Freezer Money Key in Case Against Louisiana Representative William J. Jefferson
Sunday, June 7, 2009
The bribery and fraud case of former U.S. representative William J. Jefferson involves business ventures in seven West African nations, 16 criminal counts and a high-stakes legal battle over the raid of his Washington office. But when the trial begins Tuesday in Alexandria federal court, the case will be summed up to jurors with this key question: "Do you know the case of the congressman with the money in the freezer?"
After nine terms in office, the Louisiana Democrat is most known for the $90,000 that federal officers found wrapped in aluminum foil and tucked inside frozen food containers in his Capitol Hill home.
Jurors are expected to determine whether the congressman was using his freezer as an alternative to a bank, akin to stuffing lawful money under his mattress, or whether he was the mastermind behind a botched scheme to bribe the vice president of Nigeria.
Jefferson, 62, has told reporters that he has an "honest explanation" for the cold cash, but he has yet to offer details. The investigation has led to two of Jefferson's business associates, including a former aide, pleading guilty to bribery.
Jefferson, a Harvard Law School graduate, was reelected while under investigation but lost his seat in December to Anh "Joseph" Cao (R), the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress.
It is unclear whether Jefferson will testify at his trial, which is expected to last up to six weeks, in U.S. District Court.
The search of Jefferson's home in 2005 capped an investigation in which federal officials gathered e-mails, documents, faxes and conversations with an FBI informant who wore a recording device. Charging documents say the informant, Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody, who was participating in a sting operation, handed Jefferson $100,000, which he said he would give to then-Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar as a bribe to facilitate a business deal. Most of the marked bills ended up in his freezer, federal agents said.
As part of the investigation, the FBI searched Jefferson's office, the first time federal officers raided a congressional office. The search caused a two-year delay in the case and a skirmish between the Justice Department and congressional leaders, who asserted that the documents in Jefferson's office were privileged legislative material and not subject to search. Jefferson sued the Justice Department, and an appeals court ruled that he could review the documents before investigators did, to highlight those connected to legislative activity.
Jefferson, the former co-chairman of the congressional caucus on Nigeria and African trade, faces charges of racketeering, obstruction of justice and money laundering.
Prosecutors allege that he used his official position to squeeze hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks out of companies, requesting payments to promote businesses abroad and arranging deals in which he would profit from ventures he helped set up in Africa.
As outlined by authorities in a 94-page indictment, Jefferson's bribery schemes included telecommunications deals in Nigeria and Ghana, oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea and waste-recycling systems in Nigeria.
The indictment says Jefferson failed to disclose his financial interests in the business ventures by omitting the information from required travel and financial disclosure forms. His alleged crimes unfolded in meetings in Potomac, McLean, New York, London and Africa.