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Jefferson indicted on graft charges

The Democrat from Louisiana allegedly solicited millions for himself and his family.

June 05, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt and Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) was indicted Monday on charges that he used his congressional office to enrich himself and his family through a pervasive pattern of fraud, bribery and corruption that spanned five years and two continents.

The charges -- the first against a Democratic member of Congress in the wake of the Justice Department's recent crackdown on public corruption -- follow a two year-investigation that gained public notoriety when FBI agents raided Jefferson's home and found $90,000 in cash stuffed in his freezer.

In an unusually sweeping 94-page indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., Jefferson is charged with soliciting millions in fees and company stock in exchange for using his office to promote wide-ranging business interests in West Africa, including a telecommunications start-up, an oil exploration company and a waste-recycling firm.

The indictment said Jefferson negotiated one deal in a congressional dining room on Capitol Hill, and took official trips abroad to promote ventures in which he or his family had a financial stake without disclosing the true intention of the travel on congressional disclosure forms. According to the indictment, the trips were designed to "give the false impression that defendant Jefferson was merely acting as an impartial public servant promoting United States business interests abroad."

The 16-count indictment, including allegations of money laundering, bribery and racketeering, contain the first charges ever brought against a U.S. official for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, enacted 30 years ago to combat bribery of foreign officials by U.S. corporations.

Jefferson, a member of Congress since 1991, is expected to be arraigned and enter a plea of not guilty on Friday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. If convicted on all charges, he could be sentenced to up to 235 years in prison.

Jefferson's attorney Robert Trout told reporters that "Congressman Jefferson is innocent" and "he plans to fight this indictment and clear his name." Trout, addressing the media outside his Los Angeles law office, said the Justice Department had inspected every aspect of Jefferson's public and private life; he accused federal agents of contriving "to trap" the lawmaker in a government sting. Federal agents have searched Jefferson's home and car and raided his congressional office.

"But even after they had turned over every rock, they did not allege in this indictment" that Jefferson had "promised anybody any legislation," Trout said. "There is no suggestion that he promised anyone any appropriations. There were not earmarks. There were no government contracts.

"None of the things that congressmen do is in this indictment," Trout said.

The charges against the nine-term congressman, announced at a Justice Department news conference, present a dilemma for Democrats who rode to power in January in part on a promise of changing a "culture of corruption" in Washington.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Monday that the charges were extremely serious and would constitute "an egregious and unacceptable abuse of public trust and power" if proven true.

Pelosi led a successful effort to strip Jefferson, 60, of his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee last year, though he had not yet been charged with a crime.

"As we have demonstrated in implementing tough ethics reforms and passing tough lobbying reforms already this year, Democrats are committed to upholding a high ethical standard and eliminating corruption and unethical behavior from the Congress," Pelosi said Monday.

Republicans countered by introducing a resolution to refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee, and challenged the Democratic majority to take swift action against their indicted colleague.

"If the charges against Congressman Jefferson are true, he should be expelled from the House of Representatives, or he should resign to spare his constituents and colleagues any further indignity," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Until the corruption probe, the tall, dapper, soft-spoken Jefferson had had a primarily scandal-free career. His life story is one of Louisiana's favorite success tales: The sharecropper's son rose from rural roots to attend Harvard Law School, become a Democratic Party power player and reach the halls of Congress.

Raised in rural northeastern Louisiana by parents who didn't graduate from high school, Jefferson excelled. The crowning moment of his career came in 1990, 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.

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