|The Convict and the Congressman|
The Convict and the Congressman
by Andrew Rice November 2007 Issue
How did a Kentucky entrepreneur, a Louisiana politician, and the vice president of Nigeria end up in one of the biggest scandals to hit America’s black elite in decades?
On August 3, 2005, tech entrepreneur Vernon Jackson walked outside, into a warm and hazy Kentucky morning. No one watching his modest red brick home from afar—as someone certainly was that day—would have noticed anything untoward. A sign staked in Jackson’s lawn displayed the Ten Commandments in big letters. Jackson opened the door of his car, a 1997 Mercedes-Benz S600, one of the few things he’d held on to from his paper-millionaire days. As an inventor, Jackson always had to prove the value of his ideas. And as a black man who’d lived his whole life in the South, he knew the power of outward appearances.
Physically, Jackson cut an imposing figure: over six feet tall, bald, thick-necked, and broad-shouldered. (“He is a David that looks like a Goliath,” says a friend.) He’d turned 53 the month before and was trying to get his considerable weight under control. Jackson and his wife of more than three decades, Denise, liked to take a brisk daily walk. On this morning, as they often did, the couple drove to a park not far from their home in Louisville, and it was there that F.B.I. agents intercepted them, flashing their badges and carrying a search warrant.
Vernon Jackson didn’t yet realize it, but he was a central figure in one of the most sprawling corruption investigations in recent American history, a tale of bribery and international financial chicanery that stretched from Louisville to Washington to Africa. At that very moment, the F.B.I. was conducting simultaneous raids in three states and the District of Columbia. Out in Maryland horse country, one team of investigators was mounting a search of a $2 million mansion belonging to Atiku Abubakar, then the vice president of Nigeria. Another was descending on the New Orleans residence of William Jefferson, a Democratic congressman from Louisiana.
Jefferson was a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus and a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. For years, he had acted as a tireless promoter of Jackson’s company, iGate, which had developed electronic components designed to transform ordinary copper telephone wires into conduits for extraordinary amounts of data. Jefferson’s advocacy had pushed Jackson—who’d already ridden an initial public offering to fortune once before, only to see the company crash into bankruptcy—to the brink of the biggest coup of his career: a $200 million-a-year deal to provide high-speed internet services to consumers in Nigeria. But according to the government, Jefferson’s interest in iGate was far from altruistic. Recently unsealed affidavits filed in support of the F.B.I.’s search warrants suggest that the congressman was a secret shareholder in iGate. More than that, the affidavits say Jefferson had conspired to further the deals by bribing Vice President Abubakar.
That morning, Jefferson, just awoken, answered his door unshaven and barefoot. As F.B.I. agents stuffed evidence into boxes, the congressman, a dour man at the best of times, sat sullenly at his kitchen table, flipping through papers. Then he moved to a living room recliner, where he nonchalantly stuffed the documents into a blue bag. Confronted by an F.B.I. agent, he turned over the papers, which included an iGate fax sent just that morning that sought Jefferson’s input on an equipment purchase—proof, prosecutors later alleged, of the congressman’s ownership interest.
The most incriminating find, however, came at Jefferson’s Washington townhouse. In drawers, in trash cans, and in stacks on the floor, F.B.I. agents found numerous documents relating to iGate’s African deals. Then the agents opened the freezer. Inside a Boca Burger box, they found two stacks of cash wrapped in aluminum foil. More money was stuffed into a Pillsbury piecrust box. There was $90,000 in all.
In the end, that’s all people remembered: the cash in the freezer. As details leaked into the pages of the Washington Post and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the story of the congressman with 90 grand in his icebox quickly became a national joke, another colorful example of Capitol Hill corruption. Yet the case would prove to have implications far more momentous than a punch line. In Washington, it would lead to William Jefferson’s indictment and a constitutional clash over the executive branch’s powers to investigate members of Congress. In Nigeria, it would scuttle Atiku Abubakar’s campaign to become the next elected leader of one of the world’s largest oil producers. And back in Louisville, it would upend the life of a flawed man with a promising idea.
The way Vernon Jackson later recounted the story, the F.B.I. agents who stopped him along the walking path that morning assured him that they knew he was a solid citizen and said they were just after Jefferson. Always confident in his charm, Jackson invited the agents back to his home. By around 10 that morning, several carloads of investigators had converged at the house, where they carted away Jackson’s laptop computer, phone bills, bank records, and company documents.
Later that day, after four hours of interrogation, Jackson went to see his company’s attorney, David Harper. “Jeff ’s in trouble,” he told the lawyer. To Harper, Jackson seemed more surprised than worried. He didn’t yet understand that he was a target.
Vernon Jackson is now serving a seven-year, three-month sentence at a minimum-security prison in Morgantown, West Virginia, having pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges. He’s expected to be a key prosecution witness in the trial of Congressman William Jefferson, scheduled to begin in January.
Jackson declined repeated requests for an interview. However, through a review of court documents, wiretap transcripts, internal company records, and interviews with Jackson’s professional acquaintances, family members, and friends, the story of the embattled businessman emerges. Jackson sold many people on a beguiling vision of technology that could bring broadband to the underprivileged and make millions in the process. Those who are embittered—claimants of bad debts and broken agreements—say he’s a scam artist. But his many admirers say optimism was Jackson’s fatal flaw. He never let anything slow him down—even reality.
If Jackson could think only in terms of best-case scenarios, it may be because his own life so utterly exceeded rational expectations. He was born into a large, poor family in Charlotte, North Carolina. His father was a janitor and a weekend preacher. Jackson attended segregated public schools, where he excelled, scoring extremely high on mathematical aptitude tests. “I was what they call a child prodigy for technology,” Jackson once said. He ended up in Louisville, where he worked in research and development at AT&T for two decades before striking out on his own in 1990.
At the time, the internet was still in its horse-and-buggy phase, but the problem of the future was obvious: what to do about the “last-mile” bottleneck, the copper telephone wires that still ran to every building? Jackson, working with a French engineer, devised and patented a switching system that allowed data to be transmitted over copper wires with enormous efficiency. It was as if he’d figured out a way to pump much more water through the same old narrow pipes.
At first, Jackson had trouble raising money to support his ventures. Bank officers, he complained, told him they were used to loaning money to minorities for cleaning companies, not telecommunications firms. Jackson managed to assemble some local black investors. One was Olden Lee, a retired PepsiCo executive who now serves on the board of Starbucks; another was the former N.B.A. guard Darrell Griffith, or “Dr. Dunkenstein.” Jackson used their capital to adapt his invention to then-futuristic uses such as videoconferences and telemedicine. He named his new company VideoLan Technologies, joined forces with Ted Ralston, a white venture capitalist from Ohio, and went public in August 1995 at $4 a share. Shortly afterward, the company announced a $50 million distribution deal with Samsung, and the stock took off, reaching a high of more than $47. In terms of percentage gain, it was the most successful I.P.O. of 1995, a year in which companies like Netscape, Pixar, and EchoStar also went public. At its height, VideoLan employed around 30 people, including engineering and sales staff, though like many startups, it operated at a loss.
On paper, Vernon Jackson was worth around $26 million, and he lived like it, wagering serious money at racetracks and riverboat casinos. He began constructing an enormous house overlooking the ninth fairway of an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course. Meanwhile, VideoLan was falling apart. There were delays in developing software and security features that would allow the system to move from its prototype stage to mass production, and Samsung said its price was too high. Amid complaints about Jackson’s management, Ralston, VideoLan’s biggest shareholder, brought in a new group of executives, who were also white. The internal tension took on a palpable racial subtext. In November 1995, even as the stock price was rising, Jackson allegedly changed the locks to the company lab so that only he and the engineers could enter. After production delays continued, Samsung backed out of its deal, and VideoLan’s stock price began to collapse in January 1996. Jackson’s half-constructed trophy home stood roofless and derelict. Eventually a court ordered the property sold at auction, and the structure was bulldozed.
Someone else might have walked away, but Jackson was convinced that his idea still had value. He lined up some new investors and paid $225,000 to purchase the rights to VideoLan’s technology from a bankruptcy court. In 1998, Jackson started a new company, iGate. This time, he vowed to avoid the traditional routes of business development, which he saw as hopelessly compromised by racism. “I developed a bad taste in my mouth for venture capitalists,” he later said. He talked of raising “angel money from Africa and places like that—our people, if you will.” He hired a black president, Joshua Smith, who serves on the boards of FedEx and Caterpillar and once chaired President George H.W. Bush’s Commission on Minority Business Development.
By the late 1990s, most big businesses had already solved their last-mile problem by installing T1 lines, so Smith drew up a new business plan that targeted other markets, institutions that still depended on antiquated infrastructure: military bases, government agencies, public schools. Jackson predicted initial sales of $20 million a year, rising to $155 million by 2004.
But he wasn’t able to deliver on his projections. The company’s key component, a three-by-five-foot switch box that sold for $96,000, was cumbersome. “Newer technology would allow you to build that box the size of a cigar box, and he never got there,” says Jerry Galler, who headed iGate’s marketing. “And then, all of a sudden, we quit getting paid.” None of the multimillion-dollar contracts Jackson was always talking about ever materialized. Eventually, Joshua Smith left the company, and Jackson laid off all but one of his dozen or so employees, saying that iGate was $2 million in debt.
The company limped along, expanding and contracting as Jackson struggled to locate new sources of financing. He kept working to shrink and refine his products, with some success. (One independent test found that iGate’s system provided 13 times the bandwidth of T1 lines.) But Jackson knew that if he was ever going to succeed, he needed friends in government. He hired a consultant named Jack White, who’d once pleaded guilty to federal charges related to his role in a public-housing scandal. White was well connected in African American political circles, and he introduced Jackson to William Jefferson. The congressman immediately grasped the idea’s potential. He told Jackson that he glimpsed iGate’s future: military contracts to start with but also deals that would bring the equalizing force of the internet to poor people living in urban neighborhoods that had been overlooked by the phone companies, or in rural areas, or even in Africa, where broadband remained a technological pipe dream.
“Vernon thought that he had somebody that would watch his back, because he had the same interests and same color and could understand how Vernon felt, believing that he’d been screwed over by some majority people,” says Jackson’s younger brother Dean, a lawyer. “The irony, as I see it from the court papers, is that the very person he was trusting turned out to be the one that was trying to do him in.”
Much like Jackson, William Jefferson—known around New Orleans as Dollar Bill—had lived a life of unlikely accomplishments tempered by questionable business judgment. Jefferson grew up picking cotton in northeastern Louisiana but made it to Harvard Law. He rose rapidly in the political world but was dogged by scandals related to tax problems and real estate investments. In 1990, when Jefferson mounted a campaign to become Louisiana’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, opponents circulated mock banknotes bearing his face. Jefferson won anyway and went on to become a prominent Democratic voice on economic policy, particularly regarding trade with Africa.
Despite the superficial similarity of their backgrounds—they were both high achievers from large, religious families—the congressman and the businessman had very different temperaments. Jefferson was slight and distant. Jackson was bearish and voluble. Nonetheless, the two men formed what appeared to be a genuine friendship. In 2000, Jackson began traveling to Washington, reporting back to his friends in Louisville about his frequent dinners with “the congressman.”
“His ego was inflated by all that,” says Michael Valenti, a civil attorney who represented Jackson and iGate. “Vernon would say, ‘Oh, you can’t imagine all the people I am meeting on the Hill. This congressman is a very powerful person. He opened this door and that door.’ ”
Officially, Jefferson was just doing his job: helping a struggling black businessman. In reality, according to a federal indictment, Jefferson had been using his office for personal gain since at least the fall of 2000, when he allegedly started demanding payoffs from sugar and oil companies in return for his assistance in Africa. Jefferson allegedly presented iGate with a more elaborate proposal. On January 22, 2001, Jackson signed an agreement with a Louisiana consulting firm headed by Jefferson’s wife. It called for iGate to pay the firm $7,500 a month, as well as a percentage of revenues and 1 million shares of stock. Whether or not Jackson saw the contract as a bribe is unclear; Jefferson’s wife was an administrator at Southern University in Baton Rouge, and iGate was trying to market its technology to historically black colleges. But there is a moment of decision in every journey into criminality, and this was Vernon Jackson’s crucial choice.
The relationship paid dividends, as the promise of government contracts gave iGate credibility. In 2002, the company signed a manufacturing and distribution agreement with Siemens Building Technologies, a subsidiary of the German electronics conglomerate, for Siemens to build and market iGate’s equipment. Siemens commemorated the partnership by putting iGate’s logo on the back of a company-sponsored stock car, and both Jefferson and a top executive of the Siemens subsidiary spoke at iGate’s 2002 shareholders meeting.
In Washington, where lobbyists dole out thousands of dollars in campaign contributions just to secure perfunctory access to members of Congress, the attention Jefferson devoted to this one small company was extraordinary. The congressman introduced Jackson to influential colleagues from the House, raised money for iGate from his friends from New Orleans, even met job candidates over dinner. Those who did business with iGate now claim they perceived Jefferson’s open involvement in company affairs to be simple public service. But clearly, many people—including Jackson’s partners at Siemens—took note of the unusually close relationship and sought to put it to use. In a July 2003 meeting, Siemens executives discussed several pending iGate deals and noted that “legislation and political business-related activities” would be “headed up by Vernon.” Siemens also asked Jackson to secure several favors from his friend Jefferson. For instance, when Siemens was hoping to compete for big military contracts in Korea, Tony LeDinh, the Siemens subsidiary’s vice president for international affairs, wrote to Jackson asking for an introduction to “top brass.” “I am sure our ‘congressman’ can help,” LeDinh wrote. Jackson forwarded the email on to Jefferson, who arranged a meeting in his Capitol Hill office with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
LeDinh declined to be interviewed for this story. Steve Kuehn, a Siemens spokesman, said the executive had a “cordial” relationship with both Jackson and the congressman, but downplayed the significance of the company’s deal with iGate, calling it a “straightforward business agreement, which fell apart.” Kuehn said LeDinh was never called to testify before the grand jury investigating iGate’s business dealings, and neither he nor Siemens are mentioned in the Jefferson indictment.
In July 2003, the Nigerian capital of Abuja played host to the Leon H. Sullivan Summit, a periodic gathering of African and African American political and business leaders. Representative William Jefferson addressed the gathering, sharing a stage with an important figure from the Nigerian government: Vice President Atiku Abubakar. In his speech, Abubakar told his audience the story of how his country—once known for coups and catastrophic corruption—had achieved (relative) democracy and stability. As the fifth-largest exporter of crude oil to the U.S., Nigeria was flush with riches.
“I am . . . inviting our American brothers and sisters to take advantage of the positive atmosphere in the country today,” the vice president told his audience.
At some point, amid the Americans in suits and the Nigerians in boubous mingling at the Abuja Hilton, with its hexagonal pool and thatch-roofed cabanas, Jefferson met with representatives of a Nigerian company called Netlink Digital Television. Nigeria has a population of more than 140 million people, many of whom live in cities and spend inordinate amounts of time in crowded, sweaty internet cafés. Netlink wanted to offer them digital television, phone, and internet service at home but faced the challenge of providing the necessary bandwidth, given Nigeria’s decrepit telecommunications infrastructure. Jefferson told the Nigerian businessmen about iGate.
According to a subsequent investigation by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Netlink was intimately tied to Abubakar, who allegedly steered almost $24 million to the startup company’s owner from a government oil-revenue fund intended to finance education. Some of Netlink’s dubious venture capital, the Nigerian investigation alleged, was kicked back to the vice president; some of it went to bribe an official in the government accounting office, who used the money to publish a book entitled Nigerian Laws on Public Finances. And millions in oil money ended up in Louisville with iGate and Vernon Jackson.
Shortly after the conference, Jackson and Jefferson flew to London, where they negotiated a $45 million deal to supply digital set-top boxes to Netlink. The Nigerian company paid iGate $6.5 million up front for exclusive rights to the technology. The congressman was to arrange for the balance of the money, in the form of a loan from the Export-Import Bank of the United States. In return—unbeknownst to Jackson—Jefferson allegedly demanded $1 million in fees from Netlink, as well as a $5 commission for every set-top box delivered.
Jefferson and Jackson made two iGate-financed trips to Nigeria, where they met with Netlink executives and government officials. Tony LeDinh set up an appointment for them with a local representative of Siemens Building Technologies, though the executive, Alexander Martins, says the meeting never took place. But just as the Samsung partnership had unraveled back in the late ’90s, the Nigerian deal had begun to fray by the summer of 2004. “After these people took money, iGate and Jefferson,” Netlink’s chairman later testified, “iGate did not supply a pin.”
Already, the congressman was lining up a partner to replace Netlink. In June 2004, during a trip to Washington sponsored by the Nigerian finance ministry, an internet entrepreneur named Suleiman Yahyah met Jefferson and handed him his card. The congressman told Yahyah about iGate. Two months later, according to the Nigerian commission’s report, Yahyah traveled to New Orleans, where he met Jackson and others at the offices of Jefferson’s daughter’s law firm. The following Tuesday, in an email to a business associate—sent to Siemens as well—Jackson wrote, “I’m just returning from New Orleans, where I spent last Friday and the weekend negotiating and finalizing terms with our new African, American, and European corporate partners,” adding that he would “brief Siemens on what has happened.” He and Jefferson met with Siemens executives the following week during a Siemens-financed trip to New York, where they attended the U.S. Open tennis tournament and staged a demonstration of iGate’s equipment.
Soon afterward, however, Jackson’s relationship with Siemens began to sour, as company executives voiced skepticism about iGate’s ability to perfect and market its system. The company had managed to make deals with a few institutional users—Howard University, an army base in Texas—but bugs were a problem, and sales lagged.
The Nigerian venture, meanwhile, had hit a snag. Netlink still owned the Nigerian rights to iGate’s technology and wasn’t going to give them up until some of its money was returned. Brett Pfeffer, a former aide to Jefferson, worked for a Virginia technology investor named Lori Mody. Jefferson and Jackson met with Mody in the congressman’s Capitol Hill office and told her that the joint venture with Yahyah would eventually produce revenues of $200 million a year.
Within months of making an initial $3.5 million investment, according to an F.B.I. affidavit, Mody became suspicious. It turned out Jackson had used only half of her money to reacquire the distribution rights from Netlink. Later, when Mody asked the congressman how Jackson had spent the rest of the money, he replied, “Don’t even ask.” Mody cut off contact with Jackson.
Jackson fell into uncharacteristic despair. “Sometimes I feel so alone when I have to face these kinds of situations,” he wrote to Siemens’ Tony LeDinh, with whom he’d become close, on March 26, 2005. “I believe that I was born to share the burdens of others and to bring relief where I can. However, because of my faith in Jesus Christ, my best friend, I know that I’m never alone, and I know that I will somehow find the money needed to sustain iGate so that we can continue to help those in need.”
A few days later, Mody unexpectedly contacted Jefferson and said she wanted to rescue the deal with iGate. To Jackson, it must have seemed like an answered prayer.
But it was a ruse. Lori Mody had gone to the F.B.I., and now she was acting as an undercover informant.
Over the course of a series of meetings and phone calls that spring, captured by wiretaps and hidden microphones, William Jefferson described his plan. The key hurdle, the congressman told Mody, would be winning regulatory approval in Nigeria. He said that task would fall to Suleiman Yahyah. “We got to motivate him really good,” Jefferson said in a taped conversation. “If he’s gotta pay Minister X, we don’t want to know. It’s not our deal. . . . That’s all, you know, international fraud crap.” At the same dinner, Jefferson allegedly scratched notes on a sheet of paper, indicating that he wanted an increased ownership stake in the Nigerian joint venture, about 20 percent. “All these damn notes we’re writing to each other as we’re talking,” the congressman said, laughing. “As if the F.B.I. is watching.”
When Yahyah encountered resistance from the Nigerian national telephone company, a serious obstacle, Jefferson allegedly decided to ask Abubakar for help. Given the vice president’s close relationship to Netlink, and the $2.3 million iGate still owed that company, he would need some convincing. But in a taped conversation, Jefferson told Mody that he thought Abubakar would negotiate. “He’s a very, well, the word might be . . . corrupt,” the congressman told the F.B.I. informant. Abubakar, he said, had “more deals going than the goddamn man in the moon.”
The vice president often passed through the Washington area. One of his several wives—polygamy is accepted in Nigeria—lived in a white-columned residence in Potomac, Maryland, near the Congressional Country Club. One day, Jefferson visited the vice president’s home, driven by an undercover F.B.I. agent posing as a chauffeur. After the meeting, Jefferson allegedly told Mody that Abubakar had agreed to wipe out iGate’s debt from the previous deal, as well as intervene with the phone company, in return for half a million dollars and a substantial cut of the venture’s profits.
The whole scheme was growing ever more complicated and treacherous. At one point, according to a Times-Picayune report, Lori Mody—who, by this time, was primarily interested in bringing down Jefferson—tried to warn Jackson that the F.B.I. was watching. Jackson just laughed her off. Even outsiders could see he was out of his depth. Valenti, one of Jackson’s attorneys, tells the following story: In early May 2005, Yahyah visited Louisville for a strategy session and a trip to the Kentucky Derby. Valenti’s law partner happened to run into Jackson, Jefferson, and several Nigerians inside the ornate Director’s Room at Churchill Downs. The Nigerians were feeding $100 bills into betting machines. “Vernon, for all this, he is a likable guy,” Valenti says. “I do think he genuinely has a religious side to him. I do not think it’s at all an act. I think he’s pretty devoted to his wife. Well, he comes up to [Valenti’s law partner] and says, ‘John, can you help me? These Nigerians want to know where they can find high-priced hookers.’ ”
Jackson had always feared one possibility more than any other: that some double-dealing investor might try to steal his company. But all the while, he’d allowed Jefferson to keep upping his family’s ownership stake. Jackson had hired the congressman’s brother-in-law as iGate’s chief engineer and his daughter as a lawyer. Jefferson, he thought, was his friend. But it was Jefferson who ended up wresting iGate away from Jackson. The congressman was worried about Jackson’s erratic decisionmaking. “I’m not gonna let him let me use my good offices, whatever they are . . . to make arrangements and then blow it out,” Jefferson said in a taped conversation. With funding from Mody and others, Jefferson allegedly proposed to pay off the $5 million to $7 million in debt iGate had accrued and to install an associate, a New Orleans riverboat-casino owner, as iGate’s C.E.O. “I’m in the shadows, behind the curtain,” he told Mody.
Jackson discovered the takeover plot and flew to Washington, furious. He swore to fight the congressman, but when he returned to Louisville, he abruptly announced that he’d signed a proxy agreement granting control of his iGate shares to Jefferson’s family. He said he was leaving business to preach the word of God. “He had this wild swing,” says Valenti. “I don’t know what Jefferson said or what he threatened.”
His control over iGate solidified, Jefferson allegedly sought to seal the Nigerian deal. He told Mody that Abubakar was scheduled to fly home on August 1. According to prosecutors, they discussed making a $100,000 down payment to the vice president. One Saturday morning, after a meeting at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arlington, Virginia, Jefferson retrieved a brown leather briefcase containing marked $100 bills from the trunk of Mody’s car. At his office that day, he prepared two letters, one to Abubakar and another to the managing director of the Nigerian phone company.
At around 3 the following morning, an Abubakar aide was awoken by a phone call from his hotel’s front desk. According to the aide’s testimony, a female staff member from Jefferson’s congressional office was waiting for him in the lobby. She handed him a sealed envelope marked Capitol Hill—U.S.A. Congress. The following day, Jefferson and Mody met at the Ritz-Carlton again. “I gave him the African art that you gave me,” the congressman said cryptically, “and he was very pleased.”
William Jefferson’s trial is scheduled to begin in January. It may provide answers to several remaining mysteries. What did Vernon Jackson’s other business partners—including Siemens executives, who didn’t definitively sever ties with iGate until after the F.B.I. raids—know about his dealings with the congressman? What did Jefferson say to Jackson that convinced him to give up his company? Most perplexing of all, why did most of the $100,000 end up in Jefferson’s freezer, rather than Abubakar’s luggage? Prosecutors allege that Jefferson gave around $5,000 of the F.B.I.’s money to a staffer who was having financial problems and held on to the rest. Was the cash ever meant to reach Abubakar? Or was it one final betrayal—a case of New Orleans corruption trumping Nigerian corruption?
Abubakar has consistently denied that he ever sought a bribe from Jefferson, whom he has publicly labeled a “con man.” But a Nigerian anticorruption commission indicted him anyway. At the time, Abubakar was preparing to run for president. In a speech to Nigeria’s senate, Abubakar said he was “a victim of a well-orchestrated and vicious smear campaign aimed principally at preventing me from offering myself for service to the nation at the highest level.” But the scandal, along with a related feud with the outgoing president, hampered the onetime front-runner’s campaign, and he finished third. He is challenging the results in court, however, and remains a leading opposition figure. “As long as you have money, in Nigeria, you have a political future,” says Omoyele Sowore, an investigative journalist who chronicled Abubakar’s fall.
Jefferson, through his lawyer, refused to comment on any aspect of this case. But he appears to be preparing to argue that he is the victim of overzealous investigators. In May 2006, after many stymied subpoena requests, the F.B.I. raided his congressional office. Legislative leaders from both parties were outraged, saying the search violated the principle of separation of powers. Recently, a federal appeals court agreed, ruling that the raid, though constitutional, was too extensive, a decision that is expected to complicate Jefferson’s prosecution. Capitalizing in part on his black constituents’ distrust of the F.B.I., Jefferson easily won reelection last year. Outside the courthouse on the day of his arraignment in June, he called the government’s case “contrived.”
“Did I make mistakes in judgment along the way that I now deeply regret? Yes,” he said. “But did I sell my office or trade official acts for money? Absolutely not. This case involved private business activities and not official acts.”
At trial, Vernon Jackson is likely to be the most important prosecution witness. After iGate’s collapse, he became an ordained minister, and friends say he is eager to testify. “I’m just so hurt that a congressman would do this to me,” Jackson said last December, in a deposition in an unrelated civil case.
Jackson’s decision to plead guilty to bribery charges, in May 2006, shocked even close friends and family members. (Brett Pfeffer, the former Jefferson aide who helped set up the Mody deal, pleaded guilty to similar charges.) In keeping with his plea deal, Jackson did not speak at his sentencing hearing. “The tragedy of this case, in addition to what happened to him, is that this technology has yet to reach those [disadvantaged] communities,” said his public defender, Michael Nachmanoff. “And that, I think, hurts him as deeply as anything else.” The judge, unmoved, sentenced Jackson to seven years and three months.
By the following Sunday, Jackson was back at work, holding discussions after church with a prospective investor for a new company, one that was developing technology to provide internet service over power lines. Outside a restaurant called the Cheddar Box, the investor handed Jackson a check for $100,000. He eventually sued, claiming Jackson had assured him that he’d worked out a deal with prosecutors and wasn’t going to jail. “I knew what the court had done, but the court is not God. So I speak my own faith, that I believe I’m not going,” Jackson said in a subsequent deposition, adding that he intended to repay the money. “I have a problem when people say that I am corrupt.”
In March, Jackson began serving his sentence. In the end, his every hope went disastrously unfulfilled. Jackson wanted wealth, but now he’s penniless. He wanted to be a black role model, but now he’s a felon. He wanted to help Africa, but his actions only perpetuated the rotten system that keeps Africans impoverished. Prosecutors can request a reduction in Jackson’s sentence in return for his cooperation, but for now, he is not scheduled to be released until 2013, an eternity in internet time. By then, Jackson will be 60, and his invention will likely be worthless.