Jefferson Hit on 16 Counts
GOP Calls for His Expulsion
Sparking a Republican move to boot him from Congress, a federal grand jury on Monday returned a sprawling, 16-count indictment against Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) on charges of racketeering, solicitation of bribes by a public official, obstruction of justice and money laundering.
The 95-page indictment represents a victory for a beleaguered Justice Department that has struggled with an image crisis ever since the controversial firings of nine federal prosecutors in 2006.
It is also the first time a Member of Congress has been charged under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Jefferson is alleged to have bribed Nigerian officials in order to advance the interests of U.S. businessmen and enrich himself.
“Frankly, we don’t give a damn about politics,” said U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Chuck Rosenberg, whose staff led the probe. “We don’t care if he’s a Democrat or a Republican.”
Jefferson, who was re-elected in 2006, has maintained his innocence, and his attorney, Robert Trout, said Monday from California that the Democrat would fight the charges. He is expected to appear in Alexandria, Va., on June 8 for arraignment. The charges carry a maximum of 235 years in prison, though the lawmaker would likely not receive anywhere near that if convicted.
“There will be no plea bargain,” said Trout, who was traveling on unrelated business when the indictment was handed down. “Congressman Jefferson is innocent. He plans to fight this indictment and clear his name.”
Though he refused to rebut the indictment in detail, Trout did say the government had lured Jefferson to Virginia to “trap him in a government sting” — and there was no evidence in the indictment that Jefferson promised anyone earmarks, appropriations, legislative favors or government contracts.
Trout also called “extremely troubling” the fact that the indictment was brought while a legal squabble continues over documents seized during an unprecedented March 2006 raid on Jefferson’s Rayburn House office. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has yet to rule on the legality of the search, and Trout said the timing of Monday’s indictment suggests it was unnecessary.
Rosenberg on Monday called the search “necessary, appropriate and constitutional” and added that some of the documents obtained in the raid supported the charges.
During a buoyant press conference, Rosenberg downplayed the amount of time it took to charge Jefferson and said the timing of the indictment was determined by the fact that the investigation had reached “critical mass.” “Two years is not an extraordinarily long time,” he said. “I would argue that we moved pretty quickly here.”
The indictment also is a political boon to Congressional Republicans, who lost control of both chambers in November in part because of the corruption scandals swirling around disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and an unrelated scandal that led to a plea deal by ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) will offer a privileged resolution tonight instructing the ethics committee to immediately take up the matter and report back within 30 days on whether Jefferson should be expelled from the House.
It is an unusual move to consider expulsion before a criminal investigation is completed. The last Member to be expelled from the House was Rep. James Traficant (Ohio) in July 2002, but he had been convicted on 10 felony counts three months earlier.
“If the charges against Congressman Jefferson are true, he should be expelled from the House of Representatives, or he should resign to spare his constituents and colleagues any further indignity,” Boehner said in a statement. It is unlikely the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct would recommend expulsion before a verdict is rendered in the case.
Congressional sources also said Monday that the ethics committee was likely to reinvigorate its Jefferson investigation, but there was no announcement at press time. While the ethics committee had announced an investigation into Jefferson in May 2006 after the FBI raided his Rayburn office, the panel inquiry appears to have stalled, Roll Call reported last month.
Boehner’s resolution also would remove Jefferson from his lone Small Business Committee assignment as well as end his pending assignment to the Homeland Security Committee that has been in limbo for months after House Republicans vowed to force a floor vote on the assignment earlier this year.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had agreed to assign Jefferson to the Homeland Security panel after she led an effort to remove him from the Ways and Means Committee in the 109th Congress despite the opposition of some rank-and-file lawmakers, most notably from members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
But Democratic leadership offered little support for Jefferson on Monday. “The charges in the indictment against Congressman Jefferson are extremely serious. While Mr. Jefferson, just as any other citizen, must be considered innocent until proven guilty, if these charges are proven true, they constitute an egregious and unacceptable abuse of public trust and power,” Pelosi said.
A Democratic leadership aide said the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee will meet this week and Pelosi will recommend his removal from the Small Business panel.
At least one rank-and-file Democrat, Rep. Nick Lampson of Texas, already has called on Jefferson to resign.
“I stated in the past that if Congressman Jefferson is indicted, that he should resign for the good of the Congress as an institution, and more importantly for the good of the American people,” Lampson said, “I stand by that call today.”
The indictment renewed calls by outside groups for the House to enhance its ethics enforcement by creating an independent panel to police lawmakers. “The indictment of Rep. Jefferson is a reminder that it is time for the Speaker’s Ethics Task Force to step up to the plate with strong recommendations for an outside panel with real teeth because the current system has lost all credibility,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center.
Congressional aides said the task force’s recommendations could be ready as early as next week.
The detailed indictment released Monday is a catalogue of Jefferson’s alleged schemes to enrich himself and family members by using his Congressional office to seek bribes from businessmen trying to gain access to markets in Africa.
All in all, Justice officials estimate that Jefferson and his family received a little less than $400,000 in monthly payments, percentages of profits and revenues from the ventures and company stock.
But Jefferson appears to have solicited as much as millions more in failed business deals that never materialized in various African countries. They included oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea, satellite transmission contracts in Botswana, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo, and the development of a sugar plant and oil fields in Nigeria.
In the most publicized tale, prosecutors charge in the indictment that Jefferson conspired with Louisville, Ky., businessman Vernon Jackson and Jefferson’s former aide, Brett Pfeffer, to receive thousands of dollars in revenue from Jackson’s company, iGate, in order to help sell its innovative telecommunications technology to officials in Nigeria and Ghana.
Both Jackson and Pfeffer pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe the Congressman and are now in prison.
The indictment says the Democrat used his Congressional office to go on official trips and meet with African officials for the purpose of helping iGate, without disclosing his own financial stake in the business; used his House aides to create trip itineraries; sent correspondence regarding business trips on official Congressional letterhead; and participated in meetings with U.S. officials that would further iGate’s business without disclosing his ties to the company.
Most of the money sought by Jefferson in connection with iGate — which rose over time — went to ANJ, a company created by Jefferson and controlled by his family members.
The indictment also details how Jackson and Jefferson sought a new investor, with Pfeffer’s help, after their first business dealing in Nigeria collapsed. The indictment calls that investor a McLean, Va., businesswoman known as “cooperating witness,” but press reports have identified her as Lori Mody, who ran a foundation that gave technology to public schools.
The indictment recounts how in December 2004 the “cooperating witness” — presumably Mody — met with Jefferson in a Congressional dining room, where the lawmaker asked her for 5-7 percent of the new company to be involved in the Nigerian deal. Jefferson allegedly told Mody on May 12, 2005, that he wanted to increase his share of the company to 17-20 percent.
“I make a deal for my children. It wouldn’t be me,” Jefferson said, according to the indictment.
Jefferson also discussed the possibility of bribing Nigerian government officials, including “Nigerian Official A,” described in the indictment as a “high-ranking official in the executive branch” of the Nigerian government.
In March 2005, according to media accounts, Mody became suspicious of Jefferson and wore an FBI wire. In July 2005, according to the indictment, the wire captured Jefferson receiving $100,000, which he said was destined for Nigerian Official A.
The FBI later found $90,000 in marked bills, separated into $10,000 stacks and wrapped in aluminum foil, hidden in frozen-food containers in the freezer of Jefferson’s home in Washington, D.C.