The William Jefferson Chronicles

Jefferson has flown high and could fall low
Posted by Bill Walsh, Washington bureau June 09, 2007 9:51PM
Categories: Breaking News -

WASHINGTON -- The disturbing list of corruption charges filed last week against Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, could signal the end of a three-decade political career that has seen the near-constant clash of accomplishment and controversy.

Jefferson's rise from the stifling poverty in the dusty cotton fields of northeast Louisiana to Harvard Law School and, ultimately, to Congress as Louisiana's first black congressman since Reconstruction is nothing short of remarkable and a testament to his grit, intelligence and political savvy.

But for all of the plaudits Jefferson has accumulated, controversy has followed him at nearly every step, leaving an ugly stain on a career once filled with promise. No blemish is larger than the 16-count federal indictment filed Monday, with its bribery, fraud and racketeering charges that threaten to send the 60-year-old congressman to prison for life and overshadow a lifetime of accomplishment.

As he has done throughout the two-year investigation that turned him into fodder for late-night comics and political red meat for Republicans, Jefferson maintained his innocence and vowed to clear his name. He pleaded innocent at his arraignment Friday.

In a sometimes-combative statement after entering his plea, Jefferson noted that he faces an uphill battle.

"But I have no doubt that in the most important sense, we have the advantage: the advantage of having right and truth on our side," he said. "We have the advantage of knowing that no matter what plots are laid against us, the truth will always come to light. My family and I have determined that I will not sacrifice my honor or cave to political pressure, and that we will sell every stick of furniture in our home and anything else we may own to pursue justice and clear our name."

Yet even a court victory would make it difficult for the man dubbed "Dollar Bill" by his political enemies to rehabilitate a career filled with contradictions.

Even as he promoted opportunities for poor and disenfranchised African-Americans, he maintained slum property in his majority-black New Orleans district. He pushed for tax breaks for small businesses while the IRS nipped at his heels over unpaid debts. And he championed free trade and democracy in Africa, even as he befriended exploitative dictators and ultimately found himself the target of an FBI probe into alleged bribes and shakedowns relating to a business deal in Nigeria.

Voters in his hurricane-battered New Orleans congressional district last year gave Jefferson a vote of confidence by returning him to office for a ninth term despite the salacious image of their elected representative in a parking garage accepting a briefcase with $100,000 from an investor-turned-FBI witness. Jefferson now finds his fate in the hands of a northern Virginia federal judge and jury who could write the last chapter of his political life.

Jefferson's rise in politics is all the more impressive because of where he started. Lake Providence is a tiny speck in the remote northeast corner of Louisiana, where cotton, soybeans and corn grow lush alongside the Mississippi River and promising young people leave as soon as they can.

Once identified by the Census Bureau as the poorest place in America, the Lake Providence of Jefferson's youth in the 1950s and 1960s was the very face of rural American poverty: White residents were poor, black residents were poorer and there was little hope of improvement for either.

Like the rest of the South, Jefferson's hometown was segregated. The relative absence of racial violence, longtime residents said, was a testament to just how removed the two races were. "Separate and unequal" was the way former Mayor General Trass described it.

Jefferson wasn't a major boat-rocker -- and never became one. He exercised some defiance in the face of white authority, refusing to answer "Yes, sir" or "No sir" to white people as black people were expected to do.

The sixth of 10 children, Jefferson -- known as "William" to his teachers -- was described as soft-spoken and intense. Even friends find him inscrutable at times.

"I don't like to bare my innermost feelings to anyone," he said.

His poker-faced demeanor conceals a burning competitive streak. Whether shooting rabbits or shooting hoops, friends say, he plays to win.

His modest upbringing also meant an early exposure to hard work. Jefferson picked cotton on other people's land for $3 a day to help support the family that didn't earn enough from its 25-acre subsistence farm or his father's $3,000 annual government salary to make ends meet.

When his sister Barbara needed tuition for college, Jefferson said, he and his siblings pulled together to pick a cotton bale, sold it and gave her the proceeds: $150.

"Everyone was poor. We worked for one another," Jefferson said in an interview last year.

He would remain fiercely loyal to his siblings and they to him, especially as questions grew about their mutual business dealings that would leave a stain on his budding political career.

Politics was not an option or a concern for his parents, Mose and Angeline Jefferson, ramrod Baptists whose chief worries were feeding their children and instilling a respect for religion. Mose was a deacon and caretaker at Sweet Canaan Missionary Baptist Church and saw to it that young William taught Sunday school, sang in the choir and even dug graves in the church cemetery. A heavy-machine operator for the Army Corps of Engineers, Mose was often away, and it fell to his wife to run the family.

She was a strong and demanding woman known around town as "Mother Jefferson." Time and circumstances forced her to shelve her dream of becoming a teacher. Instead, she served as longtime president of the PTA and lectured her children that the surest way to escape Lake Providence's poverty was through education. All but one would graduate from college. William would go the farthest.

A standout high school student and class president, he got his bachelor's degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge and then graduated from Harvard Law School.

"I think she was like a role model for him," said Martha Christian, a former Lake Providence high school administrator. "Something very important would have to be happening that they didn't talk on the phone every day."

William Jefferson would become a doting father to five daughters. Friends fondly remember him reading stories to the girls at night, brushing their hair and repeating his mother's admonishment about education. It seemed to work. Three graduated from Harvard Law, one from Brown University and one from Boston University.

"Lots of times I used him as a role model for young people around here," the Rev. Gus Lee, pastor at Sweet Canaan, recalled in an interview before his death last August. "He came up in a tough time. There were no programs like there are today. He went out and said, 'I'm not going to worry about anyone else.' He had a focus about him."

Jefferson emerged from Lake Providence with a drive to succeed, a fierce competitive streak, and an ability to quote Bible verses from memory. He would always visit, but he would never live in Lake Providence again.

In 1991, a year after being elected to Congress, he would be hastily summoned back. A tornado had ripped through the family home. His mother, who was inside at the time, died at the hospital of a heart attack.

His boyhood home reduced to splinters, his mother dead, Jefferson was undone. He told a family friend, "You can't imagine how that makes a man feel."

Today, the entire family is gone from Lake Providence. All that remains along Jefferson Road are the fields his family once farmed and the cemetery where his parents and sister Maxie -- shot to death by a boyfriend -- are buried. At the other end of Jefferson Road is the gleaming, coiled razor wire of the local jail.

A canny political instinct was already stirring in Jefferson by the time he arrived at Southern University in Baton Rouge. In 1969, a student protest over the run-down facilities at the all-black university prompted a visit by Gov. John McKeithen. The white governor summoned Jefferson, then student body president, to his car. Jefferson climbed in and as they drove around campus, McKeithen warned him that any further demonstrations could lead to his expulsion. Jefferson was unbowed.

"Well, you have your constituency, and I have mine," Jefferson remembered telling McKeithen.

Unlike some of his black peers who came of age during the civil rights movement, marches and rousing speeches were not his style. Cerebral and unassuming, he saw a path to helping African-Americans get ahead through raw political power, preferably exercised outside the glare of the spotlight. He was eager to get it. Fast.

"We didn't participate in the movement; we were beneficiaries of it," said Trevor Bryan, a classmate at Harvard Law School. "We were young and we were impatient."

Jefferson got busy compiling a gleaming resume. He served as a naval officer in the Judge Advocate General's Office; clerked for a federal judge; worked in the Washington, D.C., office of Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La.; and, along with Bryan, launched in New Orleans what would become one of the most successful black-owned law practices in the South.

For Jefferson, friends say, the law was a steppingstone to politics.

"I never thought of Jeff as being interested in money. He was interested in being a politician," Bryan said. "I think he could have gone on and become a lobbyist and made a lot. I don't think that would have satisfied him. That would have been a concession to him that he couldn't go higher in politics."

He ended up at the knee of Ernest "Dutch" Morial, a shrewd New Orleans politician who would serve two terms as the city's first black mayor. Since both were smart and aggressive, Morial and Jefferson took to each other right away, Bryan said.

"Dutch would come by the firm, and the two of them would end up in Jeff's office talking politics," he said.

Morial may have schooled Jefferson on politics, but many say the former mayor also gave his young charge a label -- "Dollar Bill" -- that would stick. Jefferson insists it was not Morial, but Reynard Rochon, the mayor's chief political adviser.

Whatever the case, Jefferson's private business dealings only fueled the perception that the label was apt.

In the early 1980s, he would launch Jefferson Interests Inc. with brothers Mose and Bennie, a company that would serve as an umbrella for numerous family businesses and a conduit for family financial transactions.

Among other things, Jefferson Interests operated REMCO, an appliance rental franchise. REMCO was a magnet for controversy. Public housing residents complained of being "harassed and intimidated" by REMCO officials and by 1987, the company was suffering financially. It had racked up -- and Jefferson said the company finally paid -- eight federal tax liens totaling more than $160,000.

At the same time, Jefferson was acquiring rental property throughout metropolitan New Orleans -- soon to be another source of embarrassment. He came under pressure from Jefferson Parish to fix up run-down apartment buildings he owned in Harvey that had become havens for drug dealers and vagrants. Apartments he owned in New Orleans also fell into disrepair.

Jefferson was unapologetic. He said he was just one more investor who got clobbered by the oil bust. Ultimately, he said he paid his debts.

"The question is: What's the character of the person who gets into trouble," Jefferson said in a 1990 interview. "Does he step up and say, 'Let's resolve the thing and let me meet my responsibilities?' I do that."

At the age of 32, Jefferson in 1979 decided it was time to launch his own political career. He set his sights on state Sen. Frederick "Fritz" Eagan, a white, four-term incumbent Democrat in what had become a black-majority New Orleans district. Naturally, Jefferson looked to Morial for support. But, unsure that his young protege could unseat Eagan, Morial held back.

"He felt betrayed by Dutch," said Jeff Wilkerson, a longtime Jefferson friend.

It would be the start of a long-running tension between two ascendant New Orleans political families. Three years later, Jefferson would challenge his political mentor for mayor, finishing a distant third.

Jefferson would form his own political machine, the Progressive Democrats, that jockeyed with other groups such as BOLD, COUP and LIFE for supremacy in New Orleans. As his influence grew, so did that of the Progressive Democrats, which propelled his sister Betty onto the Orleans Parish School Board and then an assessor's office and his daughter Jalila into the state Legislature. The Progressive Democrats are expected to be one more casualty of Jefferson's sudden fall.

But in 1980, he was on his way up. Even without Morial's help, Jefferson upset Eagan and took his seat in the Louisiana Senate. Although just one of about a dozen black lawmakers at the time, friends say Jefferson found his niche in the clubby environs of the state Senate where deals were made on the basis of relationships, not political party. He was chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus in 1984. He also would become chairman of the Senate's ethics panel and was twice named legislator of the year by the Alliance for Good Government.

"He loved the state Senate," Wilkerson said. "He was a man of influence there."

But once again, political success was clouded by questions of personal ethics. As a state senator, he was hired by his alma mater, Southern University, in a desegregation case at the same time he sat on the committee controlling the university's financing. He found no need to recuse himself from university appropriations decisions.

Jefferson also served as Senate floor leader for the Orleans Parish School Board at a time when his law firm held board contracts. Some of those contracts were awarded while his sister Betty served as a School Board member.

By 1986, Jefferson's ambition once again plunged him into the race for mayor of New Orleans. He would be defeated by Sidney Barthelemy in a bitter contest that featured the first all-black mayoral runoff in city history. White voters overwhelmingly backed the light-skinned, Catholic Barthelemy over Jefferson, the darker-skinned Baptist from north Louisiana.

"I think he felt that he was denied City Hall because of a level of mistrust by whites," Bryan said. "He had this feeling that he would be rewarded for his competence."

Jefferson readjusted his political sights. This time he looked toward Washington. He was among a group of young, ambitious black politicians who had been pressuring Rep. Lindy Boggs, a veteran white Democrat, to step down from her majority-black district. When she retired in 1990, the race was on.

The congressional election stirred up old ghosts, pitting him against Morial's son, Marc.

A decade younger than Jefferson, Marc Morial favored tailored suits, delivered soaring rhetorical flourishes and exuded a buoyant optimism. By contrast, Jefferson's suits seemed to hang off his thin and slightly stooped frame, and his brooding manner always gave the impression he was about to deliver bad news.

Morial hammered away at "Dollar Bill." The campaign unearthed documents showing Jefferson Interests Inc. owed $5,231 in taxes, his law firm had been socked with tax liens and a local bank had asked a judge to garnish Jefferson's wages to satisfy a $13,750 defaulted loan.

Around New Orleans, replica $100 bills circulated bearing Jefferson's likeness. Morial denied responsibility.

Jefferson won narrowly, but the cloud of questions would not dissipate. A day after the election, the Resolution Trust Corp. filed suit against Jefferson and his wife seeking $160,000 from a mortgage they had stopped paying.

Jefferson would rise quickly in the House of Representatives. He landed a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, forged a close bond with the fellow son of the rural South who was likewise full of potential and hampered by ethics questions.

By 1994, the political wind shifted. The Republicans took over Capitol Hill, and Clinton found himself embroiled in one scandal after another. Jefferson was briefly bumped from the Ways and Means Committee. With his own political ascent stalled, he looked back to Louisiana and saw younger African-American politicos on the rise, as he once had been.

Marc Morial, whom he had defeated for Congress, would prevail in a race for New Orleans mayor. Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge state senator, would make a credible statewide run for governor, ending up in a runoff, in a race Jefferson dropped out of.

Back in Washington, Jefferson was struggling to achieve less-lofty ambitions. In a race to head the Congressional Black Caucus, he lost out to Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., a fiery liberal. Jefferson seemed to wince as she held his arm aloft in a sign of solidarity at the post-election news conference.

His once-meteoric rise had hit a ceiling. During the next few years, Jefferson appeared to be casting about for his next move. He got an advanced law degree in taxation. He studied foreign languages. He ran for governor in 1999 but wasn't a factor.

Even an offer to raise money for his party was shunned when he was turned down for the job of heading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee despite having raked in $5.2 million for his party. He was blocked by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"He was very upset," said Cheron Brylski, a political consultant who worked with Jefferson on the 1999 governor's race and opposed him last year in his race for Congress. "He was one of the largest fundraisers for the party. To not get it was a real slap in the face for him."

It would be the start of an uneasy relationship between Jefferson and Pelosi, who would lead the charge to oust him from the House Ways and Means Committee last June, severely damaging his ability to raise money for his re-election.

Stalled in Louisiana and in Congress, Jefferson turned his sights to Africa. For years in the House, Jefferson had called for the United States to take steps to open trade with sub-Saharan African nations and was a prime mover behind the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act in 2000.

But as has happened so often in his long political career, his success was accompanied by controversy. In the late 1990s, he was nearly alone in opposing sanctions against the brutal military dictatorship of Nigerian Gen. Sani Abacha.

When the FBI started investigating Jefferson in 2005, it wasn't about his ties to dictators, but his links to a struggling Kentucky telecommunications firm called iGate Inc. The company helped pay for Jefferson to visit four West African nations that February, and soon after, court records say, the congressman began working strenuously to win contracts for the firm in Nigeria.

The government says Jefferson -- through a network of family-run companies -- received more than $400,000 in bribes and 33 million shares of stock from iGate CEO Vernon Jackson, and even made a play to take over the company altogether.

The case became the No. 1 issue in Jefferson's re-election last year when he was forced into a runoff with a strong opponent, state Rep. Karen Carter, a New Orleans Democrat who enjoyed the backing of the state Democratic Party and many Republicans. The contest drew unflattering national media attention, but for voters it wasn't even close. Appealing to voters to "ignore the rumors" and focus instead on his accomplishments over eight terms in Congress, Jefferson won handily with 57 percent of the vote.

A judge and jury in northern Virginia are certain to be less swayed by such personal appeals. The William Jefferson they are likely to focus on will be the one that emerges from the pages on the grand jury indictment, which portrays him brow-beating a businessman for payoffs, soliciting bribes in the House dining room and threatening to withhold his support for a project unless the terms of his brother's contract are sweetened. Jurors are likely to hear secretly recorded conversations of Jefferson talking to FBI informer Lori Mody, who was posing as an investor in the business deals he was engineering in Africa.

In one transcript, Jefferson talks with Mody about setting up a Nigerian-based company to conceal his financial stake in the iGate deal. He tells Mody he wants to transfer the company to his five daughters.

"I make a deal for my children," Jefferson said in the transcripts. He added later, "I'm in the shadows, behind the curtain."

The image that has come to define the case is Jefferson accepting from the informant a briefcase packed with stacks of $100 bills, $90,000 of which FBI agents later found carefully wrapped in foil and stored inside frozen food containers inside the freezer of his Capitol Hill home.

Over dinner one night in 2005, four months before the FBI raid, Jefferson and the informant were discussing the iGate deal. She asked him how long he planned to stay in Congress. Jefferson allowed himself, however briefly, to wax philosophical, perhaps thinking that it was time to bring his long, storied career to an end.

"I'm going to get your deal out of the way," he told her according to a wiretapped conversation. "I probably won't last long after that."

Bill Walsh can be reached at or (202) 383-7817.

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