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Cash-in-Freezer Probe a Hot Topic in New Orleans

Friends and foes of Rep. William J. Jefferson, who is accused in bribery case, voice a range of opinions from denial to distrust.

May 26, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Rep William J. Jefferson has long provided one of Louisiana's favorite success stories: the sometime-sharecropper's son who rose from rural roots to attend Harvard Law School, become a Democratic Party power player and reach the halls of Congress.

So when the FBI revealed that it had videotape of Jefferson accepting $100,000 in cash that the bureau said was intended to bribe a Nigerian official -- and that $90,000 of it had been found in the freezer of Jefferson's home -- constituents of Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District reacted with shock, disappointment and a touch of amusement hardened by experience.

Friends say the allegations against Jefferson, who represents New Orleans, are simply out of character. Foes say they never trusted him. Now that the city's mayoral elections are over and incumbent C. Ray Nagin is in office for four more years, Jefferson's travails are the buzz around many quarters of this city.

"It's really the new talk after the elections," said Mike Miller, 26, as he walked his English bulldog, Buddha, one recent afternoon not far from Jefferson's house on Marengo Street in a ritzy section of the city's Uptown neighborhood. "We've got our mayor, and now we've got this big one with Bill."

"When they found the money in the freezer, man ... " said Ricky Bragg between bites of spaghetti Bolognese at Fat Harry's bar in Uptown. "I was kind of shocked. I just never thought he would get caught up -- allegedly -- in that type of situation."

Jefferson, an eight-term congressman and a senior member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and its subcommittee on trade, has not been charged with any crime. And he has denied any wrongdoing in a case that alleges he offered to bribe a Nigerian official and accepted kickbacks to help a U.S. telecommunications company land deals there and in Ghana.

But the general sentiments among friends and supporters have been disbelief and denial.

"No one expected him to be involved in a scandal of this proportion," said John Maginnis, a political analyst and independent journalist who publishes the Louisiana Political Fax Weekly.

The 59-year-old Jefferson, a tall, lean man -- low-key, soft-spoken and a dapper dresser -- has had a primarily scandal-free career.

Analysts believe his rise from privation to power has helped defuse the outrage that might have ignited if he were someone else.

Raised in rural northeastern Louisiana to parents who didn't graduate from high school, Jefferson still managed to excel. The crowning moment of his career came in 1991, when he became the first African American elected to Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction. Along the way, Jefferson raised five daughters -- three of them also Harvard Law School graduates, one of whom is a Louisiana state representative.

"I think people don't want to believe that he's gone wrong," said Wayne Parent, a political analyst at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "Until now, he never really caused a lot of controversy, and that's why reaction has been as slow as it has been. I don't think people in Louisiana want to hear this."

As a child, Jefferson attended the East Carroll Training School for the Colored. He went on to Southern University A&M College -- considered a flagship of Louisiana's African American university system, which includes Dillard and Xavier in New Orleans -- and then to Harvard Law, before earning a master of laws in taxation from Georgetown in 1996.

"He had tremendous confidence in his ability to do well," said New Orleans attorney Trevor Bryan, a longtime friend and former law firm partner of Jefferson, who in the 1970s founded Jefferson, Bryan and Gray (now Bryan and Jupiter), which became the largest predominantly African American firm in the South. "He did good in his courses. He was always hardworking, almost a workaholic."

Though a competent legal practitioner, politics was always Jefferson's passion, friends said.

"He's a smart guy, a guy who started with the idea of trying to get blacks involved in politics," said New Orleans attorney Walter Wilkerson, who ran Jefferson's campaign for the state Senate. "He was committed to improving conditions for blacks. The results have been mixed ... but before this incident, he was roundly applauded."

"What is surprising is that he's been devoted to political life and not to financial success," Bryan said. "He had a lot of opportunity at various stages to make a lot of money. He gave up a good salary to go to Congress. His major goal was public service."

But critics say the alleged evidence -- the videotape and the money supposedly found in Jefferson's freezer -- is too damning to be ignored.

"We think the behavior is not fitting for a member of Congress, and that it's time for him to step down," said David Donnelly, national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund, a Washington-based nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog organization. The group has launched a petition calling for Jefferson's resignation.

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