This must be the week for legal extravaganzas. The most obvious, of course, is the Enron trial. The conviction of Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling is extraordinarily satisfying; as a colleague of mine said on a conference call yesterday morning, "Maybe there is justice after all." From what I've read about the trial, the worst move either man made was to take the stand in his own defense. I've never believed, on the face of it, that either man could have gotten where he was and still be so stupid as not to realize what was going on; and from first hand observation of the two on the witness stand, evidently neither could the jury.
But if I'd been on the jury, one remark of Mr. Lay's would really have stung. This jury was middle America doing its civic duty: a school principal, a dairy farmer, a personnel manager, a dental hygienist. These were people whose entire net worths were less than Ken Lay's debts. And to this audience he had the gall to complain that "It was difficult to turn off that lifestyle like a spigot."
On balance, the jury decided that if they could be responsible to their employers, and keep their jobs and their families going (at night after the trial) for four months, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling ought to have been able to be responsible to their employees and shareholders. And I think that says it all.
And then we have legal extravaganza Numero Two-O (to quote the inimitable Molly Ivins), the honorable (?) representative William Jefferson, D-La., whose House office the FBI searched last week for evidence of bribery. Mr. Jefferson, as is his right, insists that he is innocent; but let's keep in mind, folks, this wasn't one of those NSA warrantless wiretaps. The FBI had gone to court with probable cause, and they had a warrant. Moreover, they have a videotape of Mr. Jefferson accepting $100,000 in cash from an FBI informant (who was also wired for sound), and they found $90,000 in cash in Mr. Jefferson's home freezer, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "cold cash". (I couldn't resist.) Unless you can think of a rational reason why someone would store that much loose money in a freezer, I think Mr. Jefferson has some explaining to do. He claims there are "two sides to this story", but he doesn't seem inclined to offer his side now. I will merely comment again that the price of Congressmen seems to have gone up since the Abscam affair in the '70s; the Abscammers sold out for a mere $25 grand apiece.
Mr. Jefferson's personal rectitude, or lack of same, however, is much less astonishing than the reaction of the rest of Congress. The immediate response of certain Congressional leaders was to complain that the FBI had no right to search a Congressional office, and to demand the return of the seized documents. Nancy Pelosi gets a point for asking for Mr. Jefferson to step down from the Ways & Means Committee; she loses one for being right there with Denny Hastert asking for the documents back. This whole incident is being shouted as a threat to the separation of powers, which is the most ridiculous claim I can imagine. And Mr. Jefferson seems to think that his seat on Ways & Means is some kind of personal fief, to which he has a right, whereas in fact that membership is a privilege, which he has just jeopardized.
You know, you couldn't make this stuff up. Do the members of Congress actually think they should be immune from criminal investigation?? Or only from criminal investigation by the FBI, because it's part of the Executive Branch? I suppose the overworked Washington, D.C. police department is supposed to investigate bribery of a Congressman, in between drug busts. Many of us have been saying for months that nobody, not even the President, is above the law, and Rep. Jefferson, that includes you.
And on top of all of this, President Bush steps in and seals all the documents from everybody for 45 days, putting them in the solicitor general's custody. I didn't think he had a dog in this fight, but he says he's giving everybody "time to cool down." If it was anyone else, it would almost sound like a rational statement; but given the source, I'm suspicious of the motive. Maybe I'm being unfair.