By Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 22, 2006; A01
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."
Onukaba said yesterday that the FBI has asked the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to help in the Jefferson investigation by interviewing three governors of Nigerian states and other officials who had contact with the Louisiana Democrat.
Onukaba said he and others were urging the Nigerian agency to release any FBI report on the case. They say such a report would show that the vice president did nothing wrong. Several attempts to reach the commission for comment by phone and e-mail were unsuccessful.
Abubakar began his career as a Nigerian customs agent in 1969 and ascended to deputy director. A number of former U.S. diplomats and scholars said the Nigerian customs service was notorious at the time for taking bribes, but Abubakar has denied persistent rumors that he took illegal payoffs. As a young civil servant, he invested in stocks and real estate, according to his biography. After retiring from the customs service in 1989, he became active in politics while investing in oil-related services, insurance, pharmaceuticals and agriculture.
"He had a nose for business," Onukaba said.
In 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo was elected president of Nigeria, and Abubakar was elected vice president, ushering in what was touted as a new era of democracy after the brutal military dictatorship of Sani Abacha. Abubakar had spent several years in exile living in suburban Maryland during the Abacha regime.
Abubakar, a multimillionaire, owns several large businesses, a $3 million home in Nigeria's capital and a $5 million home in northern Nigeria, as well as his seven-bedroom, embassy-style gated mansion and gardens in Potomac. Moreover, he put up more than $25 million to start ABTI-American University of Nigeria in his home town of Yola through American University, according to the university in Yola.
In Washington, Abubakar became a fixture in diplomatic circles, speaking out on democracy in Africa and attending functions including a dinner for about 15 people last year at Restaurant Nora on Florida Avenue NW, hosted by Princeton N. Lyman, the former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.
"He has a distinguished record as opposing military dictatorships," Lyman said. "He's very supportive of education. He's quite an impressive person. There's many things one can admire about him."
Abubakar's wife Jennifer Atiku-Abubakar, a former Nigerian television reporter who also goes by the name Jamila, is a doctoral student at American University and operates the Gede Foundation, a Washington-based charity for people in Africa who have HIV. Although a registered Democrat, she has made political donations including $25,000 to the Republican National Committee, according to campaign records.
The year Abubakar took office as vice president, Jefferson visited Nigeria as part of a congressional fact-finding trip, according to travel records. Jefferson returned three more times -- including a trip in 2004 sponsored by iGate Inc. of Louisville, a high-tech company looking to break into Nigeria's cable television and Internet markets. The owner of iGate, Vernon L. Jackson, later pleaded guilty to paying bribes to Jefferson in connection with the Nigerian contract.
Abubakar said in his statement on Wednesday that he met with Jefferson at least four times, twice in Nigeria and twice in the United States, "in connection with Congressman Jefferson's attempt to introduce potential investors in Nigeria to Nigerian officials."
Their last meeting, on July 18, 2005, became the subject of a key FBI affidavit in the Jefferson corruption case.
On that Monday, a chauffeur drove Jefferson and his Northern Virginia business partner, Lori Mody, in a Lincoln Town Car down the winding pavement on Sorrel Avenue in Potomac to Abubakar's 2.3-acre property, partially shrouded by trees and protected by a six-foot-high black wrought-iron fence with gold tips.
Unbeknownst to Jefferson, Mody was wearing an FBI wire, and the chauffeur was an undercover FBI agent.
Jefferson met privately with Abubakar, without Mody, to discuss iGate Inc.'s involvement with a Nigerian partner in a high-tech venture to market Internet and cable television in Nigeria, according to the FBI affidavit.
Mody had invested $3.5 million, and Jefferson had a secret share of her business and of iGate.
Following the meeting on Sorrel Avenue, Jefferson told Mody that the vice president had demanded a cut of the profits. He said they also needed to give him a $500,000 payment "as a motivating factor," the affidavit said.
On July 30, Mody gave Jefferson a $100,000 bribe to pass on to Abubakar, and shortly after, Jefferson assured her that it had been delivered.
On Aug. 3, FBI agents found $90,000 of the marked FBI bills in Jefferson's freezer at his Capitol Hill apartment. None of cash had gone to Abubakar, according to the FBI affidavit.
Edward Weidenfeld, the vice president's Washington lawyer, called Jefferson's comments implicating Abubakar "false, self-serving statements."
Judy Smith, a Jefferson spokeswoman, said: "It should be clear from the statement by the vice president's counsel that the vice president never accepted or agreed to accept any money from the congressman. The congressman . . . maintains that he is innocent of any wrongdoing."