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Tuesday, May 23, 2006 

For Democrats, a Scandal of Their Own

WASHINGTON, May 22 — Democrats' plans to make Republican corruption a theme of their election strategy this year have been complicated by accusations of wrongdoing in their own ranks, leading the party to try on Monday to blunt the political effects of the unfolding case against Representative William J. Jefferson.

Democratic leaders sought to distance the party from Mr. Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat who has been accused by the Federal Bureau of Investigation of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. In doing that, the leaders tried to draw a distinction between the accusations against him and what they said was a much broader pattern among Republicans of trading legislative influence for campaign donations, trips and other perks.

Mr. Jefferson appeared on Capitol Hill to deny any wrongdoing. Facing a bank of television cameras down the hall from his Congressional office, which was raided by federal agents on Saturday night, Mr. Jefferson said that he would not resign and that he expected to be cleared.

In court documents made public on Sunday, the F.B.I. said Mr. Jefferson had taken bribes to help a small technology company win federal contracts and to help it with business deals in Africa. The F.B.I. said he had concealed $90,000 from the scheme in the freezer of his home in Washington.

"There are two sides to every story," Mr. Jefferson said, without providing any details.

For all the intense partisanship that has surrounded the wave of legal and ethical cases on Capitol Hill, the Jefferson case brought some Democrats and Republicans together on one point: that the all-night search conducted by the F.B.I. raised questions about whether the executive branch had violated the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers by carrying out a raid on the official office of a member of Congress.

Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, said Monday that he had concerns about the constitutionality of the search and was seeking a legal opinion. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader in the House, said that "Justice Department investigations must be conducted in accordance with constitutional protections and historical precedent." Some House Republicans said they were also disturbed by the way the search was handled.

"I think it is really outrageous," said Representative David Dreier, the California Republican who is chairman of the Rules Committee.

The constitutional question aside, some Democrats acknowledged that the headline-grabbing case involving a colleague they know as Jeff had the potential to dilute one of their core political arguments against the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

No prominent Republican spoke out against Mr. Jefferson on Monday. But Democrats harbored no hope that Mr. Jefferson would not become part of a Republican counterattack against Democratic efforts to portray the Republicans as a party that had lost its ethical bearings.

"There is no doubt that the charges, the conduct of any Democrat, is going to be raised by those who question our attacks on a culture of corruption as a way to divert attention from that," said Representative Lloyd Doggett, Democrat of Texas and a vocal critic of Representative Tom DeLay, the former majority leader.

Mr. DeLay stepped down from his leadership post and announced he would leave Congress after he was indicted in Texas on charges that he had used campaign contributions illegally and came under partisan fire for his ties to Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who has pleaded guilty in a wide-ranging public corruption inquiry.

Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Mr. Jefferson's situation was that of an individual who had yet to be charged formally. The Democratic case against Republicans, he suggested, went to a pattern of trading influence for personal gain within an incestuous world of revolving-door staff members, lobbyists and campaign fund-raisers that Republicans helped establish.

"They are different scales," Mr. Emanuel said. "One is a party outlook and operation; the other is an individual's action. They have institutional corruption."

Even before the case against Mr. Jefferson became public, Republicans were pointing to ethical questions about the activities of another Democrat, Representative Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, who is under F.B.I. scrutiny for his personal finances and his efforts to steer millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations that he helped control.

On Monday, Democratic leaders were considering steps to isolate Mr. Jefferson, including the possibility of removing him from his seat on the Ways and Means Committee. Ms. Pelosi had already endorsed the idea of an ethics inquiry against Mr. Jefferson, and one was initiated last week.

Mr. Jefferson said he intended to "continue to represent the people who have sent me here to try to respond to their needs and their issues." He said he expected to seek re-election, though potential challengers were emerging in New Orleans.

Mr. Jefferson also called the search, evidently the first ever executed at an official Congressional office, an intrusion into the separation of powers. But Ms. Pelosi suggested the lawmaker bore some responsibility.

"Members of Congress must obey the law and cooperate fully with any criminal investigation," Ms. Pelosi said in a statement. "If they don't, they will be held accountable."

Late Monday evening, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert issued a statement highly critical of the search.

"Insofar as I am aware, since the founding of our Republic 219 years ago, the Justice Department has never found it necessary to do what it did Saturday night, crossing this separation of powers line, in order to successfully prosecute corruption by members of Congress," Mr. Hastert said, promising to seek a means to restore "the delicate balance of power."

Donald Ritchie, a historian with the Senate, said his office could find no record of a similar search, though the homes and business offices of lawmakers had been searched in the past.

At an unrelated news conference, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales called the search "unusual steps that were taken in response to an unusual set of circumstances; I'll just say that."

In their affidavit, federal prosecutors said they had adopted special procedures in the raid to minimize the likelihood that any politically sensitive materials unrelated to the inquiry would be seized in paper form or from office computers.

Lawmakers under federal investigation have in the past raised their special status under the Constitution in an effort to thwart charges with mixed results, with prosecutors sometimes narrowing the case in response, though the Supreme Court has also refused to consider such claims.

In 2002, Mr. Jefferson sought to join the House leadership by becoming the chairman of the Democratic campaign committee, citing his fund-raising record. But Ms. Pelosi chose her fellow Californian, Representative Bob Matsui, who died in January 2005, and her relationship with Mr. Jefferson has been somewhat strained since.

Mr. Jefferson's problems were generating wisecracks on Capitol Hill about cold cash and freezing assets. As in the case of Randy Cunningham, a California Republican jailed after a bribery conviction this year, fellow lawmakers also expressed amazement at the purported goings-on.

"If the allegations are true," Mr. Doggett said, referring to Mr. Jefferson, "he has no place here."

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