NEW ORLEANS (NNPA) - William Jefferson, Louisiana's first Black congressman since Reconstruction, was found guilty on 11 of 16 counts in a high-profile case that attracted national attention after federal investigators recovered $90,000 in cash hidden in a freezer in the congressman's home.
Jefferson faces up to 150 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 30.
After the decision was announced Wednesday, Aug. 5, in Alexandria, Va., U.S. Attorney Dana Boente told the small army of reporters outside the courthouse, "Congressman Jefferson had a contract with the citizens of Louisiana and the people of the United States and he owed them his honest services and he violated that trust. He sold his office and that's what brought us here today."
"It should be a clear signal that no public official — and certainly not a U.S. Congressman — can put their office up for sale and betray that office. It cannot be tolerated," Boente said.
"No person, not even a congressman, is above the law. Ninety-thousand dollars in a freezer is not a gray area. It's a violation."
"I'm holding up," a visibly shaken Jefferson told reporters who asked him how he was doing after the verdict. His attorneys said they plan to appeal the conviction.
"We didn't think they proved that case, we didn't think they proved anything," Jefferson defense attorney Robert Trout said with Jefferson at his side. "We have very strong legal issues to appeal on, we've been fighting this issues since the day of indictment and feel very strong about them."
The former congressman can appeal his conviction and was not taken into custody.
Jurors returned to court and decided that Jefferson must forfeit $470,000 in alleged bribes and 30 million shares of stock he received through two technology companies — iGate and W2-IBBS, Limited.
The former congressman, his wife and daughters helped promote iGate as a company that could deliver affordable, high-speed Internet access to underdeveloped countries in Africa that might otherwise not be able to afford it. W2-IBBS, Limited was a company established by the Jefferson clan under the ownership of Lori Mody, who later turned out to be a key FBI informant.
Less than two hours after the verdict was read, federal prosecutors released FBI tapes showing a conversation Jefferson had in a hotel restaurant with Moody as well as footage of Moody handing over a briefcase to the congressman that was kept in the trunk of her car.
For some, Rep. William Jefferson's rise to power was the quintessential rags-to-riches story.
One of nine children born in Lake Providence, La., to parents who did not complete high school, William Jennings Jefferson used education to lift himself out of poverty.
After graduating from G. W. Griffin High School in 1965, Jefferson went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Southern University-Baton Rouge. After Southern, Jefferson was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army and served in a reserve capacity until 1975. He earned a law degree from Harvard University in 1972 and an LLM in taxation from Georgetown University Law Center in 1996.
He began practicing law in the early 1970s while still serving as a clerk for Judge Alvin B. Rubin of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Jefferson served as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Jr., of Louisiana from 1973 to 1975.
Jefferson moved to New Orleans in 1976 and was elected to the Louisiana Senate three years later, where he served until 1990. He launched two unsuccessful bids to become mayor of New Orleans, losing first to incumbent Dutch Morial in the election of 1982, and subsequently to Sidney Barthelemy in 1986.
During the 1982 mayoral race, Morial attacked Jefferson by calling him "Dollar Bill" — a nickname which has stuck to this day. Still, Jefferson was considered a rising star in Louisiana politics, with some even predicting he would someday become Louisiana's second African-American governor.
In 1990, Jefferson threw his hat into the race to replace 10-term incumbent Lindy Boggs after she announced her retirement. After finishing first among seven candidates in the primary with 24 percent of the vote, he defeated Marc Morial, the son of Dutch Morial, in the runoff with 52 percent of the vote. He was reelected seven times.
In Congress, Jefferson was considered a rising star in many respects. He was named to a seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee, the tax-writing body that is probably the most powerful among the various House committees. He used that post there to benefit African American-owned small businesses.
Jefferson is also credited with taking the lead on the issue of "environmental racism" (an issue of critical importance in southern Louisiana), successfully heading off the construction of a potentially hazardous plastics plant near an African American community. He fought to end the "digital divide," by introducing legislation providing for tax breaks that would enable low-income families to purchase computer equipment.
In 1991 he was a strong supporter of then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton in his run for the presidency, and continued to work closely with President Clinton.
The Congressman, along with his family, controlled one of the most powerful and effective political organizations in south Louisiana — the Progressive Democrats.
Couple that with his work with the national Democratic Party —for which he served as Louisiana co-chair for the 1988 and 1992 Democratic presidential campaigns — Jefferson became a statewide household name which fueled his ambitions toward higher office.
He contemplated a U.S. Senate run in 1996. And twice he pondered a gubernatorial run before he fully committed in 1999 to challenging incumbent Republican governor Mike Foster.
Unlike Cleo Fields, the Black Democratic candidate who ran unsuccessfully in 1995, Jefferson did so with the support of Louisiana's largely White-dominated Democratic Party.
In the 1999 race, Foster, who purchased voter mailing lists from former KKK leader David Duke, appealed to White voters' sense of racial solidarity while Jefferson sought to address the economic hardships faced by many of Louisiana's working-class families. In the end, too many votes went to minor candidates in the race for Jefferson to have a real shot at winning.
Jefferson only captured 30 percent of the state electorate, with Louisiana's residents still voting rigidly along racial lines.
However, the off-year election allowed Jefferson to maintain his Congressional seat, and the gubernatorial loss did little to tarnish his image.
Although Jefferson was convicted on 11 of the 16 counts, it surprised some who closely followed the trial that he was acquitted on the count that involved the infamous cash found in a freezer in Jefferson's home by federal investigators four years ago.
Over the course of a six-week trial, federal prosecutors told jurors in Alexandria, Va. that the former congressman sought to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from a dozen companies in several industries including oil and communications from 2000 to 2005.
The government alleged that Jefferson accepted more than $400,000 in bribes and sought millions more in exchange for using his considerable influence as a congressman to broker business deals in Africa. Defense lawyers argued that federal bribery laws are narrowly written and were never intended to ensnare the conduct alleged against Jefferson, an argument that some legal experts found compelling. Jefferson's attorneys told jurors that their client was acting as a private business consultant in brokering the deals.
Longtime New Orleans pollster Silas Lee, said last week that Jefferson's loss of his congressional seat to political newcomer Anh "Joseph" Cao, R-La., coupled with the convictions, have not only ended his political career but dramatically changed the political landscape.
"Once he lost, it automatically moved the city on, a changing of the guard," Lee told The Associated Press.
"Certainly, this is the final the nail in the political coffin of Bill Jefferson," political analyst Clancy DuBos told WWL-TV. "There is no coming back politically from this."
Before last week's dramatic conclusion to a saga that lasted four years, there was talk about Jefferson possibly resurrecting his political career with a bid for mayor or a run to reclaim his congressional seat if he were acquitted.
"This is a difficult day for the people of New Orleans and Louisiana, but now we can turn the page on a negative past to focus on a positive future. My thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. Jefferson and his family during this time," said Congressman Cao.
New Orleans City Councilwoman Shelley Midura told USA Today that last week's trial proves that the image of Louisiana politics is changing.
"Any victory against corruption and the old-guard political machines is good news for New Orleans," she said.
"It's a sacred trust to serve the people, in any one of these offices – whether it's a governor or a congressman," Gov. Bobby Jindal told WWL-TV. "This wasn't some technical violation, these were the most serious allegations – allegations about abusing the office for personal gain, selling the office for personal gain.
"This is one of the greatest acts of betrayal of trust an elected official can do."
"I want to commend the Justice Department, because it sends a strong message that we're not going to tolerate political corruption," U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, told the local daily paper.
"This is a sad and tragic day for Louisiana," U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said last week. "My hope is that with this case's resolution, the people of New Orleans can move forward and focus on the many opportunities and challenges ahead, including our ongoing recovery and rebuilding efforts."
Jefferson was not without supporters last week.
Among them was New Orleans minister the Rev. Aubrey Wallace, who told The Associated Press, "We're going to rally around him," he said. "I'll be a supporter until the last breath in my mouth."
"We just pray for him, and that's all we can do now," the Rev. Samson "Skip" Alexander told the local daily paper. "He's done a lot in the community that people don't see. He changed the community from one where brothers and sisters couldn't get elected. Those who are mad with him naturally say that doesn't count. I still credit him with changing the electorate for African Americans for running and getting elected."
Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report, worked alongside Jefferson as a legislative assistant for Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., in the 1970s.
"It's a case of, 'Here's a guy who grew up very poor, he wanted to be in Congress and politics, but he just made a decision that he wasn't going to be poor again,'" Cook told USA Today. "It just broke my heart."