A federal appeals court today upheld all but one of the corruption convictions of former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.).
The three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., upheld 10 of the 11 corruption counts on which Jefferson was convicted, rejecting his legal team’s argument that the federal bribery statute under which Jefferson was prosecuted did not apply to his scheme to connect businesses in which he had a financial stake with foreign governments because the plot was not related to his “official duties.”
“An absurd result would occur if we were to deem Jefferson’s illicit actions as outside the purview of the bribery statute, simply because he was awarded by periodic payments to his family’s businesses,” the panel wrote in the opinion released Monday. “Given the choice between a ‘meat axe or a scalpel’ when interpreting a statute, we, like the Supreme Court, favor the scalpel ... [w]e will not, however, carve from the bribery statute a criterion that depends on the public official’s preferred method of payment.”
The court overturned one wire-fraud conviction because it said Jefferson’s trial court in Alexandria, Va., did not have jurisdiction over a phone call that was made between Africa and Louisville, Ky. A court there should hear the arguments concerning that count, the panel said
A two-year investigation revealed — and a jury agreed — that Jefferson, now 65, had committed multiple felonies during a years-long scheme to line his pockets that included demanding retainer payments and stock shares from businesses he agreed to promote during trips to Africa.
During visits to countries that included Cameroon and Nigeria, Jefferson would represent these businesses by using his position as a Congressman to gain access, including using embassy-paid motorcades and letters sent on official stationery. Executives of those firms would then send payments of cash and stock to companies that were owned by Jefferson’s family members but controlled by Jefferson. Almost $100,000 cash was found in the Congressman’s freezer when federal agents raided his Virginia home.
“There was, in this case, an ongoing course of illicit and repugnant conduct by Jefferson — conduct for which he was compensated considerably by those on whose behalf he was acting,” the panel wrote.
Following a two-month jury trial, Jefferson was convicted of 11 felonies in 2009 and sentenced to 13 years in prison, though he remained free pending the outcome of his appeal to the 4th Circuit.
Jefferson’s appeal focused not on whether he had engaged in the kick-back scheme, but in whether the bribery statute under which he was prosecuted applied to the facts of the case and if the jury had received proper instructions.
It was unclear Monday whether Jefferson would ask to reargue the case before the full court or appeal its decision to the Supreme Court.
Decisions of the 4th Circuit set a precedent for federal courts in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia; it is statistically unlikely that the Supreme Court would grant a request to hear the case.
Jefferson’s trial attorney Lawrence Robbins at Robbins, Russell, Englert, Orseck, Untereiner & Sauber did not immediately respond to request for comment.