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Louisiana Congressman Indicted on Bribery Charges

June 4, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: Today’s indictment of nine-term Democrat William Jefferson caps a two-year criminal investigation into the congressman’s role in trying to secure business deals in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. That probe included a raid on Jefferson’s Louisiana home, where investigators found $95,000 in cash stuffed in a freezer.

A subsequent raid of his congressional office sparked protests by both House Democratic and Republican leaders and provoked a constitutional fight still being argued in the courts.

Here to tell us more about the case is Susan Ferrechio of Congressional Quarterly.

Welcome. So 16 counts, some very complicated stuff, but it can be boiled down, as we heard in our news summary clip, to what?

SUSAN FERRECHIO, Congressional Quarterly: To Mr. Jefferson using his official capacity as a member of Congress to solicit bribes and accept bribes in exchange for helping to establish telecommunications and other deals in African nations, namely Nigeria and Ghana.

This has been a case that the federal government has tracked for about a five-year period, and they’ve got all kinds of evidence now, including the video clips of him accepting a bribe, and hard evidence, like cash found in his freezer. But it’s really just about, you know, a public corruption case. He’s a member of Congress. He was elected to serve his constituents. And the Justice Department is accusing him of using that office for his own personal gain.

iGATE deal

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, specifically, there's a number of companies involved, but the main one is something called iGATE, the technology telecom company.

SUSAN FERRECHIO: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what specific -- what do they do? And what is he alleged to have done with them?

SUSAN FERRECHIO: IGATE is a telecommunications firm that developed a way to transmit data over copper wires. And Mr. Jefferson, according to the Justice Department, worked with Vernon Jackson, the executive for iGATE, to help establish a deal in Nigeria, where they would provide -- iGATE would provide those telecommunications services in Nigeria.

Now, Mr. Jefferson offered to kind of finesse the deal for Mr. Jackson in Nigeria using his capacity -- you know, his title as a member of Congress and his, you know, advocacy on various committees in Congress to try to facilitate this deal in Africa. In exchange for that, he demanded from Mr. Jackson a stake in the company, stock options, and just flat-out cash.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for his family, as well, right?

SUSAN FERRECHIO: Right, for members of his family.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because they made a big deal of it in the press conference today, that this is about benefiting him and his family.

SUSAN FERRECHIO: Right, and he often talked about that. In the indictment document, he's quoted talking about wanting to provide for his family. And, in some cases, he demanded that a family member be paid as a consultant or just be given a monthly stipend. But, yes, he definitely involved his family.

Deal with Nigerians

JEFFREY BROWN: The foreign corruption part of this -- I think I read today this is the first case brought against a sitting congressman.

SUSAN FERRECHIO: That's right. And it's a charge that comes about from Mr. Jefferson trying to solicit or accept bribes overseas. And so it is kind of unusual. I don't think there has been a case like this yet, where the congressman is traveling to another country and trying to use his status in that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the indictment does not name names, but it refers to Nigerian Official A?

SUSAN FERRECHIO: That's right. This person is believed to be the former vice president of Nigeria, who has at least one relative living in Potomac, Maryland, and that person was also involved in the case. And that's how they tracked it to this vice president of Nigeria. He ran for president and lost. I think he came in third in Nigeria, and this case was cited as part of the reason he lost that election.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it known whether he or others overseas are cooperating in this case at all?

SUSAN FERRECHIO: I don't know the answer to that. I do know that they feel pretty secure that he was trying to and did bribe Nigerian officials. And I do recall that it was well-publicized in the country. I'm not sure whether or not there are any charges against him in his own country.

Jefferson's defense

JEFFREY BROWN: Two of Jefferson's former associates, including the former head of iGATE, have been involved in plea agreements, right?

SUSAN FERRECHIO: That's right. Over the past couple of years, Brett Pfeffer, former administrative aide in his office, his congressional office, as well as Vernon Jackson, the iGATE chief executive, both have cooperated with the Justice Department and have pleaded guilty and are serving sentences of about seven to eight years in prison, both of them right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, this afternoon, Mr. Jefferson's lawyer came out in Los Angeles.

SUSAN FERRECHIO: That's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: They're sticking to their guns, right?

SUSAN FERRECHIO: That's right. Now, Mr. Jefferson has long contended that he is innocent. He's been very adamant about that. And his lawyer today repeated that sentiment and said that Mr. Jefferson has never been connected with any official legislation or other official congressional act that would necessitate the public corruption charge. And I think he called the indictment sort of creative.

I think that their belief is that Mr. Jefferson was acting independently of his office when he went about all this business, although the federal government has pointed out that Mr. Jefferson used congressional letterhead and also used the help of congressional aides to help secure these deals.

JEFFREY BROWN: But they're saying that, no, it hasn't been shown yet that a particular piece of legislation or a particular vote was given in exchange.

SUSAN FERRECHIO: That's right. That's the point that his lawyer is making...

JEFFREY BROWN: Now -- I'm sorry?

SUSAN FERRECHIO: ... in saying that he's innocent of public corruption, because there was no real official act connected to it.

Jefferson's future in the House

JEFFREY BROWN: The congressman won re-election last year while a lot of this was going on. He was stripped of his position on the Ways and Means Committee.

SUSAN FERRECHIO: That's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where do things stand now, in terms of his place or his role in the House?

SUSAN FERRECHIO: Well, at this point, it looks like he will probably lose his last remaining committee assignment, which was a less significant assignment on the Small Business Committee. He will probably be stripped of that this week, I'm hearing.

And I also believe that the House Ethics Committee is about to launch an investigation into the situation where they may decide that he should be expelled. I will say it's probably unlikely he will be expelled unless he is convicted of something. It would be very unusual. In most cases, a member is convicted first; then, the House moves to expel him or her.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ethics, of course, was a big issue in that last congressional election when the Democrats took the House. So is there extra pressure on them now? You already have Republicans calling for his head or calling for something quickly?

SUSAN FERRECHIO: That's right, the House minority leader, John Boehner, is asking for the Ethics Committee to look into whether or not Mr. Jefferson should be expelled and to decide within the next 30 days. So there is definitely pressure on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who really ran a strong campaign on trying to clean up Congress, as you said, or get rid of all the corruption in Congress.

But she is the one who initiated the move last year to strip him from the tax-writing committee. So she's already taken steps to show that she's not going to put up with this from Mr. Jefferson. And I suspect that she'll get the House Ethics Committee moving to investigate so that she doesn't look like she's sitting on her hands.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Susan Ferrechio, Congressional Quarterly, thanks very much.

SUSAN FERRECHIO: Thank you.