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Cash In The Freezer

The strange case of the Honorable William J. Jefferson, Member of the United States House of Representatives, keeps getting stranger.

Rep. Jefferson (D-La.) — a Congressman since 1991 from a district that includes New Orleans — was indicted in June last year by a federal grand jury for violating the anti-bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He was also charged with soliciting and accepting bribes, wire fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice. He faces a maximum of 235 years in prison if convicted on all 16 counts.

Now he says that in spite of the indictment, he’s running for re-election. “The fact that I am the target of an overly zealous prosecution has not prevented my delivering for our district and our state,” he said last month. Jefferson, 61, becomes not only the first elected federal official to be indicted under the FCPA, but also the first person to run for Congress while facing criminal FCPA charges.

Prosecutors allege that in August 2005, Jefferson hid $90,000 in the freezer at his Washington home. It was part of $100,000 provided by the government’s cooperating witness and intended to be used to bribe a Nigerian official. “The cash was separated into $10,000 increments, wrapped in aluminum foil, and concealed inside various frozen food containers,” according to prosecutors. The purpose of the alleged bribe was to induce the Nigerian official to steer business from Nigeria’s dominant government-controlled telecommunications company to firms in which Rep. Jefferson’s family members had interests.

“The schemes charged are complex,” the Department of Justice said in its news release, “but the essence of this case is simple: Mr. Jefferson corruptly traded on his good office, and on the Congress where he served as a Member of the United States House of Representatives, to enrich himself and his family through a pervasive pattern of fraud, bribery and corruption that spanned many years and two continents.”

Rep. Jefferson’s alleged co-conspirators were Vernon L. Jackson, a Louisville, Ky., businessman, and Brett M. Pfeffer, a former Jefferson congressional staff member. Jackson was sentenced to 87 months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and paying bribes to a public official. Pfeffer was sentenced to 96 months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and aiding and abetting the solicitation of bribes by a member of Congress.

As the Department of Justice says: Criminal indictments are only charges and not evidence of guilt. A defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty.

A conviction would bring a tragic end to Rep. Jefferson’s amazing career. His official bio says he’s the first African-American elected to Congress from his native Louisiana since Reconstruction. He graduated from Southern University A&M College and Harvard Law School, and in February of 1996 he received his Master of Laws in Taxation from Georgetown University, “making him only the second Member of Congress to do so while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.” As a State Senator, his bio says, he was “twice named ‘Legislator of the Year’ by the prestigious Alliance for Good Government.”

View the DOJ’s June 4, 2007 news release here.

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