A former Louisiana congressman accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes was convicted in federal court Wednesday in a case in which agents famously found $90,000 stashed in his freezer.
William Jefferson, a Democrat who had represented parts of New Orleans for almost 20 years, was stoic as the verdict was read and had little to say afterward. Asked how he was doing, he said, "I'm holding up."
Prosecutors contended Jefferson accepted more than $400,000 in bribes and sought millions more in exchange for brokering business deals in Africa. After a two-month trial, jurors took five days to convict him on 11 of 16 counts that also included racketeering and money laundering. He was acquitted on the other five.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle said Jefferson could face more than 20 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.
Jefferson had been under investigation since March 2005. In August that year, FBI agents searched his Washington home and found the cash in his freezer, wrapped in foil and hidden in boxes of frozen pie crust. Prosecutors said he had planned to use the money to pay a bribe to the then-vice president of Nigeria to secure a multimillion dollar telecommunications deal there, an accusation Jefferson denied.
U.S. Attorney Dana Boente said after the verdict that "no person, not even a congressman, is above the law. Ninety thousand dollars in a freezer is not a gray area. It's a violation."
The defense argued that Jefferson was acting as a private business consultant in brokering the deals and that his actions did not constitute bribery under federal law.
Defense lawyer Robert Trout said he will appeal.
The 62-year-old Jefferson was acquitted of counts that included obstruction of justice and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He was the first official to be charged with violating that act, which makes it illegal to bribe foreign government officials.
In 1991, Jefferson became Louisiana's first African-American congressman since Reconstruction. His run ended in December, when Republican attorney Anh "Joseph" Cao beat him a year after a grand jury indicted Jefferson.
The verdicts were a clear victory for the Justice Department, which had been embarrassed earlier this year by allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that forced them to drop corruption charges against former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
Jefferson took the money found in the freezer as part of an FBI sting. A disgruntled businesswoman, Lori Mody, agreed to wear a wire after telling the FBI that she had been cheated out of $3.5 million in deals brokered by Jefferson.
The jury saw videotape of Mody handing over a suitcase filled with $100,000 cash outside an Arlington hotel. On the tape, Mody asks Jefferson if he would like to "take a peek" at the suitcase's contents."
"No, I would not," a wary Jefferson responded.
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A few days later, agents recovered nearly all the money in the freezer. The defense argued that Jefferson never intended to pay a bribe and took the money only to placate an overly aggressive Mody, who was insisting on paying the Nigerian vice president to seal her business deal.
Judge T.S. Ellis III allowed Jefferson to remain free on bond until sentencing set for Oct. 30, although prosecutors argued he was flight risk because of his ties to Africa. Jurors must return to the courthouse Thursday to consider whether Jefferson has to forfeit more than $450,000 in alleged bribe receipts.
Prosecutors outlined numerous schemes in which they accused Jefferson of concealing bribe payments as "consulting fees" paid to sham companies controlled by his wife and brother. Legally, much of the case turned on whether Jefferson's deal-making was an "official act" under federal bribery laws.
New Orleans voters had long been loyal to Jefferson, re-electing him in 2006 even after news of the bribery scandal broke, and some remain on his side.
The Rev. Aubrey Wallace, a Baptist church assistant pastor in suburban Jefferson Parish, said the verdict doesn't erode his belief in the ex-congressman's innocence or his view that the prosecution was politically motivated.
"We're going to rally around him," he said. "I'll be a supporter until the last breath in my mouth."
Edward Chervenak, a professor of politics at the University of New Orleans, said Jefferson's core supporters may not be swayed by the verdicts. But for much of the country, the convictions will reinforce the perception that Louisiana is a hotbed of public corruption.
Wallace also wasn't ready to concede that the verdicts mean the end of Jefferson's political career.
"If Marion Barry can be convicted of smoking crack cocaine on video and come back, then I think Bill Jefferson can have a second chance," he said.