The William Jefferson Chronicles

Jarvis DeBerry: Former Congressman William Jefferson's behavior unethical and, finally, illegal
Posted by Jarvis DeBerry, Columnist, The Times-Picayune August 06, 2009 5:58PM

Former Congressman William Jefferson's defense against 16 criminal counts was: I'm bad, but I'm not that bad. I'm unethical, but I'm not a crook.

It would have been good for Jefferson if jurors had made a distinction between his admitted ethical failings and his alleged criminality, but either would be an offense to his former constituents. He left them to conclude that the man who represented them for 18 years was either a criminal or a fraud.

Jurors in Alexandria, Va., declared him a criminal and voted to convict him on 11 of those 16 counts. He's certain to be sentenced to prison, but the amount of time won't be known until late October.

Those who had faith in Jefferson must have been hoping that he'd give them something stronger to work with, a defense that would not only declare his legal innocence but also his moral rectitude. Jefferson did, after all, promise an "honorable" explanation to the charges brought against him.

Then again, "honorable" is the word Marc Antony uses to describe the assassins who take out Caesar. It's a word with a meaning that can be quite fluid. Jefferson apparently used it to mean behavior that is unethical, inappropriate and galling.

His attorney Robert Trout told jurors, "What is appropriate, what is ethical is not the issue in this case." He acknowledged that Jefferson's actions did not always paint a "pretty picture," and he called on jurors to summon their "American values" and acquit the unethical, inappropriate former congressman who did something "stupid" of the criminal charges against him.

Assuming that Jefferson's lawyer didn't make any argument that Jefferson himself didn't endorse, will his loyal supporters continue to insist that he was an upright congressman? Will those who vowed to believe in Jefferson's innocence until he was proved guilty now concede that he wasn't the man he pretended to be?

Following his indictment in June 2007, Jefferson said, "When all the facts are understood, I trust I will be vindicated." But just as his meaning of honorable doesn't match the common definition, neither does his definition of vindication. Unless Jefferson thought calling himself greedy and unethical would serve to vindicate him.

His constituents deserved a representative opposed to the very idea of driving to a parking lot and accepting a brief case with $100,000. They deserved a representative opposed to stupid behavior, to unethical behavior, to inappropriate behavior -- not just to behavior that falls on the wrong side of the law.

They deserved an upstanding congressman, which William Jefferson, according to his own defense strategy, was not.

It's a tragedy that a man as intelligent and accomplished as Jefferson threw it all away in a gamble for a few extra dollars. His life story was a fine example of how education and hard work can help people break the bonds of poverty.

Of course, that lesson can still be taught. It just can't be taught by William Jefferson. As Langston Hughes wrote in a 1953 story featuring his everyman Jess Simple, "Good examples are not set by deceit."

"Oh, but sometimes they are," said Simple. "A congressman is a good example until somebody catches him with a deep freeze."

Well, Jefferson is now officially caught. He is no longer an example of how to make it, but the embodiment of the harsh consequences of greed.

Jarvis DeBerry is an editorial writer. Follow him at Read him online at He can be reached at 504.826.3355 or at

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