The William Jefferson Chronicles

Probe hits Jefferson in wallet
Campaign support appears to dwindle
Saturday, November 04, 2006
By Bill Walsh -

The federal bribery probe targeting U.S. Rep. William Jefferson is issue No. 1 in the race to unseat him, but it has also played a powerful role behind the scenes as the eight-term Democrat has struggled mightily to raise enough money to keep his re-election campaign afloat.

Though he has not been charged, revelations that the FBI found $90,000 stashed in Jefferson's freezer in August 2005 have earned him the cold shoulder from many once-loyal donors, the majority of whom have migrated to the campaign of state Rep. Karen Carter, also a Democrat, who has become the favorite of the political establishment.

Jefferson paid perhaps an even larger price when his fellow House Democrats voted in June to eject him from the influential Ways & Means Committee, whose jurisdiction over taxes and trade makes it a financial magnet for corporations and trade unions seeking to influence legislation.

Records show that dozens of political action committees donated to his campaign after the FBI raid. After he was thrown off Ways & Means, however, they abandoned him.

"Political action committees will continue to support an incumbent as long as he is in a position of authority," said Craig Holman of the nonprofit watchdog group Public Citizen. "As soon as he loses his authority, they funnel their money somewhere else."

Fundraising falters

Almost unheard of for an incumbent, Jefferson has trailed two of his challengers -- Carter and Derrick Shepherd -- in fundraising since they jumped into the race in the summer. Jefferson's $151,375 haul between July 23 and Sept. 30 was eclipsed by Carter's $327,162 and Shepherd's $199,900.

A fourth major Democratic candidate, Troy Carter, has raised just $79,900 for the entire campaign. Republican Joe Lavigne, who has been in the race the longest, raised money early on at an impressive clip, but the pace slowed as prominent Republican benefactors -- such as developer Joe Canizaro, shipbuilder Boysie Bollinger and funeral industry executive Frank Stewart -- lined up behind Karen Carter.

A review of Jefferson's campaign finance reports show that those who have stuck with him financially are members of his family, long-time friends and business associates, a few fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus and a smattering of sympathetic businesses and unions.

Among the loyal are: state Sen. Cleo Fields, a former U.S. representative and gubernatorial candidate; former Jefferson law partner Trevor Bryan; New Orleans attorney Robert Harvey; Liberty Bank President Alden McDonald; U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C.; janitorial company owner Burnell Moliere; Jefferson's pastor and influential African-American leader Bishop Paul Morton; former state Sen. Sammy Nunez; technology company owner Bobby Savoie; and engineering company President George Kleinpeter.

"He's been a good friend for a long time," said Kleinpeter, president of Burk-Kleinpeter Inc. Asked about the federal probe, Kleinpeter said, "I'm not judge and jury on those kinds of things," before abruptly ending the call.

Several other Jefferson donors declined to be interviewed or return phone calls for comment.

Long-time donors vanish

Jefferson campaign finance reports are littered with names of long-time donors who pulled up stakes in the face of the federal probe, which has focused on Jefferson's efforts to help U.S. businesses land contracts in West Africa. Even worse for the embattled congressman, those once-reliable donors have tended to ally themselves with his leading opponent, Karen Carter. Among those who switched were construction company President Robert Boh; restaurateur Ralph Brennan; import-export company owner John Georges; New Orleans lawyer Allan Kanner; and former Louisiana Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, a former Jefferson colleague in the Louisiana congressional delegation.

Johnston and former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., both longtime Jefferson backers, threw their support to Karen Carter late in the summer. Both have raised money for her and introduced her around Washington.

"We stayed with him as long as we reasonably could," said Hunter Johnston, the senator's son and a lobbyist. "Our relationship with Jeff goes way back. But he has not left any of his friends with any reasonable, plausible explanation of what's going on. New Orleans can't afford to be represented by someone whose reputation and effectiveness is so diminished."

PAC support dwindles

Dozens of corporate and labor union political action committees have evidently come to the same conclusion about Jefferson's clout on Capitol Hill. Businesses and labor groups such as Wal-Mart, Pfizer, Microsoft, Harrah's Entertainment, Entergy, BellSouth, Northrop Grumman, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and associations of accountants and anesthesiologists gave generously to Jefferson after the Aug. 4, 2005, raid on his home by the FBI.

Despite the bad publicity, Jefferson raked in $53,750 in PAC contributions between Jan. 1 and June 15, the day the Democrats voted him off the Ways & Means Committee, records show. Since then, however, PAC giving to Jefferson has plummeted to $11,000, according to campaign finance reports.

Arguably the most loyal PAC has been the American Federation of Teachers, which donated $5,000 after the FBI raid and another $5,000 after his ejection from the committee.

"I'm not the one who could give you a comment on that," said union spokesman George Jackson. "I imagine it would be because he consistently votes in our favor on issues. I don't believe he has been formally indicted, has he?"

Although records show Karen Carter has been the main beneficiary of one-time Jefferson donors, Shepherd has lifted himself into the upper tier of candidates in the 13-candidate field with some aggressive fundraising of his own. His political base is the West Bank, but he has received contributions from throughout the 2nd Congressional District, which stretches from Jefferson Parish nearly to the Mississippi state line.

Shepherd, who is African -- American, also has received financial support from some prominent white donors such as architectural company owner William Sizeler, lawyer Kenneth Pickering and Audubon Institute CEO Ron Forman. Lawyers and developers were among his top contributors, according to the campaign finance Web site PoliticalMoneyLine.

Troy Carter has struggled to raise money. He has banked some contributions from business owners in the French Quarter, whom he used to represent on the City Council. But he also appears to be carrying a $122,129 debt stemming from his failed mayoral bid in 2002.

Tuesday's election is all but certain to prompt a December runoff between the top two vote-getters. But with the field still unpredictable, some donors are hedging their bets. Campaign finance records show that Kleinpeter, the engineering company president, gave $1,000 to Jefferson's re-election campaign on Sept. 25. He contributed $1,000 to Karen Carter, records show, the next day.

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Bill Walsh may be reached at and (202) 383-7817.

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