Rep. Jefferson Indicted on 16 Counts, Lawyer Maintains Innocence
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 6/6/2007
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – U. S. Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-La.), who last year told the NNPA News Service in an exclusive interview that he was baffled about why the FBI raided his congressional office, has been indicted with 16 counts of alleged bribery, racketeering, using his office to solicit bribes and obstruction of justice.
The charges were handed down from the U. S. Attorney's office in Alexandria on Tuesday, a year after FBI agents launched a controversial raid on his Capitol Hill office. They have prompted his lawyer as well as leading members of the Congressional Black Caucus to ask critics to reserve judgment until he has had his day in court.
Jefferson is being accused of accepting bribes in exchange for using his influence in private dealings with high-tech businesses in Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana.
“Congressman Jefferson is innocent. He plans to fight this indictment and clear his name,” says his attorney Robert Trout, in a statement issued Tuesday. “The Department of Justice has inspected every aspect of Mr. Jefferson’s public and private life. Federal agents searched his home and automobile, and for the first time in the history of the United States, they raided a Congressional office.”
A statement from the Department of Justice says, “The things of value allegedly sought and/or received by Jefferson on behalf of his business interests and relatives included hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bribes in the form of payments from monthly fees or retainers, consultant fees, percentage shares of revenues and profits, flat fees for items sold, and stock ownership in the companies seeking his official assistance.”
Despite widely publicized claims from federal investigaters that they found $90,000 of FBI money in Jefferson’s home freezer two years ago, throngs of civil rights lawyers and members of Congress last year came to his defense, saying the Capitol Hill office raid had crossed the line.
As news of the indictments circulated this week, even some who were hopeful last year are shaking their heads.
“With all of the counts, it is highly unlikely that there will be an acquittal on all of them,” says Thomas Todd, a former U. S. Attorney from the Eastern District of Illinois. He says the worst part of the indictments appear to be the obstruction of justice, Count 15.
“I don’t see how that can have an explainable that’s reasonable for that or how he can have an explanation for the money in the freezer,” Todd says. “Now, having said that, he is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.”
The 95-page indictment states in Count 15 that Jefferson “knowingly and corruptly concealed a record, document, and other object, and attempted to do so, with intent to impair the object’s integrity and availability.”
Specifically, the indictment says that Jefferson tried to hide faxes and attachments addressed to him during a court-approved search of this New Orleans home on August 3, 2005.
Despite controversy swirling around his case last spring, he was soundly re-elected by a faithful New Orleans constituency in November.
Trout’s statement this week implies the charges are trumped.
“While the prosecution has been steadily sharing information with the public over the past two years, and while the Department of Justice has thrown together a lengthy and creative indictment, the government has yet to prove any charges in court,” Trout states.
“Also, it is extremely troubling that the Department of Justice would rush to issue this indictment before the Court of Appeals has even issued its ruling on the legality of the unprecedented search of the Congressman’s office. They Department of Justice claimed that they needed those papers. This action suggests that the statement was not true, and the violation of the Constitution was not justified.”
A lower court ruled last year that the Congressional office search was justified.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn issued a statement this week, asking critics to allow the legal process to take its course.
“The allegations leveled against Mr. Jefferson are serious and should not be treated lightly. But they are allegations and in our system must not be treated as guilt,” states Clyburn. “We must allow the judicial process to run its course, after which there will be plenty enough time to express our political will.''
In an exclusive interview last year Jefferson told NNPA that he was baffled about why his office was raided with members of Congress with far greater charges had avoided such scrutiny.
“You look at every motive there could possibly be. Of course, when you’re an African-American in elective office, you look to see whether that might be a motive. I don’t have any evidence of that. But, I can tell you that you have to look at everything,” Jefferson said in the interview last June. “We’re trying to see what the reasons are and we’re investigating very carefully why it happened to me. But we can’t put our finger on it; at least not without factual evidence until we can say to you with reasonable certainty this is why this was done.”
In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week, Jefferson said he would step down from the House Small Business Committee, “pending my successful conclusion of that matter.”
However, he made clear his position of innocence until proven guilty.
“In doing so, I, of course, express no admission of guilt or culpability in that or any other matter that may be pending in any court or before the House of Representatives,” he stated in the letter. “I have supported every ethics and lobbying reform measure that you and our Democratic Majority have authored, and I make this request for leave to support the letter and the spirit of your leadership in this area.”
Concludes Todd, “The overall circumstances is a tragedy. It really is a tragedy. It looks real bad. But, you’ve got to go with the presumption of innocence.”