Nigerian Entangled In Jefferson Investigation
Saturday, July 22, 2006
The corruption investigation of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) has taken many strange twists: an FBI sting that caught the lawmaker on videotape accepting a large payoff; a subsequent raid that turned up $90,000 of that cash in his apartment freezer; and a weekend FBI search of his congressional office that triggered a constitutional uproar.
But one of the most puzzling and intriguing facets of the case is Jefferson's ties to Atiku Abubakar, the vice president of Nigeria. Abubakar, a wealthy businessman and one of the leading candidates in next year's race for president of Nigeria, divides his time between his homeland and Potomac, Md., where he and one of his four wives maintain a $2.2 million mansion.
Jefferson, who was a member of a House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, got to know Abubakar after the Nigerian was elected vice president in 1999. Later, Jefferson turned to Abubakar for help in winning a lucrative Nigerian telecommunications contract for a high-tech firm in Kentucky that was paying Jefferson bribes, according to an FBI affidavit. Jefferson told a business associate in a secretly taped conversation that Abubakar was "corrupt" and needed a hefty bribe and a cut of the profits in return for his help -- allegations Abubakar has strongly denied.
Abubakar's involvement in the case has created a buzz in Washington's diplomatic circles and generated intense political controversy and media attention in Nigeria -- a country that is trying to shed its long-standing reputation for corrupt government.
"I don't think it will be simply excused or trivialized," said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I think his opponents will use it, certainly. Nigerian politics is hardball."
After operating a six-month sting, FBI agents raided Abubakar's Potomac home on Aug. 3 and searched for evidence relating to Jefferson, who was alleged to have bribed a foreign official.
Federal authorities alleged in court filings that Jefferson took hundreds of thousands in illegal payments in exchange for using his congressional position to promote high-tech business ventures in Africa. Neither Jefferson nor Abubakar has been charged in the case, although two others have pleaded guilty to providing bribes to Jefferson.
On Wednesday, Abubakar, 59, issued a statement through his Washington lawyer denying any wrongdoing and insisting that Jefferson had never "suggested -- in any way -- providing any personal economic benefits" to him.
"I have no relationship with Mr. Jefferson, personal or private, other than the usual diplomatic courtesies extended to a high-ranking U.S. official who states that he is interested in promoting trade, investment and the transfer of technology to Nigeria," Abubakar said.
The vice president's allies, public-relations advisers and lawyer in the United States say Jefferson made up Abubakar's demands and used the Nigerian's good name to swindle people. The discovery of the cash in Jefferson's freezer, they say, was particularly telling.
"It's absolutely the clearest evidence of [Abubakar's] innocence," Adinoyi Ojo Onukaba, a former press secretary and current media adviser to Abubakar, said in a telephone interview.
The congressman "was just dropping his name to commit fraud . . . to extort money from people. The vice president asked for nothing."