Throughout the scandal, Jefferson has continued to insist that he is still an effective lawmaker. He is treated like a rock star by his supporters, often arriving at venues to standing ovations. His core support has come from African Americans, who made up at least 65% of his district before Hurricane Katrina, and from working-class whites and organized labor.
Jefferson is charged with soliciting bribes from 11 different companies for himself and his family, as well as bribing a Nigerian government official. The indictment describes a scheme covering five years, from August 2000 to August 2005, and including a front company set up by Jefferson to hide the money.
"But the essence of the charges are really very simple," said U.S. Atty. Chuck Rosenberg. "Mr. Jefferson corruptly traded on his good office and on the Congress."
The indictment alleges that Jefferson and his family attempted to extract millions in fees in exchange for various favors, although Rosenberg said the amount they pocketed appeared to be no more than perhaps $500,000.
Jefferson first attracted the interest of federal investigators in 2005, in connection with his role in promoting a fledgling digital technology firm, iGate Inc. of Louisville, Ky., that sought a foothold in Africa. An investor in the venture became concerned, contacted the FBI and agreed to wear a listening device for federal authorities.
According to the indictment, Jefferson told the investor during a meeting in July 2005 that he would need $500,000 to bribe a Nigerian official to ensure "that the little hook is in there." The investor delivered $100,000 in cash -- marked bills from the FBI -- that was intended as a first installment on the bribe, the indictment said, and Jefferson later assured the investor that he had delivered the "African art" to the official.
The FBI eventually found $90,000 of the marked bills in Jefferson's freezer, "wrapped in aluminum foil, and concealed inside various frozen food containers," according to the indictment.
Prosecutors' allegations against Jefferson are not limited to scams involving investors in digital technology.
Rosenberg said the schemes included such ventures as oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea, satellite transmission contracts in Botswana, offshore oil rights in Sao Tome and Principe, and the promotion and sale of waste recycling systems in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea.
The timing of the federal charges was a bit of a surprise. The government and Jefferson's lawyers are still in federal appeals court over documents and e-mails discovered during a May 2006 FBI raid on his Capitol Hill offices. A lawsuit by Jefferson says the raid violated his rights under the principle of separation of powers in the Constitution.
Trout said it was troubling that the Justice Department would indict before the court had ruled on the legality of the unprecedented search.
Rosenberg said that although the government expects to win that case, it does not need the additional evidence that such a decision would free up. "We think we have what we need now, which is why we brought the charges now, and that we will prevail on what we have," he said.
Silas Lee, a national pollster who teaches sociology at Xavier University of Louisiana, said Jefferson would probably continue to have the support of his constituents. "He is perceived as a humble servant, someone people can relate to," Lee said. "He is responsive to the needs of the people."
Nonetheless, Lee said, the indictment would scar Jefferson's career, no matter the outcome.
"This becomes part of his legacy."
Schmitt reported from Washington and Simmons from Los Angeles.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
William J. Jefferson
Born: March 14, 1947, in Lake Providence, La.
Experience: U.S. House, 1991-present; Louisiana Senate, 1980-91; practiced law, 1976-90; Army Judge Advocate General's Corps, 1975; legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), 1973-74; U.S. District Court clerk, 1972-73.
Education: B.A., Southern University A&M College, English and political science, 1969; J.D., Harvard University, 1972; LL.M., taxation, Georgetown University, 1996.
Family: Wife, Andrea Green Jefferson, and five daughters.
Source: Associated Press