|Friends of Bill Jefferson to hold tribute in advance of federal corruption trial|
by Jonathan Tilove, The Times-Picayune
Thursday May 14, 2009, 7:36 AM
WASHINGTON -- Friends and supporters of former Rep. William Jefferson will gather Thursday night to offer praise and solace in the days before his federal corruption trial begins.
"We're celebrating his legacy and longevity of service, " said the Rev. Tom Watson, who will be hosting the 7 p.m. gathering at his ministries' fellowship hall on St. Charles Avenue.
Watson said the event is intended to "show some love, show some sensitivity with what he's dealing with right now."
That would be a 16-count federal indictment that accuses Jefferson of funneling bribes to family-owned businesses in exchange for helping companies get business deals in western Africa. The former nine-term congressman is scheduled to stand trial June 2 in federal court in Alexandria, Va.
The U.S. Supreme Court will meet today to decide whether it will hear his appeal seeking to throw out the bribery counts that are the crux of the case against him. The decision, which will not affect the start of the trial, will be announced Monday.
Event organizers for the "celebration of service".
After surviving a Democratic primary and runoff last fall, Jefferson, who was indicted in June 2007, was defeated in a hurricane-delayed general election in December by Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao.
The "celebration of service" was organized by Jefferson's longtime pastor, Bishop Paul Morton of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, and Alden McDonald, the president and CEO of Liberty Bank and Trust Co., one of the largest African-American financial institutions in the country.
The Friends of William Jefferson, which puts out a weekly newsletter online, listed nearly 100 members of the organizing committee, taken from the worlds of faith, politics, civil rights, business, labor and the arts, though not everyone on the list was aware of his inclusion.
"I hate to say it, but I know nothing about it, not one iota, " said the Rev. John Raphael of New Hope Baptist Church. "I have no problem with honoring the congressman for the service he's done, " said Raphael, but he said he has tried to steer clear of politics because of his work to stop violence, which will prevent him from attending the event tonight.
"I don't have a clue what it's about; I'm just an invited guest, " said Barry Kaufman, the local leader of the Laborers International Union, who also is listed as an organizer. But Kaufman said Jefferson was a great ally of labor in Congress, and he will be there tonight. "Of course I'm going, he's my friend, " Kaufman said.
"His friends want to stand with him and be supportive of him, " said Danny Bakewell Jr., whose family owns WBOK, a radio station that is a sounding board for sentiment in the black community in New Orleans. Bakewell said both he and his father were happy to lend their names to the event.
"It's important to remember that people are innocent in this country until proven guilty, " Bakewell said.
Debated on the airwaves
Jefferson has promised that when he has his day in court, he will offer an honorable explanation for his actions, including the $90,000 the FBI found in his freezer when they raided his Washington, D.C., home in 2005.
"I'm giving him my support, but it's a wait-and-see type of thing, " said Reuben DeTiege, an economic development consultant.
Being "convicted in the court of public opinion, that's not fair to anyone, " DeTiege said. But if the former congressman is convicted in a court of law, that is another matter.
DeTiege was among the organizers of tonight's event who appeared on WBOK on Tuesday morning for a lively 90 minutes to promote the event and take listener calls.
"We did not go to the ballot box, " one caller said. "Because of that, this great congressman is out of office."
But the next caller said, "It's absurd to think we should have to vote for Congressman Jefferson when there is a cloud hanging over him, not just the $100,000 (the total the FBI says was given Jefferson as part of a sting), but his brother under indictment, and his sister. We would have to be totally ignorant to vote for someone with this kind of cloud over him.
"We don't bear responsibility for him being out office, " the caller said. "He did that to himself."
"No one in this room said Congressman Jefferson is innocent of all charges, " replied Eugene Green, a former Jefferson chief of staff and campaign manager who was in the WBOK studio. "What we have said is let the justice system proceed, allow the decision to be made by a jury of his peers, not by the media and not by another political party."
Samson "Skip" Alexander, 80, the associate pastor of Fifth African Baptist Church and a mainstay of the civil rights movement in the city, was also in the radio studio. In an interview, Alexander said that in trying to broker deals for American companies in Africa, Jefferson may have engaged in conduct that he might have known "may be not well looked upon."
But Alexander said there is no doubt that, from his time as a student leader at Southern University, Jefferson has been a trailblazing black leader in Louisiana.
"He wasn't a holler guy; he didn't like to be seen, he didn't like to take the credit, " Alexander said. But "he has stirred the imagination and taken his place with the all-time greats."
Alexander believes the political climate has changed since Jefferson's indictment.
"Had nothing happened differently in national politics I would say, well it looks pretty dim, but with Barack being elected, the environment has changed, " said Alexander, adding that after a year in which so much American wealth was lost to the avarice of Wall Street, "it makes Jefferson look like a little shrimp."
As for Jefferson, the former congressman said: "I'm very pleased and very grateful that people are taking the time to give me support at this moment. These are the people I worked with most closely and I was most proud to say I represented."
And of his role this evening, "I'm going to mostly take it in, I suppose, " he said. "I'll say 'thank you.' I don't have a big oration planned."
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Jonathan Tilove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7827.