there is Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio who is under investigation in connection to the crimes committed by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Other GOP congressmen may be next. Why didn’t the FBI raid any of those congressmen’s offices?

One obvious difference: Jefferson is Black. There has been a long-standing FBI pattern of setting up and targeting Black officials. Remember the bug in Philadelphia Mayor John Street’s office?

Scholars say such a raid on a congressperson’s office is a first in U.S. history. The FBI is under the Justice Department, which is part of the executive branch of government, controlled by the president. Congress is a co-equal in governing and the Constitution protects its members from harassment by the executive branch. That’s what protects us from a presidential dictatorship. Correctly, House leaders of both parties denounced the raid as violating this essential constitutional protection. They demanded the return of all papers seized.

If indicted, Rep. Jefferson will have his day in court and probably resign. Jefferson represents Louisiana’s 2nd district, which includes New Orleans, where people desperately need outstanding representation and advocacy. Yet, Jefferson is entitled to the same due process in investigations and judicial treatment as any other member of Congress. And constitutional separation of powers must be protected.