A jury handed federal prosecutors a victory in finding an ex-congressman guilty of bribery, racketeering and other charges, four months after a corruption conviction against formerAlaska Sen. Ted Stevens was tossed aside in an embarrassing blow to the Justice Department.
William Jefferson, a Democrat who represented parts of New Orleans for almost 20 years, was convicted Wednesday on 11 corruption counts including money laundering after a two-month trial in Virginia that included evidence of $90,000 in cash from an FBI sting found stashed in the freezer of Jefferson’s home.
Jefferson was stoic as the verdict was read. Asked how he was doing, he said, “I’m holding up.” His attorney said he plans an appeal.
Prosecutors pursued an aggressive indictment, charging Jefferson on 16 counts that were far more serious than those levied against Stevens, who was convicted in October of lying on Senate forms about home renovations and gifts he received from wealthy friends.
Five months later, the Justice Department asked an angry judge to drop all charges against the longtime senator, admitting that prosecutors withheld important evidence from the defense.
In Jefferson’s case, the government alleged that he took more than $400,000 in bribes and sought millions more in exchange for using his influence to broker business deals in Africa. Defense lawyers argued that federal bribery laws are narrowly written and were never intended to ensnare the conduct alleged against Jefferson, and some legal experts agreed. The defense said Jefferson was acting as a private business consultant in brokering the deals.
Interestingly, the charge most closely associated with the most famous evidence — the freezer money wrapped in foil and hidden in boxes of frozen pie crust — was one of five counts on which Jefferson was acquitted.
Still, the guilty verdicts represent a clear victory for the Justice Department, who said Jefferson hid the bribes by funneling money disguised as consulting fees through sham companies controlled by his wife and brother.
U.S. Attorney Dana Boente commented afterward that “no person, not even a congressman, is above the law. Ninety-thousand dollars in a freezer is not a gray area. It’s a violation.”
And U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis rejected the defense’s efforts to get the case tossed out.
The charges Jefferson originally faced could have landed him in jail for 235 years. Prosecutor Mark Lytle said Jefferson could be sentenced on Oct. 30 to more than 20 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. The 62-year-old technically faces up to 150 years.
Jefferson rose from the poverty of the Louisiana Delta parishes to prominence as a street-savvy political tactician.
Known for a sharp ability to work the vote, he held his congressional seat for nearly two decades with strong backing of black voters in New Orleans, where neighborhood political organizations were the backbone of politics, especially before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Even after was accused of taking bribes, those well-cultivated voters still re-elected him in 2006.
Some remain on his side.
The Rev. Aubrey Wallace, a Baptist church assistant pastor in suburban Jefferson Parish, said the verdict doesn’t erode his belief in the ex-congressman’s innocence or his view that the prosecution was politically motivated.
“We’re going to rally around him,” he said. “I’ll be a supporter until the last breath in my mouth.”
Like Stevens, who lost the seat he held for 40 years because of his case, the bribery scandal cost Jefferson his spot.
Louisiana‘s first African-American congressman since Reconstruction lost in December to Republican attorney Anh “Joseph” Cao, a year after a grand jury indicted him.
“This is a difficult day for the people of New Orleans and Louisiana, but now we can turn the page on a negative past to focus on a positive future. My thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. Jefferson and his family during this time,” Cao said Wednesday.
Had Jefferson been acquitted, he might have considered a run for his former congressional seat.
Pollster Silas Lee, who has studied black politics in New Orleans for many years, thinks Jefferson’s loss, coupled with the convictions, have ended his political career.
“Once he lost, it automatically moved the city on, a changing of the guard,” said Lee.
Jefferson had been under investigation since March 2005, and in August that year, FBI agents searched his Washington home and found the freezer stash. Prosecutors said he had planned to use the money to pay a bribe to the then-vice president of Nigeria to secure a multimillion dollar telecommunications deal there, an accusation Jefferson denied.
The money ended up there after a disgruntled businesswoman, Lori Mody, agreed to wear a wire after telling the FBI she had been cheated out of $3.5 million in deals brokered by Jefferson. The jury saw videotape of Mody handing over a suitcase filled with $100,000 cash outside an Arlington hotel. Most of that money was recovered in the freezer.
Jefferson will remain free on bond until sentencing. Jurors must return to the courthouse Thursday to consider whether Jefferson has to forfeit more than $450,000 in alleged bribe receipts now that he has been convicted.
Daniel Ritter, a Gretna, La., business owner, said he thinks jurors got it right.
“I don’t know how he was going to deny $90,000 in his freezer,” he said. “You can’t explain that. I think there would have been mass hysteria if he was not found guilty.”