The chief executive of a high-tech company in Kentucky pleaded guilty Wednesday to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to the family of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), a prominent Africa trade expert in the House who remains under investigation for allegedly taking the payoffs.
Vernon L. Jackson of Louisville entered the guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., the same courthouse where a former Jefferson aide pleaded guilty in January to participating in the scheme.
Jefferson hasn't been charged and maintains his innocence.
But according to the plea agreements of Jackson and former staff aide Brett M. Pfeffer, the congressman helped arrange U.S. government contracts and set up an Internet service venture in Nigeria. In exchange, Jackson, 53, said he agreed to pay Jefferson's wife and daughters $7,500 per month and 5% of his company's sales over $5 million. Jackson is chief executive and owner of iGate, a small company based in Louisville.
Federal law enforcement officials said Jefferson could be indicted as early as next month, and that others were likely to be snared in the investigation. Federal agents raided Jefferson's home and office in August, reportedly seizing a large amount of cash kept in the freezer.
The agents also obtained a search warrant against the vice president of Nigeria, who owns a mansion in Potomac, Md., where he lives with a wife who holds U.S. citizenship, according to law enforcement sources. Vice President Alhaji Atiku Abubakar was allegedly involved in the Nigerian Internet deal. Abubakar is currently in Nigeria, law enforcement officials said.
Jefferson, 59, a Harvard Law School graduate elected to the House in 1990, is co-chairman of the Congressional Africa Trade and Investment Caucus. His office released a statement Wednesday proclaiming his innocence.
"I was surprised and disappointed to learn of Vernon Jackson's guilty plea and of his characterization of our relationship," Jefferson's statement said. "As I have previously stated, I have never over all the years of my public service accepted payment from anyone for the performance of any act or duty for which I have been elected. I am ... innocent in the matter to which Vernon Jackson has [pleaded] guilty."
Michael S. Nachmanoff, a public defender representing Jackson, declined to comment.
The plea agreement refers to a Representative A, but prior court records and law enforcement officials make it clear that person is Jefferson.
The alleged payments from Jackson to Jefferson's family were said to have gone through a shell company, not named in the plea agreement but believed to be ANJ Group LLC, set up in Louisiana. More than $400,000 in checks and wire transfers were made from Jackson to Jefferson from February 2001 to September 2004, according to a statement of facts in the plea agreement.
The profit-sharing arrangement held the potential for millions of dollars to flow to the company if the Nigerian deal was successful, law enforcement officials said. The plea agreement indicates that in July 2003, Jackson agreed to increase Jefferson's share of iGate profits from the African deal to 35% from 5%.
The Nigerian deal involved Netlink Digital Television, which sought to deploy Internet technology throughout Nigeria. Netlink signed a deal to invest $45 million in the venture and actually paid $6.5 million to iGate.
According to Jackson's plea agreement, Jefferson's role involved meeting directly with high-level Nigerian officials to promote the iGate agreement and helping smooth the deal with the U.S. Export-Import Bank.