Louisiana Purchase: Love of Family Inspired William Jefferson to Do Great Things. It Also Explains That $90,000 in His Freezer

By Berry, Jason | The Washington Monthly, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Louisiana Purchase: Love of Family Inspired William Jefferson to Do Great Things. It Also Explains That $90,000 in His Freezer


Berry, Jason, The Washington Monthly


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On August 3, 2005, FBI agents raided the New Orleans home of nine-term U.S. Representative William J. Jefferson of the and District of Louisiana. What they found became instant fodder for talk-show hosts, late-night comedians, and pundits: $90,000 in cash, sheathed in tinfoil and stored in Jefferson's freezer. Despite Jefferson's insistence that he had "an honorable explanation" for his frozen cash, the Justice Department had a simpler account for the provenance of the money: bribery.

Last June, a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, issued a sixteen-count, ninety-four-page indictment alleging, among other things, that Jefferson sought hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribe money in a deal to sell high-speed Internet service in Africa. Two men had already pleaded guilty to bribery and were in prison, prepared to testify against him. Jefferson vowed that he would prevail in court. "This is not who I am. This is not what I have done," he declared after a hearing that month, having posted a $100,000 bond. Standing in the sunlight with his wife, Andrea, he told reporters, "I am innocent of all the charges."

Confronted with 172,000 pages of evidence and two thousand hours of secretly recorded conversations, Jefferson and his lawyers have put the Justice Department through an expensive scrimmage. They have appealed the indictments on the grounds that the grand jury heard improper testimony. The defense also claims that the swirl of transactions involving Jefferson weren't bribes or a misuse of congressional power. Instead, they say, he was providing assistance for bona fide ventures, as his office allowed.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, is expected to rule on the defense lawyers' motions this summer. If the ruling goes against Jefferson's side, as most observers expect, then the trial could begin this fall--and that could have serious political ramifications. At the very least, it would likely force Jefferson to give up his congressional seat in order to concentrate on his own defense. More significantly, such a trial would put nationwide media attention on the alleged crimes of a congressional Democrat during the home stretch of an election in which his party is trying to win the presidency and expand its congressional majority on an agenda of change and reform.

Jefferson's political free fall has been a sorry spectacle, particularly for a man who had once seemed so promising. Early in his career, Jefferson ranked among the most impressive African American politicians of his generation, one who possessed a strong appeal to whites as well as blacks. As a lanky state senator, he won over voters with his radiant smile and his political and legal savvy. "We thought he would become our first black governor--he had it all," recalls Baton Rouge Advocate editorial writer Lanny Keller, who covered the Louisiana state legislature in the 1980s. But to many who have known Jefferson over the years, the quagmire in which he finds himself is one of his own making. If character is fate, then traits Jefferson has long exhibited give his story a sad inevitability.

For the citizens of Louisiana, Jefferson's descent could not have been more ill-timed. A month after the FBI took the cash from his refrigerator, 80 percent of New Orleans was submerged in flooding from Hurricane Katrina. At a moment when his district desperately needed a strong advocate in Washington, Jefferson was the new face of crooked Louisiana politics. (The congressman declined numerous interview requests for this article.)

The crash of a corrupt lawmaker is one of the oldest stories in Washington. What distinguishes this tale from the spate of others in the last few years is not only his party affiliation (all the rest have been Republicans) but his motive. Tom DeLay was brought down by financial schemes aimed at heightening his and his party's political power; Duke Cunningham by bribes to support his lavish and debauched personal lifestyle. …

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