The William Jefferson Chronicles

William Jefferson's political family has rough times ahead
by Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune
Sunday August 09, 2009, 3:20 PM

It's been a bad year for the Jeffersons.

And it could get worse.

The downward spiral began in December when, tainted by criminal charges, nine-term incumbent U.S. Rep. William Jefferson was defeated by a virtually unknown Republican. Last week, Jefferson was convicted on 11 counts of public corruption. A federal judge could send him to prison for the rest of his life.

This week, a legal assault on the family continues. The curtain is scheduled to rise on the bribery trial of Mose Jefferson, the former congressman's older brother and confidant, whose name was often invoked during the Virginia corruption trial.

In the spring, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten's office upped the ante on another pending case against Mose Jefferson; his sister, 4th District Tax Assessor Betty Jefferson; and other close associates, securing a new indictment that accuses the group of skimming money from government-financed nonprofit groups. A trial on those charges is set for early next year.
Michael DeMocker / The Times-PicayuneWilliam Jefferson

Taken together, federal prosecutors in Virginia and New Orleans portray the Jeffersons as a political crime family, in two cases even charging members under the federal racketeering law created to bring down the Mafia.

It's a disturbing image.

In the government's telling, William Jefferson often agreed to flex his congressional muscle only after he and his family members were cut into business deals. Mose Jefferson is accused of bribing the Orleans Parish School Board president to influence the purchase of an algebra curriculum he was hawking. And Mose and Betty Jefferson -- along with her daughter, Angela Coleman, and Mose Jefferson's longtime girlfriend, former state legislator and City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt -- conspired to steal taxpayer money allocated to help the poor, prosecutors say.
John McCusker / The Times-PicayuneMose Jefferson

"It is a shame, it really is," Mose Jefferson said of prosecutors' depiction of family members on Thursday as he left federal court in New Orleans. "If we have been a crime family, where is the money?"

Mose Jefferson's attorneys asked a federal judge to declare him indigent, arguing he couldn't pay his legal bills because the federal government has tied up his commercial property with notices of possible forfeiture. The request was denied.

In the Virginia trial, William Jefferson's defense attorneys offered up a competing narrative, telling jurors that although some of the former congressman's actions might be perceived as unethical, he committed no crimes. His business dealings were purely private and had nothing to do with his official work as a congressman, they argued.

That line of attack on the government's case failed -- at least for now. Jefferson plans to appeal his convictions.

Although not offering strategy details, Eddie Castaing, the attorney for Betty Jefferson, said her defense won't be shaped by what happened in the Virginia trial.
Ted Jackson / The Times-PicayuneBetty Jefferson

"The William Jefferson case and verdict have nothing to do with Betty Jefferson. The evidence in his case is totally irrelevant to Betty Jefferson," Castaing said. "She looks forward to her day in court. In the end, she will be exonerated."

The grand sweep of the federal scrutiny of the Jefferson family has been derided by defense attorney Arthur "Buddy" Lemann III in court filings. In his trademark colorful prose, Lemann called the case involving nonprofit groups "a patchwork of discordant and clashing designs hemmed together, not by a conspiratorial thread, but by Jefferson consanguinity," or blood ties.

Lemann charged that the prosecution by U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who was originally appointed by a Republican president, is "political." He said the government seeks to "ride on the high tide of the public outrage over the cold cash found in brother William's freezer," referring to $90,000 in marked bills given to the congressman by a federal informant to bribe an African official.

The money was found by the FBI stashed between veggie burger and frozen pie crust boxes inside William Jefferson's freezer four years ago and became the defining image of his corruption trial.

"I guess the government is at first base," Lemann said after the Virginia verdict came down.

Noting he is prepared for guilt-by-association tactics, the defense attorney said: "Ultimately it is up to the jury to decide. Just because Cain killed Abel doesn't make Abel a murderer."

Defense attorney Michael Fawer, who represents Mose Jefferson in the School Board bribery case, said indictments against various members of the Jefferson family are bound to make an impression on the public.

"God forbid one of them should be innocent," he said.

Fawer on Friday filed a motion seeking a trial delay or a change of venue, saying the storm of publicity surrounding William Jefferson's trial and verdict makes it "virtually impossible to obtain an impartial jury."

But U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon, in a two-sentence order Friday, refused to immediately delay or move the trial, saying questioning of prospective jurors "will reveal the extent of prejudice, if any, resulting from media coverage of the trial of defendant's brother."

One sibling defects

Although most of the tight-knit family has closed ranks, saying it never did anything illegal, there has been one defection. Brenda Foster of Covington, one of 10 Jefferson siblings and a sometime employee of nonprofit groups controlled by the family, pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony last year, or failure to report a crime she knew about. Foster is expected to testify, offering evidence of how Mose and Betty Jefferson, along with Coleman, the assessor's daughter, spent money on themselves that was intended for the poor.

Not every member of the extended Jefferson clan is facing federal charges. One of the still-living sisters, who doesn't live in the New Orleans area, is never mentioned in court proceedings. Three other siblings passed away during the past couple of years, while a brother and sister died years ago.

Ironically, the former congressman's younger brother Archie is the only one of the local siblings not facing charges recently. As a felon convicted a decade ago of writing worthless checks who was permanently disbarred from legal practice by the Louisiana Supreme Court, Archie Jefferson was once considered the family's chief source of scandal. But prosecutors have mentioned him only in passing as a possible beneficiary of his brother's business ventures in Africa.

Even the ex-congressman's five daughters have been dragged into the fray. Prosecutors argue that their tuition at expensive colleges and law schools was paid with ill-gotten money. The government has argued the children are the main reason Jefferson was so desperate for extra cash, although none has been accused of any wrongdoing.

Dominating the landscape

The decline of the family that that held a dominant place in New Orleans politics for two decades has been precipitous.

Just five years ago, William Jefferson was an influential member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, and his daughter Jalila Jefferson-Bullock had finished her first session as a state legislator. His protege, Renee Gill Pratt, the longtime companion of Mose Jefferson, held the Uptown-based seat on the City Council, while sister Betty Jefferson was the 4th District tax assessor. Everywhere, it seemed, the Jeffersons wielded clout.

"They were on a roll," said Lambert Boissiere Jr., the Orleans Parish constable and a sometime ally of the Jefferson clan. "Politically, they ran some of the best campaigns. They didn't win them all, but you couldn't find a better political organization for street work."

The Jeffersons' political organization, the Progressive Democrats, began to unravel after the FBI raid on William Jefferson's home and offices in August 2005, said Silas Lee, a pollster and Xavier University political scientist.

"That is when the organization started to witness and experience leaks in the political infrastructure," Lee said.

Spotlight shifts

With the Virginia trial over, it is now Mose Jefferson -- often described as the man responsible for running the Progressive Democrats street operation -- who is in federal prosecutors' crosshairs. He was frequently mentioned during the Virginia proceedings, a fact that Mose Jefferson's defense attorneys say poses a threat to his chance at a fair trial.

Indeed, prosecutors brought in witness after witness who testified that William Jefferson, in exchange for his offer to help work out regulatory or other issues with African governments, demanded that companies hire his brother as a consultant or otherwise cut him in on the deal. In most cases, the deals failed to pan out. But prosecutors still emphasized to jurors jury that Mose Jefferson had stood to gain hundreds of millions if the brothers' plans were successful.

In the trial scheduled to begin for Monday, Mose Jefferson is accused of bribing former Orleans Parish School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms in exchange for lining up board members' support in favor of buying $14 million worth of an algebra curriculum he was selling.

Jefferson has denied bribing Brooks-Simms, pointing out that the "I CAN Learn" program was unanimously approved by the School Board.

Although the case lacks the dramatic image of $90,000 stashed in a freezer, there are large numbers involved. Jefferson made more than $900,000 in commissions off the School Board's purchases and allegedly channeled $140,000 to Brooks-Simms.

Laura Maggi can be reached at or 504.826.3316.

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