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The Mighty Fallen 

As the old blues song goes, nobody knows you when you're down and out. That may become a familiar refrain for Congressman Bill Jefferson of New Orleans pretty soon.

Jefferson, known to his friends as "Jeff" and to his critics as "Dollar Bill," is in the crosshairs of federal investigators for his part in an alleged scheme to pay bribes to an African vice president and to receive payoffs -- in the form of cash as well as stock -- for helping a high-tech company do business in Nigeria.

So far, Jefferson has seen his homes and offices raided by federal agents, his computer hard drive (and those of his staff) seized, $90,000 in marked $100 bills removed from his family freezer, box loads of papers confiscated from his home and office, his campaign accountant's office raided, two former associates plead guilty to federal crimes and agree to cooperate with the feds (presumably against him), and his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee taken away from him ... at the urging of his fellow Democrats in Congress, who now see him as a liability going into the fall elections.

Through it all, Jefferson has managed to keep his chin up, saying he intends to seek re-election when qualifying opens Aug. 9-11 and promising constituents and the media an "honorable explanation" to all this. All his life, Jefferson has had to overcome obstacles, but it's difficult to imagine any that were stacked up as thick or as high as these.

Last week brought more bad news. The federal judge who signed the order authorizing the controversial May 20 raid on Jefferson's Capitol Hill office ruled that his decision to sign the order was, in fact, quite proper. Attorneys for Jefferson as well as a bipartisan gaggle of congresspersons had claimed that the raid violated several sacrosanct constitutional tenets, including the Speech and Debate Clause and the separation of powers provisions. The judge -- and just about everyone else -- disagreed.

In rendering his ruling, the judge held that Jefferson was not being punished or gagged for anything he said or might say during congressional debates, nor did the separation of powers clause shield any member of any branch of government from criminal investigation. In fact, the judge noted, the raid in some ways affirmed the separation of powers because it showed how one branch can be investigated when the other two sign off on the warrant, as was done in this case. Worst of all, the judge refused to delay the effect of his ruling, and presumably the feds are hard at work unsealing and digesting what was removed from the congressman's office in May.

All that high-minded legal stuff was just the beginning of Jefferson's bad week, however. Late Tuesday, Gov. Kathleen Blanco whipped out her veto pen and went to work on the $26.7 billion state operating budget for the current fiscal year, and lo and behold she nipped $450,000 from a pair of local nonprofits with ties to Jefferson and one of his local protŽgŽs, former New Orleans Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt.

Blanco cut $300,000 that had mysteriously been earmarked for Care Unlimited and another $150,000 that had been allotted to Orleans Metropolitan Housing and Community Development, Inc. Both of those groups are in the spotlight nowadays after The Times-Picayune revealed that Gill Pratt steered taxpayer dollars and gave two cars to each of those organizations just before losing her seat on the City Council. Gill Pratt then went to work for Care Unlimited -- and wound up driving one of the cars she allocated to that organization.

I mention that the earmarked state funds for those two groups is shrouded in mystery because no one in the state budget office seems to know how they made their way into the appropriations bill. Jefferson's daughter is a state representative, so that may offer a clue, huh?

Meanwhile, Blanco, citing "conflicting information as to the exact nature of the services provided" by Care Unlimited, sliced the group's $300,000 dole. At the same time, noting that Orleans Metropolitan Housing spends most of its budget on salaries and operations, not "the programmatic focus of the organization" (read: a sinecure for Jefferson's brother Mose and not much help to the community), Blanco lopped of that organization's $150,000 slice of the state pie.

Those may have been the unkindest cuts of all, as The Governess chopped only seven items in all -- for a grand total of only $3 million -- from the otherwise pork-engorged state budget. Were Jefferson not already on the ropes politically and constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons, it's hard to imagine a fellow Democrat like Blanco whacking his pet projects.

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle.


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