By Jerry Markon and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Federal authorities accused Rep. William J. Jefferson yesterday of using his congressional office and staff to enrich himself and his family, charging the Louisiana Democrat with offering and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to support business ventures in the United States and several West African nations.
The 16-count indictment also accused Jefferson, a former co-chairman of congressional caucuses on Nigeria and African trade, of racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice. The indictment was handed up by a federal grand jury and capped a long and tumultuous FBI investigation.
The grand jury said Jefferson, 60, had solicited a bribe for himself and family members in a congressional dining room, falsely reported trips to Africa as official business, sought to corrupt a senior Nigerian politician and promoted U.S. financing for a sugar factory in Nigeria whose owner paid fees to a Jefferson family company in his home state.
The indictment said that at one point, Jefferson drove in his Lincoln Town Car through the streets of Arlington with $100,000 in marked FBI bills meant for a top Nigerian official whose assistance Jefferson needed for a business venture. The lawmaker allegedly stowed $90,000 in his home freezer, wrapped in aluminum foil and concealed inside frozen-food containers.
The funds would be a down payment, Jefferson is accused of explaining to an associate, to ensure that "the little hook is in there."
The indictment came after a lengthy investigation that became public in 2005 with an FBI raid on Jefferson's homes. A separate raid in May 2006 on his quarters in the Rayburn House Office Building provoked a political and legal debate over the seizure of his computer hard drive and office files, with House leaders raising questions about the constitutionality of such an intrusive act. President Bush sealed the seized documents, but a federal judge later declared the raid constitutional. Some documents were eventually released to investigators, but others are held up in a legal challenge over the raid.
Jefferson, a low-key legislator who won reelection with 57 percent of the vote in November while under investigation, declined to comment yesterday. His attorney, Robert Trout, said Jefferson intends to fight on.
"They picked the wrong congressman, and they picked the wrong facts," Trout said at a news conference in Los Angeles.
"The Department of Justice has inspected every aspect of Mr. Jefferson's public and private life" but has not alleged that the lawmaker "promised anybody any legislation," Trout said. "There is no suggestion that he promised anyone any appropriations. There were no earmarks. There were no government contracts."
The federal indictment is the first in which a U.S. official is charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars bribery of foreign officials. Jefferson, federal officials said yesterday, collected about $400,000 as the result of the schemes at issue and was slated to collect much more if all his business deals came to fruition.
A 1972 graduate of Harvard Law School, Jefferson obtained a master's degree in taxation from Georgetown University's law school in 1996, four years before the indictment says his alleged conspiracy began. Jefferson became in 1990 the first black congressman elected in Louisiana since Reconstruction, and the soft-spoken lawmaker retained the strong support of other members of the Congressional Black Caucus after the FBI raid.
But House Democratic leaders orchestrated his removal last year from the Ways and Means Committee, and congressional sources said they may seek in coming days to strip him of his sole remaining committee assignment.
If convicted on all counts, Jefferson could face more than 200 years in prison, but under federal sentencing guidelines the term would probably be much less. The 94-page indictment details 11 alleged bribery and fraud schemes involving his business interests in at least seven West African countries, including telecommunications deals in Nigeria and Ghana, oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea, waste-recycling systems in Nigeria and the Nigerian sugar plant for which he sought Export-Import Bank financing.
Federal investigators based their accusations on recorded conversations, e-mail messages, documents, faxes and a cooperating witness -- Lori Mody -- who wore an electronic listening device when she conferred with Jefferson, according to the indictment and sources familiar with the probe. As outlined by authorities, the bribery schemes unfolded in meetings in Potomac, New York, London and Africa, and letters promoting business ventures were sent on congressional stationery by Jefferson's aides.
The indictment says Jefferson told the cooperating witness that he had "a lot of folks to pay off" in connection with a Nigerian cable television and Internet deal involving Louisville-based iGate. At another point, he is said to have described his role in packing family members onto the board of a company he had allegedly been shaking down for bribes. "I'm in the shadows behind the curtain," he reportedly said.
In May 2005, while discussing the possibility of bribing Nigerian officials to support the venture, Jefferson said he wanted to handle the matter personally. "I would rather take care of it," he is alleged to have told the witness. "I'm talking about with elected people and big shots, okay?"
The next month, Jefferson allegedly told the same witness that he outlined the project to the spouse of a Nigerian official he wanted to bribe so the official would "salivate over what the opportunities are there." Describing his efforts to get Nigerian and other African officials to support his business interests, Jefferson is accused of saying at one point: "I will try my very best to deliver for you and not disappoint you."
Mody is a wealthy investor from McLean who did business with Jefferson and iGate but eventually became suspicious and went to the FBI. That triggered the start of the investigation in March 2005. The Nigerian official that Jefferson allegedly sought to bribe has been identified in court records as Atiku Abubakar, who served as Nigeria's vice president from 1997 until this year.
Edward Weidenfeld, the attorney for Abubakar, said last night that "Vice President Abubakar is innocent of any wrongdoing, period."
"The schemes charged are complex," Chuck Rosenberg, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, said at a news conference. "The alleged criminal behavior is spread over time and distance. But the essence of the charges in this case are really rather simple. Mr. Jefferson corruptly traded on his good office and on the Congress, where he served as a member of the United States House of Representatives, to enrich himself and his family through a pervasive pattern of fraud, bribery and corruption that spanned many years and two continents."
Jefferson business associates Vernon L. Jackson, owner of iGate, and Brett Pfeffer, a former congressional aide, pleaded guilty last year to bribery and are serving time in prison.
Joseph Persichini Jr., head of the FBI's Washington field office, said the investigation is continuing. Jefferson is scheduled to be arraigned Friday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.
Staff writer Sonya Geis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.