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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
Jefferson, who said he plans to stage a traditional media campaign
including television, radio and direct mail, said he isn't concerned
"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
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
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."
. . . . . . .
Frank Donze can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3328.