WASHINGTON — Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), the target of a federal bribery probe, told an FBI informant that the vice president of Nigeria wanted at least $500,000 upfront and a stake in a lucrative technology venture in that country in order to help it gain approval, according to newly released documents in the investigation.
Jefferson's alleged statements help explain why FBI agents were so eager last summer to search the residence of the congressman and a Potomac, Md., mansion owned by the wife of Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Atiku, who visits the United States frequently, had been staying at the Potomac residence and allegedly met with Jefferson there to discuss the deal.
The congressman, who has insisted he is innocent of accepting bribes, allegedly told the FBI informant that in order to secure the Nigerian official's help with the technology project, Jefferson needed to deliver an upfront payment of $100,000 to Atiku while he was in the United States.
Some time after that, the informant provided Jefferson with the cash in a briefcase, according to one of the documents, an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Edward S. Cooper. The congressman later indicated that he had delivered the cash to Atiku on a late-night visit to the Potomac house, Cooper's affidavit said.
"Ah, I gave him the African art that you gave me, and he was very pleased," Jefferson told the informant, according to Cooper's affidavit. In his 39-page affidavit, Cooper said that "African art" was code for the cash payoff. The FBI has said the informant, a Virginia businesswoman, was wearing a microphone.
The affidavit was unsealed Monday by the federal court in Greenbelt, Md., and was made available Tuesday by the Justice Department.
A Washington lawyer for Atiku on Tuesday strongly denied wrongdoing by his client, who is running for president of Nigeria.
"There is no relationship between the vice president and Congressman Jefferson other than meetings occasioned by the professional courtesy a public official extends to another public official through diplomatic channels," the lawyer, Edward Weidenfeld, said.
"The vice president has done nothing wrong, and we've been cooperating with the Justice Department and the FBI from the beginning" of the long-running investigation, Weidenfeld said.
In one of his conversations with the FBI informant, Jefferson said Atiku had "more deals going than the goddamn man in the moon," the affidavit said. "Jefferson then said, 'He's a very, well, the word might be ... corrupt.' "
The affidavit contained extensive new details of the alleged plot by Jefferson to win the Nigerian government's approval of a plan to provide new telecommunications services in the oil-rich African nation. It is alleged that the congressman would have had a large but hidden financial stake in the project.
The informant was described in court documents as a northern Virginia businesswoman identified by law enforcement officials as Lori Mody. Authorities said she went to the FBI in March 2005 when she decided Jefferson and others were defrauding her on the business deal.
During one meeting with Mody, Jefferson allegedly estimated that the telecommunications venture could earn as much as $200 million annually by its fifth year.
It was not clear from the affidavit whether any of the $100,000 in the briefcase had been delivered to the vice president's home, or whether Atiku had engaged in negotiations for a piece of the deal. FBI officials have said, in fact, that nearly all of the $100,000 was subsequently found during a search of Jefferson's home, stashed in his freezer.
But the FBI agent said that Jefferson's cellphone records suggested he had gone to the Nigerian official's home the night he said he had dropped off the cash.
Cooper also said that security cameras at the Potomac mansion probably would have recorded a visit by Jefferson on the night in question, but the affidavit did not say whether agents were successful in obtaining such camera footage.
In a new twist in the case, Cooper said that the security camera was observed by an undercover FBI agent who was posing as Jefferson's driver on one trip to the house.
Some sections of the affidavit remained sealed, and it did not mention Atiku by name. But the document identified the Potomac residence as being owned by Jennifer E. Douglas, Atiku's wife. And Atiku's lawyer confirmed that he was the Nigerian official cited in the court filing. Douglas could not be reached for comment.
Jefferson has said that he never benefited personally from any corrupt deals. But the affidavit suggested that he had taken pains to distance himself from any illegal transactions in part by having payments go to his children.
Jefferson and the informant negotiated what kind of compensation he should receive if the deal were to go through, the affidavit said. At one point, he wrote down a "c," and then said, "the 'c' is like for children," the affidavit said. "I wouldn't show up in there."
"Say that again. I'm sorry," the informant responded, knowing that the conversation was being taped.
"I make a deal for my children. It wouldn't be me," the affidavit said Jefferson replied.
Atiku's involvement began when Jefferson wrote a letter to him dated June 21, 2005, alerting him to "a U.S. company" that wanted to invest $50 million to provide high-speed Internet access in Nigeria using Nigerian telecom company Nitel's lines.
Atiku then met with Jefferson July 18 in Potomac and, according to the congressman, "agreed to help secure the necessary approvals." But in return, he said, Abubakar wanted at least $500,000 for himself.
Jefferson, who represents most of New Orleans, has served in Congress since 1990 and is head of an Africa trade task force.