By Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 4, 2006
A Louisville man pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court to bribing Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) with more than $400,000 in payments, company stock and a share of the profits to promote the Kentucky firm's high-tech business ventures in Africa.
Vernon L. Jackson, 53, owner of Louisville-based iGate Inc., pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe and bribery in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Federal sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of up to nine years for the crimes, which occurred from 2001 to 2005.
Jackson is the second person to plead guilty to charges of bribing the eight-term Democrat to promote iGate's broadband technology -- including Internet and cable television -- in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon. Jefferson denied any wrongdoing in the case yesterday, but his legal problems are steadily mounting and have undercut his party's efforts to portray the Republicans as the party of political corruption.
"I was surprised and disappointed to learn of Vernon Jackson's guilty plea and of his characterization of our relationship," Jefferson said in a statement issued by his office. "As I have previously stated, I have never over all the years of my public service, accepted payment from anyone for the performance of any act or duty for which I have been elected. I am confident and am trusting God, that this simple fact will be established in the proper forum as I am innocent in the matter to which Vernon Jackson has plead guilty."
Jefferson, 58, co-chairman of the congressional Africa Trade and Investment Caucus, met with African officials to promote iGate. He has not been charged, but he is a target in the case, according to law enforcement authorities. Sources familiar with the case have said a plea agreement with the lawmaker has been explored.
Jackson, who agreed to cooperate with authorities, declined to comment yesterday as he walked out of the courtroom with his wife.
Alice S. Fisher, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's criminal division, said in a statement: "Vernon Jackson got favorable treatment from a Congressman because he paid for it. Public corruption is not a victimless crime -- all of us lose when people believe public officials can be bought."
At yesterday's plea hearing, Jackson, in a black suit, stood erect and answered the judge's questions in short, but polite responses, frequently saying "Yes, your honor." When U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III asked how he was doing, Jackson replied: "I feel fine, sir, other than a little nervous standing before you."
The charging papers refer to a "Representative A" who received the bribes, but court documents and law enforcement authorities previously confirmed that it is Jefferson. Jefferson's Washington attorney, Robert P. Trout, sat in the courtroom observing, but he declined to comment afterward.
During the proceedings, the judge asked Jackson not to mention any names of parties he dealt with while admitting his guilt.
But at one point, Jackson apparently slipped and mentioned "Andrea," the name of Jefferson's wife.
Jackson later agreed with the "statement of facts" in the case that was read aloud by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle.
According to that document, Jackson met Jefferson in 2000. The Democratic lawmaker later persuaded the Army to test iGate's broadband technology. Eventually, Jefferson helped iGate land a contract at Fort Stewart, an Army base in Georgia.
In early 2001, Jefferson told Jackson he would no longer use his position to help the company unless Jackson agreed to pay money to the ANJ Group, whose principals included Jefferson's wife and children, the document stated.
Jackson signed a "professional services agreement" to conceal the illegal nature of the payments," which included $7,500 a month to the Jefferson family company, 5 percent of gross sales over $5 million each year and 5 percent of all capital investments in iGate, the court document said.
In addition, Jackson agreed to transfer options for 1 million shares of iGate stock over five years.
To collect the bribes, Jefferson's family company sent numerous fake invoices to iGate that appeared to be signed by Jefferson's wife, the document said.
"Jackson believed that in the event Jackson did not pay these invoices [Jefferson] would stop performing official acts on behalf of iGate and take affirmative steps to impede the success of iGate," the document said.
Around June 2003, Jefferson brought together iGate and Netlink Digital Television, a Nigerian company seeking Internet technology for Africa. The company agreed to invest $45 million in iGate and put up $6.5 million.
Anticipating that the venture would reap handsome profits, Jefferson successfully demanded that Jackson increase the congressman's cut of the company profits in Africa from 5 percent to 35 percent, the document said.
In the spring of 2004, iGate and the Nigerian digital television company quit doing business after a dispute. The same year, Brett Pfeffer, a former aide to Jefferson, came into the picture.
Pfeffer, 37, worked for Lori Mody, a wealthy Northern Virginia woman who invested in iGate's ventures in Nigeria and Ghana. In early 2005, Mody became concerned about the business arrangement, went to the FBI and agreed to record conversations.
In January, Pfeffer pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson and agreed to cooperate.