The William Jefferson Chronicles

Rep. Jefferson loses more than his office
by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Sunday December 07, 2008, 8:32 PM

WASHINGTON -- Rep. William Jefferson's unexpected loss Saturday may have cost him a bargaining chip in negotiating a potential deal with government prosecutors and leaves him without his congressional salary as he faces expensive defense and appellate proceedings.

"An agreement to withdraw from office, and politics, in exchange for a lower prison sentence is a classic deal in such cases," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University who has been following the Jefferson case.

Franklin E. Zimring, a criminal law expert at the University of California at Berkeley, said he expects prosecutors won't be inclined to show any mercy now that Jefferson has lost his House seat.

"I wouldn't expect any real softening from the government because there is so much history to the case and so many personal investments in a prosecution," Zimring said.

On the other hand, the New Orleans Democrat's loss might make him somewhat less the high-profile target he was while he remained in office and make government prosecutors more willing to deal, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

"The Bush people might want to wrap up what they started, and it might be appropriate for them to find a graceful way to that end that satisfies everyone," Tobias said.

One stumbling block could be a concern by Jefferson that the presiding federal judge, T.S. Ellis III, who has handed out lengthy sentences to two defendants who agreed to testify against Jefferson, might be unwilling to go along with a plea deal's sentencing recommendation. Some former federal prosecutors say there are ways to structure agreements to limit a judge's options, but a judge still can order a longer sentence than called for in a plea arrangement.

Turley doesn't think the current career prosecutors are in much of a mood for a plea to resolve the 16-count indictment against Jefferson, including charges of bribery and racketeering -- all denied by the nine-term congressman.

"He remains a high-profile defendant regardless of his status as a current or former member," Turley said. "That is one of the problems with the freezer money story -- it gave him an almost iconic status."

Turley was referring to the $90,000 in marked $100 bills that the FBI said it found in the freezer of Jefferson's Washington, D.C., home in a 2005 raid three weeks before Hurricane Katrina.

Jefferson's attorneys said the discovery of the money proves that Jefferson didn't do what the government suspected: turn it over as a bribe to the then-vice president of Nigeria, although the congressman has not provided the "honorable explanation" he promised as to how the money ended up there.

In the indictment, filed in June 2007, Jefferson is accused of demanding bribes to family-owned companies for his help winning contracts in Western African nations, particularly in Nigeria.

President-elect Barack Obama will have his own attorney general and presumably a new U.S. attorney in Northern Virginia, where the case is being prosecuted. But Turley predicts that the "Obama administration is not going to want to look like they cut a Democrat slack upon taking office."

Jefferson's trial, which had been scheduled for Dec. 2, has been held up by an appeal in which his attorneys argued that 14 of 16 charges should be thrown out on grounds that the grand jury, which indicted him, heard testimony about his congressional activities in violation of the separation of powers. A three-judge appellate panel unanimously rejected the congressman's appeal, and now the full 4th Circuit is being asked to take up the case.

The 4th Circuit might announce its decision this week, in time for Ellis to set a trial date during a status hearing scheduled for Dec. 16.

Jefferson's loss means he will be without a government salary -- $169,300 in 2008 -- putting further strain on what is an expensive legal defense dealing with a host of complicated constitutional issues, some being raised for the first time.

"Jefferson's defense will be costly, and his office allowed him a ready-made public-relations machine," Turley said. "He will now have to carry all of the costs as an individual."

Bruce Alpert can be reached at or 202.383.7861.

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