By Bruce Alpert, Times-Picayune
Published Friday, May 3, 2012 6:30 AM
WASHINGTON -- The personal and political downfall of
former Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, may have
started on a basketball court 10 years ago. In his
memoir, "Dying is the Easy Part," Jefferson wrote how
the fatigue and disorientation he felt after two games
eventually led doctors to discover a substantial heart
blockage that required quintuple bypass surgery.
Jefferson later told friends the near-death experience in 2002 at the age of 55 made him realize two things: that God had saved his life, and that he had little money to leave his wife and five daughters if another medical emergency didn't end so well.
An aggressive push to make quick and substantial money in various international business deals would, over time, attract the attention of federal investigators, and result in an indictment, the loss of his office after nine terms and a conviction on 11 of 16 public corruption and bribery counts. Jefferson is to begin serving his 13-year sentence Friday, the longest corruption sentence even given to a congressional member.
But in the first days after the heart surgery, his plan was to quit Congress and take a job with a wealthy businessman in which, as he told friends, he would help find potentially lucrative investments and then share in the profits. Instead, Jefferson decided to stay in Congress while he tried to help businesses win contracts in western Africa, where he had considerable influence. In return, he demanded payments be made to businesses controlled by his family.
In turned out to be the worst mistake of his life. Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody, an investor in a telecommunications project Jefferson was pushing, grew disillusioned, went to the FBI and began taping conversations with him.
Those recordings, which included videotapes showing Jefferson taking a briefcase containing $100,000 in marked cash -- $90,000 of which was later famously found hidden in the congressman's freezer -- led to his conviction in August 2009.
Under federal law Jefferson must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence, meaning he won't get out for a little more than 11 years -- unless his anticipated appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court succeeds. Legal experts doubt the high court will even take his appeal.
Vernon Jackson, the CEO of iGate Inc., a Kentucky telecommunications firm who testified during Jefferson's 2009 trial that he had paid a business controlled by Jefferson's family nearly $370,000 for help landing contracts in Africa, said he no longer harbors any ill will for the man he used to call "Jeff."
Although the business ventures went nowhere and he served three years in federal prison for bribery, Jackson, who now works as a minister, said he would visit Jefferson in prison "if he'll have me."
Jackson said he would tell Jefferson the key to getting through imprisonment, besides learning how to take orders and be humble, is spending time getting closer to God and understanding his teachings.
In "Dying is the Easy Part," Jefferson credits God with a series of events in 2002 that saved his live. It started with the failure of then Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Fla., to show up for a scheduled meeting which enabled him to play basketball with the much younger Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn. Then, showing up at Bethesda Naval Hospital on a Thursday night, when the heart surgeons have their regular meeting, was much more than just plain luck.
"That was more than natural good fortune," Jefferson wrote.
It isn't surprising, said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a minister and longtime Jefferson friend, that a near-death experience might cause him to think about providing for his family.
During his six-week trial, prosecutors offered testimony that Jefferson had money problems between 2001 and 2005. They said Jefferson and his wife, Andrea, had accumulated $69,000 in credit card debt, and had overdrafts on 165 checks, all while paying tuition for five daughters at some of America's most expensive and prestigious universities.
"One mistake does not make a man," said Cleaver. "He's much more than his mistake that attracted national news coverage and jokes (about the money in the freezer) and condemnation," Cleaver said. "He accomplished a lot and we shouldn't forget that."
But there were signs even before Jefferson's ill-fated efforts to broker the business deals in Africa of questionable conduct that earned him the nickname "Dollar Bill." Before he began his political career, Jefferson helped operate a rent-to-own business that critics say led mostly poor clientele to overpay for appliances and TVs. He maintained slum property in his majority-black New Orleans district and pushed for tax breaks for small businesses while the IRS nipped at his heels over unpaid debts. And he championed free trade and democracy in Africa, even as he befriended exploitative dictators.
Though he's been allowed to remain free while his appeal dragged on, Jefferson faces what some friends have labeled a possible life-sentence, given his age, and one they think unfairly harsh given that former Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., got eight years for taking kickbacks from defense contractors that generated much more cash.
The lead federal prosecutor, Mark Lytle, had sought an even longer sentence.
"His activity represented the most extensive and pervasive pattern of corruption in the history of Congress," Lytle said.
And Cunningham pleaded guilty, something Jefferson refused to do.
According to several sources, Jefferson's lawyers were shown taped evidence against him in 2005, after the well-publicized raid of his homes and most notably his freezer, and asked if he would consider a guilty plea.
Experts said he probably could have secured a sentence of five years.
Meanwhile, Jefferson's family also was falling from the heights as one of the most influential in Louisiana politics to a nadir of trials, convictions and death.
His brother Mose, who ran his political campaigns and whom Jefferson insisted get contracts in return for his help for businesses in Africa, died almost one year ago while serving a 10-year prison sentence for bribery related to the sale of educational software to New Orleans public schools.
His sister, Betty Jefferson, former New Orleans assessor who confessed to looting $1 million in taxpayer funds from sham charities that purported to help the poor and disadvantaged, was sentenced last year to 15 months of home confinement. Renee Gill Pratt, a longtime Jefferson ally, was convicted last year of conspiring with members of the former congressman's family to loot the same charitable funds
Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or 202.450.1406.