Congressman William J. Jefferson Is Indicted for Corruption Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In March, 2005, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began investigating Louisiana congressman William J. Jefferson for corrupt business dealings. Jefferson had been videotaped receiving $100,000 from an investor-informer to establish business contacts in Nigeria. The FBI searched Jefferson’s home and found $90,000 of the cash in his refrigerator freezer. The agency later raided his office in Washington, D.C., which provoked intense debate about the right of law enforcement to search congressional offices.

Summary of Event

A Democratic congressman from Louisiana, William J. Jefferson became the subject of one of the largest criminal and legal scandals to strike the U.S. Congress in modern times. On June 4, 2007, a federal grand jury indicted him for a pattern of corruption. According to the ninety-four-page indictment, Jefferson solicited thousands of dollars in bribes, sometimes in the form of stock and retainer fees, in the years between 2000 and 2005. While the indictment proved shocking, the discovery of thousands of dollars in Jefferson’s refrigerator freezer at his home by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) grabbed the public’s attention. Furthermore, a subsequent search of his congressional office infuriated members of Congress and all concerned with search-and-seizure rights. [kw]Jefferson Is Indicted for Corruption, Congressman William J. (June 4, 2007) Louisiana;William J. Jefferson[Jefferson] Bribery;William J. Jefferson[Jefferson] Bribery;Congress members Congress, U.S.;William J. Jefferson[Jefferson] Jefferson, William J. Mody, Lori Video evidence;and William J. Jefferson[Jefferson] Louisiana;William J. Jefferson[Jefferson] Bribery;William J. Jefferson[Jefferson] Bribery;Congress members Congress, U.S.;William J. Jefferson[Jefferson] Jefferson, William J. Mody, Lori Video evidence;and William J. Jefferson[Jefferson] [g]United States;June 4, 2007: Congressman William J. Jefferson Is Indicted for Corruption[03780] [c]Law and the courts;June 4, 2007: Congressman William J. Jefferson Is Indicted for Corruption[03780] [c]Corruption;June 4, 2007: Congressman William J. Jefferson Is Indicted for Corruption[03780] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June 4, 2007: Congressman William J. Jefferson Is Indicted for Corruption[03780] [c]Government;June 4, 2007: Congressman William J. Jefferson Is Indicted for Corruption[03780] [c]Politics;June 4, 2007: Congressman William J. Jefferson Is Indicted for Corruption[03780]

Jefferson was elected to Congress in 1991, becoming the first African American Congress member from Louisiana since the days of Reconstruction. Jefferson, one of ten children of poor sharecroppers, grew up in Lake Providence, Louisiana. He earned a degree from Southern University A&M College before graduating from Harvard University Law School in 1972. He arrived in Washington, D.C., after serving three terms in the Louisiana senate. While serving in Congress, Jefferson earned a master’s degree in taxation laws from Georgetown University. He established a reputation as an expert on trade and tax issues, serving on the House Committees on Ways and Means and Small Business as well as with the Congressional Black Congress, U.S.;Black Caucus Caucus and the Africa Trade and Investment Caucus.

However, Jefferson, who was nicknamed Dollar Bill by his opponents in New Orleans, also gained a reputation for being eager to make a buck. He broke with his mentor, Ernest N. Morial, New Orleans’s first black mayor, during the late 1970’s over a large bill for legal work that Morial had assumed was free. Political observers suggested that Jefferson did not want to leave his family in the financial straits from which he began life. Jefferson and his wife, Andrea Jefferson, had five daughters.

In March, 2005, business investor Lori Mody of McLean, Virginia, approached the FBI to complain about dealings over the previous nine months with Jefferson and several of his associates. Mody had initially sought to use Jefferson’s influence to win contracts to install telephone and Internet service in the African nations of Nigeria and Ghana. At the request of U.S. government officials, she agreed to wear a hidden microphone for subsequent meetings with Jefferson.

Meeting at a restaurant in May, Jefferson and the informant negotiated, on paper, the percentage of the company that Jefferson wanted for his children: 30 percent. On July 12, following a trip to Ghana, Jefferson informed Mody that she now co-owned a Ghanaian company, International Broad Band Services, with the Jeffersons. On July 30, Jefferson met Mody for breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel near the Pentagon. As they left the restaurant, Jefferson took from Mody’s car a reddish-brown leather briefcase, which contained $100,000 in cash to bribe Nigerian officials. While the FBI videotaped him, Jefferson put the money in his vehicle and drove away. Four days later, the FBI raided his home and found $90,000 of the marked bills hidden in frozen-food containers in the freezer of his northeast Washington, D.C., home. The remaining $10,000 was recovered from his office assistant and his lawyer.

On May 20-21, 2006, the FBI spent eighteen hours searching Jefferson’s office at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. Seized documents were submitted to an independent team of two U.S. Justice Department lawyers and an FBI agent for evaluation. This search marked the first time that the office of a member of Congress was searched in a criminal inquiry, and the incident touched off a firestorm of protest from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who argued that the search interfered with their legislative prerogatives. Justice Department officials countered that members of Congress were not above the law and that congressional offices should not be turned into sanctuaries or places for members to engage in illegal conduct. On May 25, U.S. president George W. Bush ordered the attorney general’s office to seal the materials seized from Jefferson’s office for forty-five days until the dispute between the House and prosecutors was resolved; some documents, however, were used to prepare an indictment against Jefferson. Meanwhile, Jefferson went to federal court in a futile effort to force the return of his documents.

The Times-Picayune of New Orleans called for Jefferson to resign before he inflicted even more pain on a district traumatized by Hurricane Katrina. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Democrat, recommended that Jefferson resign from the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax laws. She stated that the charges, if true, constituted an abuse of public trust and power. On June 8, House Democratic leaders endorsed an effort to oust Jefferson from his post on the committee. The Congressional Congress, U.S.;Black Caucus Black Caucus opposed the decision on the grounds that Jefferson was presumed innocent and that removing him from his committee post before any criminal charges had been filed would be unprecedented. Jefferson viewed efforts to force him from the committee as discriminatory.

Meanwhile, the government prosecuted two persons who were closely associated with Jefferson. In January, 2006, Brett M. Pfeffer, once a top aide to Jefferson, pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges and said his boss (Jefferson) had demanded kickbacks for facilitating business deals in Nigeria. A Kentucky businessman, Jackson, Vernon L. Vernon L. Jackson, pleaded guilty on May 3 to paying between $400,000 and $1 million to Jefferson’s family in exchange for Jefferson’s help in obtaining Nigerian business deals for iGate, a telecommunications company that Jackson headed and that Jefferson and Mody were negotiating to purchase. The FBI alleged that Jefferson tried to conceal his involvement by funneling the payments to his daughters. Pfeffer and Jackson cooperated with the government’s investigation of the congressman.

On December 9, Jefferson surprised most observers by winning reelection to Louisiana’s Second Congressional District. He received 57 percent of the vote, cast by only about 16 percent of eligible voters in a hotly contested election. Political analysts suggested that the voters in the district, which spans most of New Orleans and the west bank of neighboring Jefferson Parish, were more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with change. The district was flooded after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, and many voters believed that Jefferson could better help residents than his less experienced opponent.

Jefferson’s reelection did not stop the Justice Department from pursuing the Congress member. On June 4, 2007, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on sixteen corruption-related felony counts, including bribery, racketeering, conspiracy, money Money laundering laundering, and obstruction of justice. In particular, investigators claimed that he targeted companies involved in oil, communications, satellite transmission, and sugar, all of which sought to do business in Africa. In exchange for money, Jefferson used his official position as a member of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade to promote these ventures. The indictment stated that Jefferson led official delegations to Africa, wrote letters to U.S. and foreign officials, and assigned members of his staff to promote ventures in Nigeria, Ghana, and Equatorial Guinea, ventures in which he had a financial interest. Jefferson pleaded not guilty on June 8 and faced trial in January, 2009.

Impact

The investigation into Jefferson’s activities undercut efforts by Democrats to link the Republican-controlled Congress to a culture of corruption. In the 2006 elections, Republicans frequently invoked the Jefferson case to defend their party from charges of corruption. Louisiana voters appeared blasé about the investigation, perhaps because the state has a long history of corrupt politicians. During the 1990’s and into the twenty-first century, Louisiana saw the convictions of an attorney general, Congress member, a state senate president, a federal judge, and numerous local officials. Jefferson’s own brother-in-law, a judge, was imprisoned for mail Mail fraud fraud. Louisiana;William J. Jefferson[Jefferson] Bribery;William J. Jefferson[Jefferson] Bribery;Congress members Congress, U.S.;William J. Jefferson[Jefferson] Jefferson, William J. Mody, Lori Video evidence;and William J. Jefferson[Jefferson]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Long, Kim. The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals, and Dirty Politics. New York: Delacorte Press, 2007. A wide-ranging book detailing the various scandals and corrupt practices that have plagued U.S. politics. A good general study of political scandals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, Shailagh, and Allan Lengel. “Lawmakers Demand FBI Return Raid Files: Capitol Hill Search Stirs Constitution Fight.” The Washington Post, May 25, 2006. News story reporting on the scandal provoked by the FBI’s raid on Jefferson’s office in Congress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parent, Wayne. Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. Although this book does not focus specifically on Jefferson, it describes the problematic and troublesome atmosphere of Louisiana politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfensberger, Don. “Punishing Disorderly Behavior in Congress: The First Century—An Introductory Essay.” Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2006. A wide-ranging discussion of corruption in Congress. Based on a paper prepared for the seminar Congressional Ethics Enforcement: Is Congress Fulfilling Its Constitutional Role?

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Categories: History