The William Jefferson Chronicles

Rehab a tall order for Jefferson
Posted by Stephanie Grace, Columnist, The Times-Picayune March 19, 2009 2:34AM

Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson may be busy preparing for his upcoming federal bribery trial bribery. But a steady flow of e-mails delivered to reporters' in-boxes since he left office, from a group calling itself the Friends of Congressman William J. Jefferson, suggests his legal travails aren't the only thing on the ex-New Orleans congressman's mind.

The e-mails, in fact, don't mention the trial at all.

Instead, they applaud President Barack Obama and his policies.

They attack U.S. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao, the Republican who ousted Jefferson back in December, for things like his vote against Obama's stimulus bill and the fact that, on one occasion, the president tried to call Cao but couldn't get through to his office.

They go after other Republicans, such as U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Rush Limbaugh.

They publicize job opportunities with the federal government. They remind readers of Jefferson's doings in Congress before he was voted out after nine terms, such as the earmarks that made it in to a spending bill approved after the new Congress took over.

The oddest of the bunch arrived earlier this week. It wished Jefferson a happy birthday, and solicited greetings to send back to the ex-congressman.

The real message in all of this is about the only one that's unstated: Even as Jefferson prepares to go on trial for his very freedom, he's trying to keep his name in the news.

He's thinking about a political comeback -- or at least leaving the door open to one.

But there are a few things Jefferson might not have thought about.

If he's free to run against Cao next year, it wouldn't be the same race as it was when Jefferson was the incumbent and his opponent a virtual blank slate.

Yes, Cao benefited from strange circumstances the first time out, and yes, he's still undeniably green. But he won the job fair and square, and he's making a good show of addressing the district's concerns, going after alleged improprieties at FEMA's local office and vowing to help finally rebuild Southern University at New Orleans, which has long been associated with Jefferson and his family.

He may run into the party and racial politics of the 2nd District, where most voters supported Obama and surely wanted their representative to back his signature program, when he runs for reelection. But Jefferson, if he's on the ballot, would be just one option of many, without the built-in advantages he had as a sitting congressman, even one under indictment.

He'd also be under as much of a cloud as he was last time.

Judging from Jefferson's' own pre-trial filings, he's hoping to beat the rap on technical matters of law, not fact.

In other words, he won't try to prove that he didn't hit investor Lori Mody up for money to pay off Nigeria's vice president and other officials, a conversation that was caught on tape. He won't try to counter the many documents showing that he used his office and position to solicit business abroad.

His best hope is that his actions won't be considered illegal because he stuck the marked FBI bills in his freezer instead of giving them to the Nigerians, and because he didn't trade any "official acts" because none of his attempts to curry influence involved legislation.

Let's just say, for argument's sake, that's enough to get him off. It's still not a pretty picture.

And remember that the tawdry story doesn't end with his own legal proceedings. Jefferson's brother and sister, both key players in his political organization, are also awaiting trial in separate corruption cases.

Given the might of the federal government, Jefferson's quest for acquittal is the challenge of a lifetime. And no matter how many e-mails his remaining "friends" send out, vindication in the eyes of the voters will be even tougher.

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Stephanie Grace is a staff writer. She may be reached at 504.826.3383 or at

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