The William Jefferson Chronicles

Stephanie Grace: Why did former Congressman William Jefferson keep the cash?
Posted by Stephanie Grace, Columnist, The Times-Picayune July 08, 2009 5:49PM

We may never know why former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson stashed $90,000 in his freezer rather than deliver the money to then-Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar, as he promised a business associate who was secretly recording their conversations.

It may be that something went awry with the planned handoff, which was allegedly aimed at cementing a telecom deal in Nigeria. It may be that Jefferson had always intended to keep the money. There may be another reason entirely, one that would actually deliver on Jefferson's "honorable explanation," although as his trial in Virginia progresses, there's no such explanation in sight.

This week's evidence suggested an intriguing new alternative.

Recordings played in court Tuesday, when the jury finally watched investor Lori Mody's climactic delivery of a briefcase containing the marked bills, suggested perhaps Jefferson held on to the money, rather than handing it off to Abubakar, because he suspected he was being watched.

Throughout several months of taped conversations with Mody, Jefferson's tone had been guarded, despite the warm nature of the relationship. Under instructions from the FBI, Mody pushed him to speak about their plans, often under the guise of making sure she understood the big picture. But his answers were frequently evasive or cryptic.

But Jefferson's words to Mody during and just after the key transaction were more pointed. They actually sound like they could have been chosen for other ears.

When Mody gave him the money in the parking lot of a Virginia Ritz-
Carlton on July 30, 2005, she asked, "Would you like to take a peek at it, or whatever?"

"I would not," replied Jefferson.

"Well, I hope that, uh, that's exactly what the VP needs to make him, uh, work hard for us," said Mody.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Jefferson said.

During a phone conversation the next day, she tried again to get him talking, this time about whether the cash had been delivered.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Jefferson said, prompting Mody to reply with a laugh: "OK, OK, I get it."

Over lunch Aug. 1, the day after they spoke by phone, Mody persisted, to Jefferson's obvious annoyance.

"All I am asking is: Did you deliver it?" she said.

"I gave him the African art," Jefferson replied.

Two days later, on Aug. 3, the feds discovered that wasn't the case when they found most of the money stashed inside pie crust and veggie burger boxes in Jefferson's Washington, D.C., freezer.

The fascinating question, of course, is why not?

If Jefferson did come to suspect he was under surveillance, he may have decided not to hand over the money because federal bribery laws were already on his radar.

Under previous questioning by Mody over the responsibilities of their Nigerian associate Suleiman YahYah, who was partnering with them to bring the telecommunications project to the country, Jefferson said YahYah had "a lot of folks to pay off."

"If he's got to pay Minister X, we don't want to know," Jefferson said. "It's not our deal. We're not paying Minister X a damn thing. That's all, you know, international fraud crap. We're not doing that .... Whatever they do locally, that's their business."

In the same conversation, he referred to Abubakar as "corrupt," and he told Mody that it was YahYah's job to deal with bureaucrats on matters such as customs and visa issues, while he would worry about the "big shots."

So maybe, by the time Jefferson was scheduled to do just that, he was feeling paranoid. Maybe he had started to replay all those earlier conversations in his head, and put the puzzle pieces together. Maybe, just maybe, he decided to hold on to the money because he was trying to figure out what to do, how to minimize his exposure.

Or maybe not.

Frankly, even if this is what happened, the jury is unlikely to hear it. Whatever Jefferson's defense says isn't going to end the speculation over the ex-congressman's true motive for his strange behavior.

If Jefferson kept the money because he figured out the feds might be watching his next move, well, that's as good an explanation as any.

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

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