It seemed more befitting an episode of “The Sopranos” than a page from congressional history: $90,000 in allegedly ill-gotten $100 bills, wrapped in aluminum foil, stuffed in the freezer of the gentleman from Louisiana.
The idea that a member of Congress may have been caught in a bribery scandal is certainly nothing new. Lawmakers of old were known to walk the marbled halls, their briefcases bulging with cash.
Even the amount isn’t particularly extraordinary. After all, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the disgraced former Republican representative from Rancho Santa Fe, recently was convicted of accepting almost 27 times as much in illegal gifts and graft.
But what stands out about the contents of the freezer belonging to Democratic Rep. William J. Jefferson, as described in an FBI affidavit released Sunday, is the old-style simplicity of what investigators found: bundles of C-notes, wrapped tightly like leftover lasagna.
“Why the freezer? Why not the mattress?” asked Lara Brown, a political scientist at Cal State Channel Islands, who has studied 30 years’ worth of modern House ethics scandals. She noted that 2006 was yielding a “bumper crop” of congressional embarrassments.
The fallout from the latest alleged wrongdoing could be politically costly -- one more thing to cement voters’ low opinion of Congress in an election year.
Democrats have been using the ethics storm swirling around the Republican Party as election-year fodder: Cunningham is now serving eight years for bribery and tax evasion. And the once-powerful and well-connected GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff has pleaded guilty to defrauding clients and conspiring to bribe lawmakers in one of the most sweeping political scandals of modern times.
But the Democrats have fallen upon troubles of their own. Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia resigned from the House Ethics Committee when the FBI began looking into his personal finances; and Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney of Georgia embarrassed her party by poking a Capitol Police officer at a security checkpoint.
Jefferson is the latest to join the pack of beleaguered lawmakers. According to an 83-page affidavit released Sunday, he offered to help a northern Virginia businesswoman win contracts to install telephone and Internet contracts in Nigeria and Ghana in exchange for a 30% kickback.
The businesswoman allegedly was cooperating with the FBI, which caught on tape a conversation in which Jefferson instructed her to deliver cash, the affidavit said. A few days later, agents searched the lawmaker’s northeast Washington home and opened the freezer.
Jefferson’s troubles are “a throwback to the kind of corruption one would have expected in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist and author of “Feeding Frenzy,” a book on the political implications of scandal.
“He has made it much more difficult for Democrats to sell the ‘culture of corruption’ argument as just being a Republican phenomenon.” During a Capitol news conference Monday, Jefferson denied wrongdoing but declined to discuss the contents of his freezer on the advice of his attorneys.
“I do want to say to you, however, that there are two sides to every story,” he said. “There are certainly two sides to this story.”
Of all the peculiar lawmaker conduct to date, Jefferson and Cunningham are certainly in competition for most colorful. Cunningham filled his mansion with antiques, showered his wife with jewelry, took advantage of sweetheart real estate deals and hooked himself up with a yacht and a Rolls-Royce.
But Jefferson had the tin-foiled cash, which even congressional historians say compares to nothing they’ve ever known.
“I don’t remember anything along the lines of money in the freezer,” said Don Ritchie, a Senate historian. “We’ve been calling them ‘frozen assets’ around here.”
The other historic first to come from the Jefferson investigation is the FBI’s weekend search of his congressional office. Lawmakers’ dwellings have been searched before, but never the sacrosanct Capitol Hill offices, prompting suggestions that a violation of separation of powers had taken place.
Both House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) issued similar statements Monday.
“The principles of separation of powers, the independence of the legislative branch, and the protections afforded by the ‘speech or debate’ clause of the Constitution must be respected in order to prevent overreaching and abuse of power by the executive branch,” Hastert said.
Pelosi noted that “Justice Department investigations must be conducted in accordance with constitutional protections and historical precedent so that our government’s system of checks and balances are not undermined.”
Asked Monday about the extraordinary action, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales would say only that “these were unusual steps that were taken in response to an unusual set of circumstances.”