Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) moved closer this week to becoming the first member of the United States House of Representatives to be tried for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. A unanimous three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday tossed out Rep. Jefferson’s claims that evidence heard by a federal grand jury violated the constitution’s speech or debate clause. The appeals panel agreed with U.S. District Judge T.S. (Tim) Ellis III, who said Jefferson’s arguments would expand legislative immunity so much that prosecuting a congressman for a crime would become virtually impossible.
The constitution’s speech or debate clause (Article I, Section 6, Clause 1) creates a limited privilege for information relating to work by legislators. It prohibits their arrest during attendance at the Congress, “and in going to and from the same, and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.” Rep. Jefferson had argued that testimony by his former staff members to the grand jury was based on his work in Congress and therefore protected. The Fourth Circuit panel, however, said references to legislative action in the testimony were incidental and not central to the indictment against him. A copy of the Fourth Circuit’s opinion is available here (thanks to Greg Morin for sending it to us).
Rep. Jefferson can now ask the Fourth Circuit to hear an appeal en banc, and he can seek review by the Supreme Court. His trial was scheduled to begin in December but has been delayed. He was indicted in June last year by a federal grand jury for violating the antibribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He’s 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.
Rep. Jefferson, 61, has held his seat since 1991 in Louisiana’s 2nd District, which includes much of New Orleans. Despite being indicted last year, he won this year’s primary runoff and is favored to win re-election on Dec. 6.
Prosecutors allege that in August 2005, Rep. 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.
His 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.
Before being indicted, Rep. Jefferson had compiled an outstanding record. He was the first African-American elected to Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction. He graduated from Southern University A&M College and Harvard Law School, and he also holds an LLM in tax from Georgetown. As a state senator, he was twice named Legislator of the Year by the Alliance for Good Government.