The instant the news broke that FBI agents raided the office of Black U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-La. — and announced that they had a videotape of him allegedly stuffing bribe money into a freezer — some Blacks loudly grumbled that Jefferson was the victim of a racial double standard.
They noted that the FBI did not ransack the offices of Rep. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, also under legal fire, or convicted Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif. Federal prosecutors and FBI agents, they added, generally issue subpoenas or informally request that lawmakers under investigation turn over documents or other relevant materials.
But the Jefferson case is special. He has been on the legal hot seat for many months as the target of an ongoing criminal investigation and a House ethics probe. He left a bitter taste in the mouths of many New Orleans residents during the Katrina debacle when he allegedly commandeered a National Guard truck to check on his personal property and save personal belongings at the same moment nearby residents needed rescue from possible drowning.
The case is also special because Jefferson is Black, but for a different reason than some Blacks claim. Though he mercifully has not cried "racism," many other Black politicians do when they're indicted, jailed, accused of financial improprieties or ethics violations or, as in the case of Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who took a swing at a Capitol police officer.
When many Black politicians are busted, they wail that they should not be held to a higher standard of accountability than White officials who get caught with their hand in the campaign or corporate cookie jar.
Yet they should be held to that higher standard. Their mostly Black constituents view them not as politicians, but as leaders and advocates. They look to them to represent their interests and to confront institutional power. Any legal smear on them soils their names. This makes it much harder for Blacks to have and retain confidence in them.
This diminishes their political power and influence and creates distrust and dissension among Black voters. This in turn makes it that much more difficult for Blacks to generate any enthusiasm to vote or get involved in community improvement actions.
It's not just scandal that hurts Black officials, it's the race card that hurts, too. In far too many cases, Blacks accused of wrongdoing reflexively dodge and muddy the charges against them by screaming racism. They strongly imply that racist prosecutors unfairly target them. They then promptly wrap themselves in the martyr's cloak of persecuted civil rights fighters.
During the 1990s, former Illinois Rep. Mel Reynolds screamed racism when he was indicted, tried and convicted of sexual assault charges. Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Berry screamed racism when he was indicted, tried and convicted on a drug charge. California Rep. Walter Tucker, convicted of bribery charges, loudly shouted racism.
Even though their knee-jerk cries of White persecution did not fly, they played the odds and reminded Blacks that President Reagan's Justice Department initiated dozens of corruption probes against Black elected officials during the 1980s. Given the Reagan administration's perceived indifference to civil rights and social programs, it was easy for many Blacks to believe that some of these cases walked the thin line between legitimate concern for bagging lawbreakers and racially motivated political harassment.
Black officials such as Jefferson will continue to be keenly watched by state and federal prosecutors for any hint of impropriety. It's the price that they must pay to be regarded as credible and honorable Black leaders and advocates.
At his press conference, Jefferson said that he would not resign. He's up for re-election this year, and even if by some miracle he escapes prosecution, the voters hopefully will show good sense and end his tenure.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.BlackNews.com.