The William Jefferson Chronicles

William Jefferson: Longevity, clout matter
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
By Frank Donze

For a brief time last month, the lurid legal drama that has engulfed U.S. Rep. William Jefferson for three years was pushed backstage.

In a series of public appearances, Jefferson got to play the role of political power broker, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Democratic Party bigwigs who flew south for a tour of the hurricane zone.

During the delegation's four-day visit, Jefferson didn't face a single question about the long list of criminal charges that have been leveled against him and members of his family. Instead, he joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Whip James Clyburn in serving up sound bites about the region's unmet needs, from flood protection to health care to education.

But as he bids for a 10th term as the representative of the 2nd Congressional District, Jefferson once again must confront the elephant in the room: an upcoming trial on federal charges that he sought bribes for businesses run by family members, including his wife and children.

His six Democratic challengers in the Sept. 6 party primary are hoping to capitalize on what they describe as Jefferson's loss of stroke on Capitol Hill, evidenced, they say, by Pelosi's decision to boot him from the influential House Ways and Means Committee.

It's a campaign strategy that Jefferson says is doomed to fail.

"They can't win on that," Jefferson said emphatically, arguing that while he lost his committee assignment, he maintains strong "personal" relationships with congressional leaders that allow him to influence legislation.

"After the storm, the most important thing we had to do down here was to make sure that we aren't forgotten by the Congress on the most important issues. It's where the lead comes from, it's where the money comes from. And I have been able to do that."

Jefferson said he has had a hand in every major legislative victory in the region's struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina, from securing billions of additional dollars to repair and fortify the levee protection system and to fully finance the Road Home program to waiving a 10 percent match that local municipalities were required to contribute to rebuilding projects financed by FEMA.

Jefferson said he continues to push other big-ticket initiatives, including an effort to restore $500 million for affordable housing in a stimulus package being debated in Congress and a proposal to reimburse private hospitals to the tune of $405 million for post-storm expenses.

 It's that "still working" message that Jefferson says he wants to take directly to voters in the district, which represents most of New Orleans, most of Jefferson Parish's West Bank and parts of south Kenner.

"If I make the point that I have done the job and that no one who is talking about what they will do could have done it any better," he said, "and that no one understands the job any better than I do and is more effective than me, then I've made my argument. Then it's up to the voters to decide."

--- Running despite indictments ---

Facing a dozen challengers two years ago, Jefferson was forced into a runoff for the first time since he won the 2nd District seat in 1990. Though he was outspent 2-to-1 by his well-financed opponent, state Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, Jefferson won easily with more than 56 percent of the vote.

But that victory came while the federal probe into his business dealings was still under way. Since he was sworn in for a ninth term, his image has taken a further beating.

In June 2007, the Justice Department indicted Jefferson on 16 counts of public corruption. He is scheduled to go to trial Dec. 2, about a month after the Nov. 4 general election for his seat.

Two months ago, things got worse. In a separate case, the congressman's sister, Orleans Parish 4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson, along with his brother and political adviser, Mose Jefferson, were indicted on charges that they conspired to loot more than $600,000 in taxpayer money from three charities they set up to aid needy youths. At least six other Jefferson relatives were implicated in the indictment.

The latest legal troubles came after the April indictment of Mose Jefferson on separate charges that he bribed the former president of the Orleans Parish School Board. That case is set for trial in October.

While the Jeffersons have staunchly defended their innocence, they have declined to discuss specifics of the cases.

Even as the allegations against him and his siblings have mounted, the congressman said he has not confronted criticism or even concern among his supporters about his legal predicament.

 "No, nobody says that to me," he said. "I know it sounds crazy, but it's true."

Asked how he would respond if a longtime supporter were to raise questions about the allegations, Jefferson said he would point to instances where other elected officials charged with crimes ultimately were vindicated. As examples he cited former U.S. Reps. Harold Ford Sr. of Tennessee and Floyd Flake of New York, two Democrats who were fighting fraud indictments when Jefferson arrived in Washington two decades ago.

"Their constituents stayed with them, they went to court and they won their cases," Jefferson said. "And that's what we'll do in this case."

Bishop Paul Morton Sr., one of the city's most influential clergymen, said he will continue to give his longtime ally the benefit of the doubt.

"I will not rush to judgment against anyone, and that includes Congressman William Jefferson," Morton said. "He is my friend and a member of our ministry and has faithfully served the people of the 2nd Congressional District for several years. I have always believed that a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. My prayers and support are with Congressman Jefferson and his family."

In the three years since the first details of the sprawling federal investigation became public, a key issue for Jefferson has been how he would explain two pieces of evidence: the $90,000 FBI agents found wrapped in his freezer during an August 2005 raid of his New Orleans home and the secretly taped conversations in which investigators allege he discussed complicated bribery schemes.

Jefferson, a lawyer, has promised he will offer an "honorable explanation" at his trial. Asked recently to elaborate on his pledge, he said, "I have no further comment about that."

--- Contributions down ---

The indictments appear to have put a serious crimp in Jefferson's fundraising. Heading into the 2006 election, he had a $325,000 war chest. Jefferson's latest finance report shows that as of June 30, he had $102,000 in the bank, plus more than $255,000 in debt. The latter sum included nearly $190,000 of his own money loaned to the 2006 campaign.

Jefferson, who said he plans to stage a traditional media campaign including television, radio and direct mail, said he isn't concerned about money.

 "The last time it didn't make any difference," he said, referring to the financial advantage enjoyed by his runoff opponent. Money "is not as important as it is to someone who is being introduced to voters. When a billboard for a new candidate goes up, people are going to say, 'Who is that?' For me, they say, 'It must be election time again.' "

The only endorsement Jefferson has formally announced so far is from the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, which has backed him throughout his career. Union officials could not be reached for comment, but in the past AFL-CIO representatives have praised Jefferson for his commitment to affordable health care, Social Security and pension plans, a fair minimum wage and well-paying jobs.

In addition to Morton, Jefferson said he expects to have the backing of several ministers.

But political handicappers speculate that while some supporters continued to withhold judgment while Jefferson was under investigation, the filing of criminal charges has changed everything.

While several politicians from Orleans and Jefferson parishes have come out in support of his challengers, none has endorsed the congressman. New Orleans City Councilman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who backed Jefferson in 2006, said she is staying neutral this time.

Meanwhile, the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, which has handed Jefferson the local party's stamp of approval in each of his nine congressional wins, is supporting one of his opponents, New Orleans City Councilman James Carter.

And after saying he would not challenge Jefferson in 2006, his longtime ally state Rep. Cedric Richmond has cited the incumbent's declining influence as the impetus for him to enter this race.

Jefferson declined to discuss whether he expects to get the backing of any big-name political figures, saying he is putting all his energy into reaching voters, who he said have been very supportive.

"I believe in asking voters to vote for you and ask them as directly as you can, as well as you can," he said. "So to the extent that I can meet as many people, see as many people in the course of this election as I can, then that's what I'll do."

Describing his visits to churches, he said, "You would see people saying to me, 'I'm praying for you and I've had this vision about how things are going to be all right. Don't you worry about anything.' That's how it goes."

Jefferson said he is not preoccupied by his legal problems, preferring to leave that issue to his attorneys.

"That's the only way I can," he said. "It surprises people, but it's true. I don't dwell on it, my family doesn't sit around and talk about it. We just try to keep focused on what's in front of us."

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Frank Donze can be reached at or 504.826.3328.

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