The William Jefferson Chronicles

William Jefferson sentenced to 13 years in prison
By Jonathan Tilove
November 13, 2009, 9:19PM

Former Rep. William Jefferson was sentenced Friday to serve 13 years in prison for what the lead prosecutor described as "the most extensive and pervasive pattern of corruption in the history of Congress."

While the sentence by federal Judge T.S. Ellis III fell well short of the 27 to 33 years recommended by the government, it is by the far the stiffest jail term ever imposed on a member or former member of Congress for crimes committed while in office.

Jefferson, 62, was found guilty Aug. 6 on 11 charges, including soliciting bribes, depriving citizens of honest service, money laundering and using his office as a racketeering enterprise.

He was acquitted of five other charges in a case that famously featured the revelation that he had hidden $90,000 in the freezer of his home, marked bills from the FBI that prosecutors said was going to be used as a bribe.

Jefferson stood stoically as the sentence was read, his head cocked slightly to the left, showing no obvious emotion.

The judge also ordered Jefferson to forfeit the $470,653.47 the jury had determined was funneled to shell companies under his family's control through his bribe schemes.

Jefferson was not immediately taken into custody, as prosecutors had requested. Instead the nine-term Democratic member of Congress was released pending a hearing Wednesday at which Ellis will hear arguments on whether Jefferson is a flight risk and should be sent directly to prison. His attorneys have asked that he be allowed to remain free on bond while he appeals his conviction, which is unlikely.

Barring that, lead attorney Robert Trout is asking that Jefferson be allowed to turn himself to authorities Jan. 4, which would be routine in a case of this sort, and would allow him to spend Christmas with his family.

Jefferson does not have to appear at Wednesday's hearing, but if the judge approves the prosecution's request, the former congressman would have to report immediately. Ellis agreed to recommend Jefferson be assigned to a low-security prison "camp." Trout specifically recommended the federal prison in Pensacola, Fla., but Ellis said only that he would recommend a facility close to New Orleans.

Jefferson has 10 business days to file an appeal, which Trout said they would do.
Just as he did not testify in his own defense at his trial, Jefferson did not speak before sentencing. Trout explained to Ellis that "we are going to appeal and I have advised my client he would be best served by not discussing the facts of the case or making any statement to the court."

The only words Jefferson uttered before the court Friday were a quiet "yes" when Ellis asked him if he had read his pre-sentencing report, and again when he was asked whether he was satisfied with his legal representation.

Before passing sentence, Ellis said he did not fault Jefferson for not speaking before the court "under the circumstances," and, "I don't have any doubt you regret some of the conduct" that led to his conviction.

But Ellis said that "public corruption is a cancer that needs to be surgically removed," and that his sentence had to serve as a "beacon" to all about the price to be paid for compromising the public trust.

"I have no doubt you have led an extraordinary life; you have accomplished a great deal," Ellis said to Jefferson, who stood before him in a dark suit and blue shirt. "It makes this even all that much sadder for me and many others.
"Obviously you are a man of great gifts. It is a tragedy these gifts have been squandered."

The 13-year sentence represented an ignominious end for Jefferson, who rose from the humblest beginnings in the small northeast Louisiana town of Lake Providence to attend

Harvard University. He went on to become the first African-American to represent Louisiana in Congress since Reconstruction and a senior member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

He raised five daughters, each with undergraduate and graduate degrees from prestigous universities.

The daughters, sitting alongside their mother on the front bench behind the defendant, and accompanied by Jefferson's brother, Archie, remained impassive during the proceeding, which lasted three hours.

In the rear of the courtroom, seated in a corner of the last bench, were two jurors, one of whom was left teary by the proceedings.

Asked outside the courtroom before the sentencing how his brother was maintaining his composure, Archie Jefferson replied: "Faith."

The previous longest sentence for congressional corruption was eight years, four months meted out in March 2006 to former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California, who pleaded guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes to help military contractors win government contracts. Ellis said that Cunningham's disgrace had hit him especially hard because they were both Navy aviators. "There must be some kind of greed virus affects those in power," the judge said.

In his remarks to the court, Trout said that while Jefferson had been found guilty of bribery, his case did not involve selling his vote or obtaining a legislative earmark.

"Not all bribery cases are alike," said Trout, who said that in his mind, Jefferson "always thought that he kept to the right side of the law," and that the help he delivered in arranging business deals in Africa in exchange for payments to family-owned businesses, was not an "official act" covered by the bribery statute.

The question of what is an official act promises to be at the center of Jefferson's appeal.

Trout also ridiculed the government's assertion in its sentencing memo that the defendant and his family stood to gain more then $500 million in cash, stock and equity interests through Jefferson's various deals.

"This was no $500 million bribe scheme," said Trout, suggesting that Jefferson's take, beyond the nearly half million assessed against him, was "more likely to be zero as anything else, and for the most part, that's how the facts bore out."

But chief prosecutor Mark Lytle and Ellis said that Jefferson clearly had far larger dollars signs in his eyes.

"You're not expecting me to believe that he didn't expect to get more than $478,000 out of this, do you?" Ellis asked.

Unresolved Friday was whether Jefferson was actually convicted of any crime related to the $90,000 that was found hidden in his freezer when the FBI raided his Washington home in August 2005. The FBI and prosecutors believe Jefferson intended to deliver the money as a bribe to Atiku Abubakar, who was then vice president of Nigeria, which would violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He was acquitted of the direct charge of violating the act, but convicted of a conspiracy count which may or may not have involved the act. Ellis said because he failed to make the jury form more specific, that question will never be resolved.

Trout argued it was plain that the jury did not find Jefferson in violation of the act -- he would be the first public official convicted under it -- and Lytle said it was just as plain to him and to anyone who watched and listened to the tapes played in the trial, that Jefferson had violated the act, and the jury had found him guilty of conspiring to violate it.

In a statement after the sentencing, Neil MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said, "Mr. Jefferson is well-known for the $90,0000 found in his freezer. It is our hope that he will now be well-known for the tough sentence handed down today, showing that no one -- including our elected officials -- are above the law."

Harry Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney in New Orleans, now in private practice, said that "a 13-year sentence to a federal prison is never good news but Jefferson got a major break today when Judge Ellis departed downward from the federal sentencing guidelines."

"Both sides can claim a victory," said Rosenberg, noting that the court had handed down "the longest sentence meted out to a convicted Congressman," without issuing what would have amounted to a "death sentence."

Jonathan Tilove can be reached at or 202.383.7827. Bruce Alpert can be reached at or 202.383.7861.

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