The William Jefferson Chronicles

Jefferson's criminal sentencing, bankruptcy hearing a month apart
By Jonathan Tilove
November 03, 2009, 6:52AM

Former Rep. William Jefferson will face sentencing Nov. 13 on 11 counts of federal public corruption.

But it will not be the last court hearing this fall for Jefferson.

On Dec. 9, if he is still a free man, Jefferson is due to appear before Judge Jerry A. Brown in United States Bankruptcy Court in New Orleans to argue that he and his wife should be able to keep their wedding rings and that his family has the right to hold onto one of his guns.

The stakes for Jefferson in December pale in comparison to what he faces in 10 days when he stands before U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, a no-nonsense judge who already has meted out stiff sentences to supporting players in the case. Prosecutors are expected to ask for a sentence of more than 20 years.

But the simultaneous denouements of Jefferson's criminal and financial proceedings, offer a painfully humbling portrait of the descent of a once commanding figure in New Orleans and Louisiana political and public life into insolvency and incarceration, perhaps for the rest of his life. Jefferson is 62.

Jefferson did not testify at his trial and has had little to say about the weeks of damning testimony, much of it delivered by former friends, employees and allies, that led to his conviction.

But at a bankruptcy hearing in New Orleans Oct. 2, with Michael Chiasson, the trustee named by the court to sort through the Jeffersons' financial affairs, there were moments of poignancy, none more so than when Chiasson asked Jefferson about $39,727 he received earlier this year.

It came, Jefferson explained to Chiasson, from a "Celebration of Service," that supporters in New Orleans held in May on the eve of his trial.

"That will never happen again; I won't have another event like that," Jefferson said softly. "Nobody's ever going to give me another party."

But Chiasson, noting that Jefferson plans to appeal his conviction, cautioned the former nine-term member of Congress that he should never say never.

"I don't know how long you've been in politics," Chiasson said, "but if you get that thing reversed, I don't know. ..."

Moments earlier Chiasson asked Jefferson about a series of other deposits, totaling $83,500, that he had received.

"Our children gave us money," said Jefferson, adding a bit later that that well also is dry. "Our children have given what they can give," he said.

Jefferson was referring to his five grown daughters. Government prosecutors showed how some of the congressman's ill-gotten gains passed through a front company established by his wife and daughters, with some of the money used to help make tuition payments for the daughters' Ivy League educations.

Three of his daughters have undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University, and one of them, Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, is representing her parents in the bankruptcy proceeding. At the Oct. 2 hearing, according to an audio recording by the court, Chiasson complimented Jefferson-Bullock for doing "a remarkable job," though he also suggested her fee was well above the norm.

At the Dec. 9 hearing, among Jefferson-Bullock's tasks will be to see if her parents can keep their wedding rings.

Under bankruptcy law, debtors can claim an exemption of $5,000 for wedding rings, but the Jeffersons apparently did not wear them to the Oct. 2 hearing and Chiasson wants to see them and have them appraised.

The Jeffersons will also have to defend their right to continue to bear one of the former congressman's firearms.

As a convicted felon, Jefferson cannot be in the possession of firearms, and even before his conviction, he had turned his hunting and skeet shotguns and hunting rifle over to his son-in-law Torey Bullock -- Jalila's husband -- for safekeeping.

At the Oct. 2 hearing, Chiasson told Jefferson, "you're going to appeal your conviction so I am going to hold those guns on the side pending your appeal."

He suggested at that time that Jefferson's family could, in the meantime, keep one gun so "pick out the most expensive one you want and give us the rest."

But in his court filing at the end of last week objecting to some of the Jeffersons' exemption claims, Chiasson notes that Louisiana law "provides that one firearm, with a maximum value of $500, necessary to the exercise of a trade, calling, or profession by which the debtor earns his livelihood, is exempt from seizure."

By that definition, Chiasson concluded, "this claim of exemption should be denied."

In his filing, Chiasson indicates he also wants the Jeffersons to provide a more detailed accounting of the $11,200 in household furnishings for which they are claiming an exemption from seizure, and detailed account information about the $380,000 in a thrift savings plan and $3,791 in monthly income from the Federal Employees Retirement System.

The Jeffersons are claiming this retirement money is exempt from bankruptcy seizure; the thrift account has already been frozen by the federal government.

The jury that convicted Jefferson also found that he was liable to forfeit $478,000 to the government, though the final determination rests with Judge Ellis.

The Jeffersons, according to court documents, have debts close to $10 million, more than half of that owed to the lawyers who represented him in his trial.

Those lawyers have a lien on his Capitol Hill home, and at the Oct. 2 hearing, Chiasson told the Jeffersons that they had probably entered into an "illegal contract," by recently renting that property without his approval.

They are renting the house -- where Jefferson famously hid $90,000 in marked FBI bill in his freezer -- for $2,850 a month.

Despite the gloomy nature of the legal proceedings now dominating the Jeffersons' lives, not all the news out of the bankruptcy proceedings was grim. During what has to be the unluckiest streak in their lives, the Jeffersons reported about $14,000 in casino gambling winnings. And the bankruptcy trustee is not challenging the exemption they claimed for their dog, a Labrador retriever they valued at $300.

Bruce Alpert also wrote this story. He can be reached at or 202.383.7861. Jonathan Tilove can be reached at or 202.383.7827.

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