Ex-Rep. Jefferson (D-La.) gets 13 years in freezer cash case

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009

Former congressman William J. Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison Friday for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, the longest prison term ever handed down to a member of Congress convicted of corruption charges.

The sentence for the Lousiana Democrat fell far short of the 27 to 33 years suggested under federal sentencing guidelines, a recommendation endorsed by prosecutors. But it exceeded the previous record for congressional corruption: the eight-year and four-month prison term that former congressman Randall "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) received in 2006 for taking bribes from defense contractors.

Jefferson's case was made famous by the $90,000 in what prosecutors said was bribe money that the FBI found stuffed into his freezer and a legal battle over the raid of his Washington office, a battle that reached the highest levels of the U.S. government. He was convicted in August in U.S. District Court in Alexandria of 11 counts that included bribery, racketeering and money laundering. Jurors acquitted Jefferson of five counts.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys presented sharply differing portrayals of Jefferson, 62, 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. He lost his reelection bid in December.

Jefferson engaged in "the most extensive and pervasive pattern of corruption in the history of Congress," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark D. Lytle. "The jury found that the congressman conducted his congressional office as a criminal enterprise."

Defense attorney Robert P. Trout, who sought a sentence of less than 10 years, urged the judge to take into account Jefferson's life story. "What he has accomplished is really nothing short of extraordinary," Trout said. "We are not saying that this extraordinary story should give him a pass. . . . A stern sentence is appropriate."

Judge T.S. Ellis III told Jefferson that he has "led an extraordinary life and has accomplished a great deal." But he added: "It makes this event all the sadder for me and many people."

Before handing down the sentence, Ellis said, "Public corruption is a cancer, and it needs to be surgically removed." The judge said he would decide later whether Jefferson should report to prison immediately.

U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride praised the sentence. "Mr Jefferson is well known for the $90,000 found in his freezer,'' MacBride said. "It is our hope that he will now be well known for the tough sentence handed down today, showing that no one -- including our elected officials -- are above the law.''

The investigation of Jefferson, a low-key legislator who did not testify at his trial or speak at his sentencing, 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.

Prosecutors said the money, obtained from an FBI informant, was intended 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 schemes in which Jefferson received and offered bribes, using his position to direct more than $400,000 in payoffs, relating to business ventures he helped arrange in Africa, to companies he set up in family members' names.

The probe escalated in 2006 with the seizure of Jefferson's computer hard drive and office files, the first time federal agents raided a congressional office. The raid 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 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 by federal jurors, but he was convicted of a conspiracy count that included conspiring to violate the act.

During the trial, prosecutors played videotapes showing Jefferson meeting with a business associate-turned-FBI informant, who gave him the money, in marked bills, that wound up in his freezer. 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.

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