Two Heavy Trucks, Helicopter Were Involved in Lawmaker's Trip at Height
Amid the chaos and confusion that engulfed New Orleans after Hurricane
Katrina struck, a 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.
Rep. William Jefferson visited
his New Orleans home after Hurricane Katrina with the assistance of National
On 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
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 five-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.
"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,"
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.
Two weeks later, the vehicle's tire tracks were still visible on the lawn.
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 Cmdr. 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
"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 five-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 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
"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
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.