Bill Jefferson's family may be key element in corruption trial
by Jonathan Tilove, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday June 09, 2009, 9:58 PM
WASHINGTON -- There is no doubt about what former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, considers his greatest accomplishment: his five daughters and their academic achievements.
"The most important thing in life is for your children to have success; if you have that, nothing else matters, " Jefferson said in an interview last month. "The most heart-warming thing for me in my life is my children have been able to have these outstanding educations."
But even as Jefferson was joined by his wife and five daughters Tuesday at the opening day of jury selection for his corruption trial at the federal District Court in Alexandria, Va., prosecutors released a 152-page list of trial exhibits that is dotted with the names of his daughters and the elite colleges and universities they attended.
Nothing in the court document suggests that Jefferson's daughters were aware of or complicit in the crimes the government alleges he committed, only that the former congressman's children, and the very expensive private schools they attended, were the beneficiaries of what the government says were bribes paid to ANJ Group -- a Jefferson family enterprise -- in exchange for the influential lawmaker's help in securing contracts for American companies in western Africa.
The prosecution's contention that Jefferson solicited bribes to help pay his daughters' tuition or other expenses at Harvard, Brown and Boston universities and to help provide for them would seem to provide a motive and a measure of poignancy to the proceedings at the Virginia courthouse.
"Every last one of them is well-educated in their fields, " the Rev. Samson "Skip" Alexander said last month before a tribute to Jefferson in New Orleans by supporters. "It's a tragedy, " Alexander said, noting how such an accomplished family -- "Are there five sisters anywhere with better academic credentials?" -- now finds itself shadowed by this trial. "It's not a black tragedy, " said Samson. "It's an American tragedy."
Tuition talk on tape
The prosecution's case will depend heavily on hours of secretly recorded tapes of Jefferson talking to Lori Mody, a Virginia businesswoman who went to the FBI with her suspicions about what Jefferson was doing, and ended up wearing a wire.
In the transcript of a conversation taped June 17, 2005, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, Jefferson explained to Mody how ANJ was named for his wife and children.
The "A, " he explained, stood for Andrea, his wife, and daughter Akilah. The "N" was for his daughter Nailah. And the "J" was for his three eldest daughters: Jamila, Jalila and Jelani.
"Before I started paying for tuition, I wasn't poor, " Jefferson told Mody. "But now I'm kind of poor."
"Now it'll be flowing in, " Mody said.
Jamila Jefferson-Jones, Jalila Jefferson-Bullock and Jelani Jefferson Exum are all graduates of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, where their father, who grew up in Lake Providence, one of the poorest patches in America, received his law degree.
Jefferson's fourth daughter, Nailah Jefferson, a documentary filmmaker, is a graduate of Boston University and Emerson College. His fifth daughter, Akilah Jefferson, is a graduate of Brown University and now a student at Tulane University School of Medicine.
"It's a true blessing to have children with talent who stuck with it all the way through, and didn't compete with each other but really encouraged each other, " Jefferson said last month, noting that he was especially proud that his daughters were not just smart but "nice and smart."
"There's no gloating, " he said. "They kept their humility."
Big checks to colleges
The exhibit list is studded with checks Jefferson and his wife, or ANJ, wrote to their children and to the schools they attended.
There are payments to Brown of $2,942.90 on July 31, 2001, $4,287.72 on Oct. 18, 2001, and $19,518 on Aug. 2, 2002. There are payments to Harvard of $6,500 on June 18, 2001, of $3,504.75 on July 31, 2001, and, on May 17, 2004, a check for $23,645.78 from ANG to Jelani Jefferson Exum, who in turn wrote a check to Harvard for $24,830.78. And there is a $2,402 check from ANJ to Boston University on Oct. 15, 2001, and another $11,145 check from William and Andrea Jefferson to Boston University on June 21, 2002.
Along the way, there are checks of varying amounts for each of the daughters, and $33,000 in checks in 2002 and 2003 to the campaign of Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, a former state representative.
Arriving at the courthouse Tuesday, Jefferson described himself as "blessed" to have his wife and daughters by his side as he stands trial. In his 2007 book, "Dying Is the Easy Part, " Jefferson presents himself as a doting, devoted and demanding father.
In an e-mail a couple of weeks before the trial, the eldest, Jamila Jefferson-Jones, wrote, "We do not currently have a family spokesperson, nor do we anticipate having one in the future."
But, asked to square the father depicted in "Dying Is the Easy Part" with the man described by prosecutors, Jefferson-Jones replied simply: "The man described in the Government's indictment does not exist."
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Jonathan Tilove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7827.