By Jerry Markon and Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Former congressman William J. Jefferson was convicted of corruption charges Wednesday in a case made famous by the $90,000 in bribe money stuffed into his freezer and a legal battle over the raid of his Washington office that reached the highest levels of the U.S. government.
Federal jurors found the Louisiana Democrat guilty of using his congressional office as a criminal enterprise to enrich himself, soliciting and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to support his business ventures in Africa. The eight-woman, four-man jury convicted Jefferson of 11 of 16 counts that included solicitation of bribery, racketeering and money laundering.
Jurors acquitted Jefferson of three wire fraud counts, obstruction of justice and violating a law barring bribery of foreign officials. The bribery acquittal meant that jurors found that the money stashed in the freezer of his Capitol Hill home never made it to his intended target, but they convicted him of conspiring to bribe that person, a Nigerian official.
The verdict in U.S. District Court in Alexandria culminated an investigation that alternately fascinated and horrified much of official Washington. Jefferson is a former co-chairman of congressional caucuses on Nigeria and African trade who in 1990 became the first black congressman elected in Louisiana since Reconstruction. The low-key legislator burst into public view in 2005 when the FBI raided his home and found the cold cash wrapped in foil and stashed in Boca Burger and Pillsbury boxes.
Jefferson, 62, faces up to 150 years in prison when he is sentenced Oct. 30. Judge T.S. Ellis III rejected prosecutors' efforts to send the former lawmaker to jail in advance of sentencing, allowing Jefferson to remain free on bond.
Jefferson lost his reelection bid in December after winning another term while under investigation.
A somber Jefferson declined to comment on the verdict, saying only that he is "holding up" before walking off with his wife and family members. His attorney, Robert P. Trout, said he will appeal. "Obviously, we're very disappointed about the verdict," Trout said, adding: "We believe we have very strong legal issues" on appeal.
U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente, in a brief news conference outside the federal courthouse, said Jefferson had violated "his compact with the people of Louisiana. . . . He used his influence and his power to enrich himself and his family. This case shows that no person, not even a congressman, is above the law."
Congressional reaction was generally muted, but Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said: "It is a sad day for [Jefferson's] family but no one is above the law."
Legal experts said the case will always be best known for the cash in the freezer but will also help agents investigate other public officials who mix private businesses with their official duties.
"People are going to remember that this is the guy who was dumb enough to put the money in the freezer," said W. Dennis Aiken, former chief of the FBI's public corruption unit, who called the case "a step forward in proving that this type of conduct is criminal."
Beyond the money in the freezer, which defense lawyers acknowledged in closing arguments made Jefferson something of "a national joke," the case was best known for the FBI raid on Jefferson's office in the Rayburn House Office Building. The May 2006 seizure of his computer hard drive and office files was the first time federal agents raided a congressional office, and it led House leaders to assert that the documents were privileged legislative material not subject to search.
President George W. Bush sealed the documents, and the dispute caused a delay in the case. 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 was indicted by a federal grand jury in June 2007, the first time a U.S. official had been charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars bribery of foreign officials. He was acquitted of that charge Wednesday. Prosecutors, who presented more than 40 witnesses at the seven-week trial, told jurors the money in his freezer was meant to bribe the then-vice president of Nigeria to secure his help with a telecommunications venture. They said it was part of a pattern of illicit acts in which Jefferson used his position to direct about $400,000 in bribes, relating to business ventures he helped arrange in Africa, to companies he set up in family members' names.
Prosecutors played videotapes showing Jefferson meeting with a business associate-turned-FBI informant, who gave him the money in marked bills. It was never delivered to Nigeria, prosecutors said, only because Jefferson couldn't do so before the FBI found it.
Defense attorneys said that Jefferson had been "stupid" and shown "awful judgment" in agreeing to make the payoff to the Nigerian official but that he had not committed a crime.
The defense, which presented two witnesses, said the business dealings might have been unethical but were not criminal because they were not part of Jefferson's official congressional duties. They said the government had tried to stretch what amounted to congressional ethics violations into criminal acts.
The jury's verdict came after five days of deliberation.
Jefferson, who did not testify, is the third person convicted in the investigation. His former business associates Vernon L. Jackson and Brett Pfeffer, a former congressional aide, pleaded guilty in 2006 to bribery and are serving time in prison.
Staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this report.