Former La. Congressman Convicted of Taking Bribes
By Jerry Markon and Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 5, 2009; 6:32 PM
Former Congressman William J. Jefferson was convicted of corruption charges today in a case that featured $90,000 in bribe money stuffed into his freezer and a legal battle over the raid of his Washington office that reached the highest levels of the U.S. government.
Federal jurors in Alexandria found the Louisiana Democrat guilty of using his congressional office and staff to enrich himself and his family, offering and accepting hundreds of thousands of bribes to support business ventures in seven West African nations. The eight-woman, four-man jury convicted Jefferson on 11 of 16 counts that included bribery, racketeering and money laundering.
The verdict in U.S. District Court in Alexandria culminated an investigation that alternately fascinated and horrified much of official Washington. Jefferson is a former co-chairman of congressional caucuses on Nigeria and African trade who in 1990 became the first black congressman elected in Louisiana since Reconstruction.
The low-key legislator burst into public view in 2005 when the FBI raided his Capitol Hill home and found the $90,000, wrapped in foil and stashed in Boca Burger and Pillsbury piecrust freezer boxes. Prosecutors told jurors during the seven-week trial that the money was to bribe the vice president of Nigeria to secure his help with a telecommunications venture. Defense lawyers said Jefferson had been "stupid" and shown "awful judgment" in agreeing to make the payoff, but he had not committed a crime. The money was never delivered.
Jefferson, 62, could spend the rest of his life in prison. Judge T.S. Ellis III allowed Jefferson to remain free on bond until his sentencing.
He lost his re-election bid in December after initially winning another term while under investigation.
Beyond the money in the freezer, which defense lawyers acknowledged in closing arguments made Jeffferson something of "a national joke," the case was best known for the controversial FBI raid on Jeffferson's quarters in the Rayburn House Office Building. The May 2006 seizure of his computer hard drive and office files was the first time federal agents raided a congressional office, and led House leaders to assert that the documents were privileged legislative material not subject to search.
President George W. Bush sealed the seized documents, and the dispute caused a lengthy delay in the case. Jefferson sued the Justice Department, and an appeals court ruled that he could review the documents before investigators did, to highlight those connected to legislative activity.
Jefferson was eventually indicted by a federal grand jury in June 2007, the first time a U.S. official had been charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars bribery of foreign officials. He was acquitted of that charge. Prosecutors, who presented more than 40 witnesses at the trial, told jurors the attempted bribery of the Nigerian official was part of a pattern of illicit acts in which Jefferson used his position to direct about $400,000 in bribes, relating to business ventures he helped set up in Africa, to companies he set up in family members' names.
The bribery schemes unfolded in meetings in Northern Virginia and Maryland, New York, London and Africa and included telecommunications deals in Nigeria and Ghana, oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea and waste-recycling systems in Nigeria, prosecutors said. They said Jefferson directed his aides to send letters on congressional letterhead promoting international businesses he profited from, without disclosing his financial stake.
Defense lawyers, who presented two witnesses, said the business dealings might have been unethical but were not criminal because they were not part of Jefferson's official congressional duties. They said the government had tried to stretch what amounted to congressional ethics violations into criminal acts.
Jefferson, who did not testify, is the third person convicted in the investigation. His former business associates Vernon L. Jackson and Brett Pfeffer -- a former congressional aide -- pleaded guilty in 2006 to bribery and are serving time in prison.
Staff writer Brigid Schulte contributed to this report.