Although his lawyers are considering a long-shot appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, one of Louisiana’s most prominent former public officials is heading for prison.
Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, was ordered to begin serving a 13-year bribery sentence by a judge in Alexandria, Va.
A federal appeals court had upheld all but one of the 11 counts on which Jefferson was convicted in 2009 — including bribery, money laundering and racketeering.
The high-profile case involved Jefferson hiding marked bills given to him by an FBI informant.
Jurors saw videotape of the woman handing over a suitcase with $100,000 cash to Jefferson outside an Arlington, Va., hotel just outside Washington, D.C. Most of that money later was found in Jefferson’s freezer.
Prosecutors said Jefferson planned to use the money to pay his own bribe to the then-vice president of Nigeria to secure a multimillion-dollar telecommunications deal there.
The defense argued Jefferson was acting as a private business consultant in brokering the deals.
This did not fly even with the long-patient voters of Jefferson’s New Orleans district. He was upset in the 2008 election by Joseph Cao, a Republican.
The key argument on appeal was that Jefferson’s actions were not technically bribery under federal law because he did not take or solicit money in exchange for an “official act,” such as voting on legislation. But the appeals court ruled unanimously that it would be “absurd” to conclude Jefferson’s actions would not be considered bribery.
Indeed it would be absurd. The only count that was dismissed on appeal was a wire fraud count tossed out for lack of venue. That did not affect the core of the case, or lessen the sentence for Jefferson, 65.
The “cold cash” in the freezer was a detail that brought national attention to the case.
Among other distinctions that Jefferson’s case provided for Louisiana’s reputation for crooked politics: It is the longest sentence ever on a bribery conviction for a member of Congress.
For those with long memories at the State Capitol, the news of his unsuccessful appeal cannot help but conjure the image of the young Jefferson, a state senator whose intelligence and personal story led many to believe he would be destined to become the state’s first black governor since Reconstruction.
Son of a sharecropper and graduate of Southern University and then Harvard Law School, Jefferson’s promise was bright. He was an articulate and effective member of the Senate, even among those who did not share his relatively liberal politics.
Although Jefferson was elected to Congress, he unsuccessfully sought the mayoralty in New Orleans and the governorship in 1999. The latter was a pretty much hopeless run against Gov. Mike Foster, but he still drew considerable support from state Democrats in his race against the incumbent Republican.
But allegations of personal corruption followed Jefferson for years, with a gibe from an opponent, “Dollar Bill,” gaining wide currency. He was part of an extended personal and political family that engaged, several times, the unwelcome attention of prosecutors.
Ironically, in Jefferson’s career in Congress, he was noted for promoting free-trade agreements with African countries — a progressive policy, good for this country and for Africa. His efforts gained support across party lines on the influential Ways and Means Committee, on which Jefferson served.
Alas, by seeking personal profit out of a good policy, Jefferson’s wheeling and dealing proved his undoing.
The damning videotapes were impossible to live down, and correctly so. But the cash-in-the-freezer angle made Jefferson another embarrassment for Louisiana.
Copyright © 2011, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved