By LAURIE KELLMAN
The Associated Press
Monday, June 4, 2007; 8:07 PM
WASHINGTON -- The $90,000 the FBI says it found in Rep. William Jefferson's freezer wasn't the death knell of his political career.
The Louisiana Democrat still cruised to his ninth House term last year, propelled by hugs and kisses on the campaign trail from supporters who distinguished him from other politicians in only one respect:
He got caught.
"Don't mess with Jeff," read Jefferson's campaign pins.
The FBI did just that. So have leaders of the congressman's own party. They stripped him of a seat on the tax-writing House Ways and Committee a year ago after the FBI staged a controversial Saturday night raid of his office. Later, his colleagues put him on the Small Business Committee, but they're expected to try to oust him from that seat later in the week.
Federal investigators on Monday announced Jefferson's indictment after a two-year investigation. Rather than producing little, as Jefferson had suggested, the probe came up with a 16-count indictment on racketeering and bribery charges that could put him in prison the rest of his life.
Dapper and calm throughout the investigation, Jefferson, 60, maintains his innocence, his lawyer, Robert Trout, said Monday.
The charges put a kink in the arc of a political career that began in rural Louisiana, ran through Harvard law school, took Jefferson to New Orleans and put him at the helm of what became the largest black-owned law practice in the South. In 1990, he became the first black elected to a Louisiana congressional seat since Reconstruction.
Jefferson's tangled legislative and business dealings dogged him from the beginning of his career. In the 1970s, a mayoral candidate dubbed the young politician "Dollar Bill" Jefferson _ a nickname inspired by stubborn questions about the future congressman's fondness for cash.
The nickname stuck as questions continued popping up about Jefferson's financial matters, including a loan default and a lawsuit for poor maintenance of his extensive real estate holdings. Jefferson also overdrew his congressional office's bank account. He was criticized when his law firm took lucrative contracts from his alma mater, Southern University, and the Louisiana attorney general's office while he served in the state Senate. No punitive action was taken.
Beginning from his family's three-bedroom house on a cotton farm in rural northern Louisiana, Jefferson's political career was a steady progression. The sixth of 10 children in a devoutly Baptist family, he was a high school class president before attending Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge.
According to a profile in the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, he loves to tell the story of his mother's reaction when he informed her of his plan to attend Harvard University's law school. She'd never heard of it, but she gave her blessing after discovering that John F. Kennedy had gone there.
Jefferson married college girlfriend Andrea Green in 1970; the pair went on to have five daughters, three of whom followed their father to Harvard and the legal profession, according to Jefferson's Web site. One of them, Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, is a member of the Louisiana House.
William Jefferson rose fast in Louisiana political circles. He was elected to three terms in the Louisiana Senate, served in the Judge Advocate General's Corps and became an aide to Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston.
According to the FBI's affidavit, he accepted $100,000 in cash two years ago from an FBI information in a scheme to bribe Nigerian telecommunications officials. The FBI found most of that money in Jefferson's freezer.
One of two associates who pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges admitted paying more than $400,000 to a phony company headed by Jefferson's wife and family in exchange for favors from the congressman.