WASHINGTON — Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) pleaded not guilty Friday to all 16 corruption-related charges against him and for the first time, defended himself and his family publicly and castigated prosecutors for trying to break him "psychologically and financially."
Jefferson, who was indicted on charges that he used the power of his office to enrich himself and his family, emerged from U.S. District Court here with rhetorical guns blazing. "I'm going to fight my heart out to clear my name," he said.
The case against Jefferson became notorious after it was disclosed that the congressman, according to the indictment, accepted $100,000 in marked bills from an investor in a fledgling digital technology firm. The indictment said Jefferson told the investor, who had agreed to cooperate with the FBI, that the money would gain him access to the Nigerian market. The FBI later reported finding $90,000 of the marked bills wrapped in foil and "concealed inside various frozen food containers" in a freezer in Jefferson's home.
"The $90,000 was the FBI's money," Jefferson said Friday in his first public explanation. "The FBI gave it to me as part of its plan -- part of their plan -- that I would give it to the Nigerian vice president, but I did not do that.
"When all the facts are understood, I trust that I will be vindicated."
Jefferson, a sharecropper's son who attended Harvard Law School on his way to eight terms in Congress, boasted of a family of five daughters, all of whom have at least two post-high school degrees. In addition to his wife's doctorate in higher education, the family has three undergraduate and three law degrees from Harvard, and one daughter will soon earn a medical degree from Tulane University.
"We believe in public service, we believe in obeying the law, and we believe fervently in Almighty God," Jefferson said.
"Incredibly," he said, "this is the same family that the U.S. attorney and the FBI and I guess some in [the] Justice [Department] want you to believe is a family of bribers, racketeers and conspirators.... I am the architect, the leader of this family band of supposed robbers and racketeers."
The government has unlimited resources to press its case against him, the congressman said, but "we have the advantage, the advantage of having right and truth on our side.... I've been fighting against the odds all my life, and through the grace of God, I've been winning these battles against the odds."