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Amid Katrina Chaos, Congressman Used National Guard to Visit Home
Two Heavy Trucks, Helicopter Were Involved in Lawmaker's Trip at Height of Crisis
By JAKE TAPPER
Sep. 13, 2005 - Amid the chaos and confusion that engulfed New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck, a local congressman used National Guard troops to check on his property and rescue his personal belongings -- even while New Orleans residents were trying to get rescued from rooftops, ABC News has learned.
On Friday, Sept. 2 -- five days after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast -- Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who represents New Orleans and is a senior member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, was allowed through the military blockades set up around the city to reach the Superdome, where thousands of evacuees had been taken.
Military sources tells ABC News that Jefferson, an eight-term Democratic congressman, asked the National Guard that night to take him on a tour of the flooded portions of his congressional district. A 5-ton military truck and a half dozen military police were dispatched.
Lt. Col. Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard tells ABC News that during the tour, Jefferson asked that the truck take him to his home on Marengo Street, in the affluent uptown neighborhood in his congressional district. According to Schneider, this was not part of Jefferson's initial request.
Jefferson defended the expedition, saying he set out to see how residents were coping at the Superdome and in his neighborhood. He also insisted that he did not ask the National Guard to transport him.
"I did not seek the use of military assets to help me get around my city," Jefferson told ABC News. "There was shooting going on. There was sniping going on. They thought I should be escorted by some military guards, both to the convention center the Superdome and uptown."
The water reached to the third step of Jefferson's house, a military source familiar with the incident told ABC News, and the vehicle pulled up onto Jefferson's front lawn so he wouldn't have to walk in the water. Jefferson went into the house alone, the source says, while the soldiers waited on the porch for about an hour.
Finally, according to the source, Jefferson emerged with a laptop computer, three suitcases, and a box about the size of a small refrigerator, which the enlisted men loaded up into the truck.
Two weeks later, the vehicle's tire tracks were still visible on the lawn.
"I don't think there is any explanation for an elected official using resources for their own personal use, when those resources should be doing search and rescue or they should be helping with law enforcement in the city," said Jerry Hauer, a homeland security expert and ABC News consultant.
Jefferson said the trip was entirely appropriate. It took only a few minutes to retrieve his belongings, he said, and the truck stayed at his house for an hour in part to assist neighbors.
"This wasn't about me going to my house. It was about me going to my district," he said.
Two Heavy Trucks and Helicopter Involved
The Louisiana National Guard tells ABC News the truck became stuck as it waited for Jefferson to retrieve his belongings.
The soldiers signaled to helicopters in the air for aid. Military sources say a Coast Guard helicopter pilot saw the signal and flew to Jefferson's home. The chopper was already carrying four rescued New Orleans residents at the time.
A rescue diver descended from the helicopter, but the congressman decided against going up in the helicopter, sources say. The pilot sent the diver down again, but Jefferson again declined to go up the helicopter.
After spending approximately 45 minutes with Jefferson, the helicopter went on to rescue three additional New Orleans residents before it ran low on fuel and was forced to end its mission.
"Forty-five minutes can be an eternity to somebody that is drowning, to somebody that is sitting in a roof, and it needs to be used its primary purpose during an emergency," said Hauer.
Coast Guard Commander Brendan McPherson told ABC News, "We did have an aircraft that responded to a signal of distress where the congressman was located. The congressman did decline rescue at the time so the helicopter picked up three other people.
"I can't comment on why the congressman decided not to go in the aircraft," McPherson said. "Did it take a little more time to send the rescue swimmer back a second time? Yes … You'd have to ask the congressman if it was a waste of time or not."
The Louisiana National Guard then sent a second 5-ton truck to rescue the first truck, and Jefferson and his personal items were returned to the Superdome.
Schneider said he could not comment on whether the excursion was appropriate. "We're in no position to comment on an order given to a soldier. You're not going to get a statement from the Louisiana National Guard saying whether it was right or wrong. That was the mission we were assigned."
Jefferson insisted the expedition did not distract from rescue efforts.
"They actually picked up a lot of people while we were there," he said. "The young soldier said, 'It's a good thing we came up here because a lot of people would not have been rescued had we not been in the neighborhood.'"
Jefferson's Homes Searched in Unrelated Investigation
In an unrelated matter, authorities have recently searched Jefferson's property as part of a federal investigation into the finances of a high-tech firm. Last month FBI officials raided Jefferson's house as well as his home in Washington, D.C., his car and his accountant's house.
Jefferson has not commented on that matter, except to say he is cooperating with the investigation. But he has emerged as a major voice in the post-Katrina political debate.
"The levee system that had protected New Orleans for hundreds of years had failed," he said on the House floor on Sept. 7. "Our city was inundated, 80 percent of it, with deadly water. Thousands of lives were lost, many drowned, trapped in their homes. Others were lost trying to escape the fury."
Last week, Jefferson set up a special trust fund for contributions to his legal defense in light of the FBI investigation. A senior federal law enforcement source tells ABC News that investigators are interested in learning if Jefferson moved any materials relevant to the investigation. Jefferson says he did not.
ABC News' Sarah H. Rosenberg, Chris Isham and Ted Gerstein contributed to this report.
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