Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Jefferson charged in bribery and corruption

By Jerry Seper
Published June 5, 2007

Rep. William J. Jefferson speaks at a news conference in 2006, where he declined to answer questions about the bribery allegations surrounding him. "There are certainly two sides to this story," he told reporters.

A federal grand jury in Alexandria yesterday indicted Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, on charges of bribery and corruption in his promotion of telecommunications equipment and services in Africa.

The 16-count indictment said Mr. Jefferson, 60, sought bribes for himself and his family, including the $90,000 in cash found by FBI agents in a freezer during a search of his Washington home. The nine-term congressman is charged with racketeering, soliciting bribes, wire fraud, money-laundering, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

"The Department of Justice is committed to enforcing the public-corruption laws designed to ensure the integrity of our government," said Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher, who heads the department's Criminal Division. "The department will continue to hold public officials accountable for corrupt acts such as the bribery schemes outlined in today's indictment."

The indictment said that from August 2000 to August 2005, Mr. Jefferson used his office to "corruptly seek, solicit and direct that things of value" be paid to him and his family in exchange for his performing official acts.

The "things of value," according to the indictment, included hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bribes in the form of payments from monthly fees or retainers, consulting fees, percentage shares of revenues and profits, flat fees for items sold, and stock ownership in the companies seeking his official assistance.

Mr. Jefferson, who was traveling yesterday, has denied any wrongdoing. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 235 years in prison.

His attorney, Robert Trout, yesterday said the congressman is innocent and "plans to fight this indictment and clear his name."

"While the prosecution has been steadily sharing information with the public over the past two years, and while the Department of Justice has thrown together a lengthy and creative indictment, the government has yet to prove any charges in court," he said.

Two of Mr. Jefferson's associates have struck plea agreements with prosecutors, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and been sentenced.

Brett M. Pfeffer, a former member of Mr. Jefferson's staff, pleaded guilty to soliciting bribes on behalf of his boss and was sentenced to eight years in prison. Vernon L. Jackson, president and chief executive officer of the Louisville-based telecommunications firm IGate, pleaded guilty to paying from $400,000 to $1 million in bribes to Mr. Jefferson and was sentenced to seven years and three months.

Court records also show that Mr. Jefferson was videotaped taking a $100,000 cash bribe from an FBI informant. Most of that money later turned up in the freezer in Mr. Jefferson's home.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, yesterday said he will offer a privileged resolution to refer the Jefferson indictment to the House ethics committee, asking the panel to review the matter and report within 30 days on whether he should be expelled for conduct that brings dishonor to the institution.

Mr. Boehner said the resolution will jump-start a process against Mr. Jefferson that expired at the end of the 109th Congress and has not been renewed by the new Democratic majority. A vote on the resolution could come as soon as today.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the charges "extremely serious," saying the congressman "just as any other citizen, must be considered innocent until proven guilty, if these charges are proven true, they constitute an egregious and unacceptable abuse of public trust and power."

"Democrats are committed to upholding a high ethical standard and eliminating corruption and unethical behavior from the Congress," said Mrs. Pelosi, who led her party to victory in the 2006 elections by accusing congressional Republicans of, among other things, presiding over a "culture of corruption."

For the past two years, the FBI investigation has focused on accusations that Mr. Jefferson took payments to promote the sale of telecommunications equipment and services offered by IGate to Nigeria, Ghana and other African nations.

According to court documents, the FBI obtained information showing that Mr. Jefferson's family received an equity stake in a Nigerian company controlled by an IGate investor, who later became a cooperating witness. The documents said Mr. Jefferson's family received more than $400,000 from IGate.

In exchange for the cash, the documents said that Mr. Jefferson communicated with "Nigerian Official A," thought to have been Vice President Atiku Abubakar, in an effort to secure an IGate business venture in Nigeria, and that he met with high-level Ghanaian officials in a further effort to obtain approval for IGate in Ghana.

The indictment does not name Mr. Abubakar, who has denied any wrongdoing, but the indictment describes Mr. Jefferson's dealings with a high-ranking official in Nigeria's executive branch who had a spouse in Potomac. One of Mr. Abubakar's wives lived in that Washington suburb.

The documents said Mr. Jefferson discussed with the cooperating witness and others the payment of bribes to high-ranking foreign officials to promote IGate's business in Nigeria -- including a July 2005 meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Arlington when the informant gave Mr. Jefferson a briefcase containing $100,000 cash with the understanding that the payment would be forwarded to a high-level Nigerian official.

The indictment said Mr. Jefferson also sought bribes from the cooperating witness for family members, requiring 5 percent to 7 percent of the witnesses' newly formed Nigerian company for members of his family in exchange for his assistance.

In May 2006, the FBI sought a warrant to search Mr. Jefferson's congressional office, and two days later, agents seized two boxes of documents and copies of the hard drives of each of the office's computers. Mr. Jefferson challenged the legality of the raid, which is still being debated on appeal.

•S.A. Miller and Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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