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Jefferson Endures Amid Probe

Even as Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) goes about his Congressional duties in the face of a corruption probe, a federal judge has postponed the sentencing of his former top aide until May 26, the latest sign that the investigation into the Louisiana lawmaker is continuing.

District Judge T.S. Ellis III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia issued the postponement order on Friday. Brett Pfeffer, an ex-Jefferson staffer, had been scheduled for sentencing on March 31.

Pfeffer, who pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy to bribe a public official and aiding and abetting the bribing of a public official, could receive up to 20 years in federal prison and be fined up to $500,000. Pfeffer has been cooperating with the Justice Department in its ongoing investigation of Jefferson.

According to documents released by the Justice Department, Jefferson — referred to only as “Representative A” in Pfeffer’s plea agreement — allegedly demanded an ownership stake of 5 percent to 7 percent in a telecommunications firm that Pfeffer was helping to start up in Nigeria. Pfeffer told prosecutors he believed that Jefferson sought a similar arrangement for a start-up telecom company in Ghana. Those ownership stakes were to be given to members of Jefferson’s family, according to the documents.

Jefferson also allegedly asked that a family member be placed on the payroll of the Nigerian company and be paid a salary of $2,500 to $5,000 per month. In return, Jefferson agreed to lobby top Nigerian and Ghanaian officials to promote deals between the two start-up companies and the respective African governments, the documents say. Jefferson reportedly also intervened with the U.S. Export-Import Bank to get loans for the two firms.

In the two months since Pfeffer implicated Jefferson — and even as rumors of a looming indictment or plea bargain continue to swirl — the eight-term lawmaker seems to be taking pains to show that the investigation hasn’t slowed him down.

Jefferson, who represents Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, made a brief statement following Pfeffer’s plea deal, saying he was “disappointed and somewhat perplexed” by Pfeffer’s allegations.

But since then, it’s been business as usual for Jefferson, at least publicly.

Those familiar with the Ways and Means Committee, on which Jefferson serves, report that Jefferson regularly attends committee sessions — he ranks ninth of 17 Democrats in seniority — and has frequently spoken up to question witnesses, particularly on subjects related to the Gulf Coast clean-up efforts.

“I haven’t seen any change in him personally,” said Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “He comes to CBC meetings and to the [House] votes, and appears to be as busy as always.”

Rep. John Larson (Conn.), the vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, concurred, saying, “In terms of whether it’s affected his job performance, not at all.”

On Tuesday, Jefferson was one of about a dozen speakers at a press conference in Washington, D.C., for the Gulf Coast Renewal Campaign, which is seeking to protect the voting rights of displaced New Orleans residents for the upcoming New Orleans mayoral campaign.

He also played a highly visible role two weeks ago when 32 Members, led by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), visited New Orleans to survey the damage from last summer’s storm. Jefferson helped organize a meeting between the lawmakers and local civic and business leaders, despite fears within Democratic circles that his presence could prove politically embarrassing.

Jefferson, along with Watt and fellow Louisiana Rep. Charlie Melancon (D), was also called upon last month to brief fellow House Democrats on the Katrina cleanup effort at one of the party’s weekly Caucus meetings.

And in a move that was noted with interest in political circles, Jefferson held a fund-raiser last week at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. How much money he raised for a re-election bid that may never actually be launched is unclear.

Republicans have sought to use the allegations against Jefferson to deflect Democratic attacks on a GOP “culture of corruption” in Congress, and Jefferson’s fellow Democrats are plainly uncomfortable talking about him or his situation. Numerous Democratic Members approached by Roll Call for comments on Jefferson declined to speak either on or off the record.

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