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Former Aide's Guilty Plea Implicates Congressman

Brett M. Pfeffer details conspiracy and bribery claims against Democrat William J. Jefferson.

January 12, 2006|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) sought bribes, jobs for his children and other favors for providing political support to a company setting up Internet service in Nigeria, according to a former aide's guilty plea, entered Wednesday in federal court in Alexandria, Va.

In an alleged conspiracy, beginning in 2004, Jefferson, in exchange for providing political help, demanded payments and favors from a northern Virginia company that was proposing to set up Internet service through the Nigerian Telephone Co., according to the guilty plea by Brett M. Pfeffer of Herndon, Va., to charges of aiding and abetting bribery of a public official and conspiracy.

A spokeswoman for Jefferson said he would have no comment on the allegations. The congressman's New Orleans attorney did not return calls seeking comment.

An indictment against Jefferson, 58, could come in the next several months, according to law enforcement sources who asked not to be identified. Pfeffer is now cooperating with federal prosecutors in northern Virginia, where the case was filed.

Pfeffer's plea and the investigation into Jefferson expand the range of corruption scandals that have hit Congress, including a case of alleged insider trading by Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the defense industry bribery case of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), and most recently the widening investigation into congressional misconduct involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"There has been this flurry of investigations involving Congress," said Randall Eliason, former chief of the public corruption section of the U.S. attorney's office in Washington and an adjunct professor at American University. "It is more than I can recall at any recent time."

At least five different federal investigations involving members of Congress are underway, Eliason noted.

Whether the number of cases reflects more political corruption, tougher enforcement or just coincidence is impossible to know, he added. "All you can say is that the number of cases is on the rise," Eliason said.

So far, the cases have involved principally high-ranking Republicans, raising the potential for a voter backlash in upcoming midterm elections. But Jefferson, a Harvard Law School graduate, is a prominent Democrat.

The case also could affect funding to rebuild sections of New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Findings of deep corruption in the city and the state could compromise any large injection of federal funding, some opponents have asserted.

The Jefferson investigation was first made public in August, when the Justice Department obtained search warrants for Jefferson's homes, cars and offices, as well as subpoenas of other current and former staffers in his office. Federal agents reportedly took large amounts of cash, recovered from Jefferson's freezer, according to press accounts at the time.

Last August, federal officials also searched the Maryland home of the vice president of Nigeria, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar.

Pfeffer worked for Jefferson from 1995 to 1998. By 2004, Pfeffer was president of an investment company based in McLean, Va., that was controlled by an unidentified cooperating witness in the investigation. At a meeting in Jefferson's office, the federal witness met the executives of a Kentucky-based Internet company that provided technology and a license for the Nigerian deal, according to a criminal information filed in the Pfeffer case.

Jefferson was referred to in court documents as Representative A, but law enforcement officials and the history of the case leave no doubt that Representative A is Jefferson.

Jefferson agreed to help the deal in meetings with officials from Nigeria and the ExportImport Bank, according to the documents. In exchange, the scheme funneled legal work to Jefferson's family and put a daughter on retainer for the Virginia company for as much as $5,000 a month. The scheme also provided that Jefferson's family received a 5% to 7% ownership interest in the operation.

Jefferson, the first African American elected to Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction, is considered a leading authority in Congress on African trade issues, and leads the African trade caucus in the House.

The criminal information, a type of charging document like an indictment, does not indicate whether Jefferson received anything of value.

Pfeffer is scheduled to be sentenced March 31.

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