|Indicted New Orleans congressman linked to Botswana diamond case|
By CAIN BURDEAU
NEW ORLEANS — Rep. William Jefferson, facing a federal trial on corruption charges, has been linked to the prosecution of a former diamond executive in Botswana, opening a new window onto the congressman's dealings.
The New Orleans Democrat and his family allegedly were the recipients of illegally funded trips to Botswana in 2001 and 2002, according to charges Botswanan prosecutors have filed against the former director of the Debswana Diamond Co. Ltd., a partnership between diamond giant De Beers SA and the Botswana government.
Jefferson has not been accused of wrongdoing in connection with his Debswana-linked trips to Botswana. But the trips shed more light on African dealings that are at the heart of the federal corruption case against him.
Calls placed to Jefferson's office were referred to his lawyers, who did not return a call seeking comment Friday. Federal prosecutors in Virginia who are prosecuting him on bribery and other charges declined to comment.
At the time of the trips, Jefferson was fighting in Congress on behalf of the Botswanan diamond industry to derail or alter pending legislation to outlaw so-called "blood diamonds," gems collected and sold by African rebel groups.
Jefferson's trips to Botswana surfaced in a high-profile case against Louis Goodwill Nchindo, former managing director of Debswana, a powerhouse company in the diamond-based economy of Botswana. The southern African nation is one of the troubled continent's most stable countries.
The case has taken on political overtones because Nchindo, 67, was a longtime friend of Botswanan President Festus Mogae. Also charged are Nchindo's 37-year-old son, Louis Garvas Nchindo, the former Debswana communications director and another associate, according to a 32-count charge sheet filed in Botswana on Dec. 20 and obtained by The Associated Press.
Prosecutors allege that the elder Nchindo illegally spent Debswana money to host Jefferson and his family and that the former diamond executive fraudulently sought to obtain public land in Botswana through his position as the head of Debswana.
The charges allege that Nchindo spent about $102,000 in Debswana funds on three Botswana trips made by Jefferson and his family in 2001 and 2002.
The Botswanan government alleges those funds were used illegally because Nchindo falsely "pretend(ed) that the said costs were expenses on an official Debswana visit by the said William Jefferson, when at all material times the accused persons knew that the said visit was a private visit" to meet with Nchindo, the charge sheet reads.
Prosecutors in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Jefferson did not report the trips to Congress, but a review of House ethics rules shows he would not have been required to report them if they were carried out for private purposes.
Jefferson has been a frequent visitor to Africa in the past decade and was warmly received at the highest echelons of African politics. Federal prosecutors in Virginia allege that he used his office to orchestrate business deals for American companies seeking to do business in Africa in exchange for bribes.
The nine-term congressman faces a Feb. 25 trial in Alexandria, Va., on 16 counts on charges of bribery, racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice. He is accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, and hiding $90,000 in bribe money in the freezer of his Washington home. Jefferson has denied the charges.
When the Jeffersons took the Debswana-funded trips, Congress was in the middle of a debate over what restrictions the United States should impose to weed out "blood diamonds" from entering the U.S. marketplace. During that period, Jefferson argued that tough restrictions on diamonds would hurt legitimate producers, such as those in Botswana.
More than 70 nations, including the U.S., now participate in a diamond certification scheme known as the Kimberley Process that was developed with the cooperation of industry officials and human-rights groups.
Associated Press Writer Sello Motseta in Gaborone, Botswana, contributed to this report