For Deals, Jefferson Built Web Of Firms
Monday, June 5, 2006
On May 12, 2005, over dinner with business partner and FBI informant Lori Mody, Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) furtively scrawled the letter "c" on a sheet of paper, and next to it wrote some numbers indicating that he was demanding a much larger personal stake in an African business deal than previously agreed to.
"The 'c' is like for 'children,' " the congressman told Mody, as an FBI tape recorder rolled. "I make a deal for my children. It wouldn't be for me."
As court records, sworn affidavits, plea agreements and search warrants attest, it was quite a deal, one of several involving at least seven business entities, nearly a dozen family members and hundreds of thousands of dollars sloshing through bank accounts, all for Jefferson's personal benefit.
An FBI raid on Jefferson's congressional office last month triggered a constitutional showdown between the White House and congressional leaders from both parties over separation of powers. But as that controversy subsides, the focus has shifted back to Jefferson and the corporate labyrinth that federal authorities say he erected to secretly receive illegal payments for promoting high-tech ventures in Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria.
For Jefferson, 59, the money-making schemes were supposed to be all in the family, involving his wife, two brothers, five daughters and two sons-in-law. As a member of the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, Jefferson has traveled repeatedly to Nigeria and other western African countries and met with their leaders.
Jefferson's secretive business negotiations have already yielded guilty pleas from one business partner, Vernon L. Jackson, and a former top aide, Brett M. Pfeffer. Both have confessed to conspiring to bribe the congressman. Jackson admitted giving Jefferson more than $400,000 in exchange for using his official position to promote high-tech business ventures in Africa.
Jefferson has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. Late last week, his attorney, Robert P. Trout, complained that the Justice Department has leaked grand jury information and "has not passed up any opportunity to further its public relations campaign to justify the unprecedented -- and we believe illegal -- search of a congressman's office."
"The congressman has not been charged with any offense, and now is not the time to respond to the ever-growing number of inappropriate and improper disclosures by the government," Trout said. "Congressman Jefferson continues to maintain that he has never accepted payment from anyone for the performance of any act or duty for which he was elected."
To political observers in his native New Orleans, the recent revelations of a sprawling corruption investigation fit neatly into the biography of a politician who has been bedeviled by personal finance controversies his whole career. The son of impoverished Louisiana sharecroppers and a graduate of Harvard Law School, Jefferson has never been content to live off the salary of a public servant, nor did he want to leave his family in the financial straits he pulled himself out of, observers say.
He broke with his mentor, Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial, New Orleans's first black mayor, in the late 1970s over a steep bill Jefferson delivered for legal work that Morial had assumed was free. He was sued in 1990 by the federal government for failing to pay the mortgage on his dilapidated rental properties, and eventually settled. He took heat for a business he ran renting appliances to poor people who could not afford their own, according to local news accounts.
"That's why we call him 'Dollar Bill,' " said Allan Katz, an independent New Orleans political consultant, who chronicled Jefferson's early political career for the Times-Picayune.
But Jefferson's recent ventures show a level of sophistication that puts his landlord days in the distant past.