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Congressman who had cash in freezer is convicted of 11 criminal counts

Former Rep. William J. Jefferson faces more than 20 years in prison after being found guilty of bribery, racketeering, money laundering and wire fraud. The FBI found $90,000 in his freezer in 2006.

August 06, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — Former Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), who gained national attention after federal agents found $90,000 in his freezer, was convicted Wednesday of political corruption.

Jefferson, 62, was found guilty in federal court in Alexandria, Va., of 11 of 16 criminal counts including bribery, racketeering, money laundering and wire fraud. He faces more than 20 years in prison.

"We have been reminded today that we are a nation of laws and not men," said Dana J. Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. "It should be a clear signal that no public official -- and certainly not a U.S. congressman -- can put their office up for sale and betray that office."

Jefferson will remain free until sentencing Oct. 30.

His indictment on graft charges, along with other congressional scandals, gave momentum to the biggest overhaul of ethics rules on Capitol Hill since Watergate. But it was the discovery of cold cash in his freezer that made him a target of late-night TV comics.

Jefferson, a sharecropper's son who attended Harvard Law School and, in 1990, became the first African American elected to Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction, was accused of soliciting bribes in exchange for using his office to promote business interests in Africa.

"We are of course very disappointed by the verdict. We did not believe the government had proven its case," Jefferson's attorney, Robert P. Trout, wrote in an e-mail to The Times. "While the jury agreed with us in acquitting Mr. Jefferson on some of the counts, including the count charging him with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act -- which was the count relating to the money in the freezer -- we will continue to pursue the legal challenges we have made to the remaining counts."

Federal agents in 2005 began investigating the New Orleans lawmaker's role in promoting a technology company seeking to gain a foothold in Africa. A suspicious investor contacted the FBI and agreed to wear a listening device. According to the indictment, Jefferson told the investor that he would need money to bribe a Nigerian official.

Jefferson received $100,000 in marked bills, according to the indictment. Federal agents found $90,000 of the bills wrapped in aluminum foil in the freezer of Jefferson's home in Washington.

Evidence in the trial showed that Jefferson had "performed a wide range of official acts in return for things of value, including leading official business delegations to Africa, corresponding with U.S. and foreign government officials, and utilizing congressional staff members to promote businesses and businesspersons," according to the U.S. attorney's office.

Prosecutors said Jefferson's schemes included telecommunications deals in Nigeria, Ghana and elsewhere; oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea; satellite transmission contracts in Botswana, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo; and the development of different plants and facilities in Nigeria.

The revelation of the cash in Jefferson's freezer came at an inopportune time for his fellow Democrats, who in the midst of the 2006 campaign were trying to highlight a "culture of corruption" in the Republican-controlled House.

Even so, Democrats gained the majority and Jefferson was reelected. He served a ninth term before losing his seat last year to Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao, the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress.

"It is a sad day for his family, but no one is above the law," said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

An FBI raid of Jefferson's Capitol Hill office also set off a legal and political fight over the powers of the executive branch to seize materials from legislative offices.

The jury is scheduled to convene today to decide whether Jefferson will face forfeiture of up to $456,000 plus stock certificates.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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