Congressman Jefferson at the Center of a Political Storm
By: Lorinda Bullock
Originally posted 5/23/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Since Hurricane Katrina ripped through his congressional district last August, Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) has been fighting on Capitol Hill for much needed funds to help rebuild his hurricane-ravaged 2nd District, one of the hardest hit in New Orleans.
But now Jefferson is in the center of a new storm that could be just as devastating to his political career.
Jefferson’s Capitol Hill office was raided over the weekend, the first for a sitting member of Congress. A redacted copy of the warrant was released Sunday by the FBI.
The indictment accuses the eight-term congressman of accepting bribes and using his office and influence to illegally participate in high-tech business ventures in Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana.
According to the 83-page affidavit, the FBI had been tracking Jefferson since last March. The FBI was tipped off by a woman the Washington Post named as Lori Mody, a wealthy northern Virginia businesswoman who, persuaded by Jefferson, invested millions of dollars into iGate Inc., a Louisville-based telecommunications company.
The document describes iGate as a company that produces high-speed Internet and cable television services that is transmitted through copper wires.
At a Capitol Hill news conference Monday, Jefferson said, ''There are two sides to every story; there are certainly two sides to this story. There will be an appropriate time and forum when that can be explained.''
Mody, worried about being swindled out of nearly $4 million she had invested in iGate, approached the FBI about investigating Jefferson, the document said.
Jefferson, a Harvard-trained lawyer, is considered an expert on information technology issues.
While he has not been charged, the affidavit said Vernon Jackson, president and CEO of iGate, and Brett Pfeffer, a former member of Jefferson’s congressional staff, were included as targets of the investigation and both pleaded guilty earlier this year for bribing the congressman to promote iGate’s technology to African nations.
The Washington Post reported that about15 FBI agents entered Jefferson’s congressional office on Saturday evening and completed the search Sunday afternoon.
Key evidence included in the affidavit came from recorded discussions that were also videotaped from July 30, 2005 when Jefferson allegedly accepted $100,000 in a reddish brown leather briefcase from a witness the Washington Post named as Lori Mody in a Ritz Carlton parking lot in northern Va.
Mody cooperated with the FBI by secretly wearing a electronic wire, the document said. She was not identified in the affidavit as a target of the 14-month sting operation.
Mody allegedly gave the money to Jefferson to pay off African officials in Nigeria and Ghana to persuade them to use iGate Inc., a Kentucky-based telecommunications company that offers broadband technology, including the Internet and cable television, the affidavit stated.
Suprisingly, Republicans, who had hoped to exploit the Jefferson case in the upcoming congressional elections, rushed to his defense after the FBI raided his office.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) issued a statement Monday night saying, ''The actions of the Justice Department in seeking and executing this warrant raise important Constitutional issues that go well beyond the specifics of this case.''
He explained, ''Insofar as I am aware, since the founding of our Republic 219 years ago, the Justice Department has never found it necessary to do what it did Saturday night, crossing this Separation of Powers line, in order to successfully prosecute corruption by Members of Congress. Nothing I have learned in the last 48 hours leads me to believe that there was any necessity to change the precedent established over those 219 years.''
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) sent an e-mail to his former colleagues calling the raid ''the most blatant violation of the Constitutional Separation of Powers in my lifetime.''
The Jefferson case also complicates the Democrats' plan to exploit the corruption admissions of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told the Washington Post: ''As bad as people want to say the Abramoff situation was, it didn't lead to any House offices getting raided.''
Typically, the FBI seeks subpoenas for items they need rather than raid a federal lawmaker's office.
Jefferson, 59, carries considerable clout because he co-chairs the Africa Trade and Investment Caucus as well as the Congressional Caucuses on Brazil and Nigeria and is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The first African-American to be elected to Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction, Jefferson is a senior member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and its subcommittee on trade. He is a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
In one taped conversation with Mody that mentions his Nigerian connections, the affidavit said Jefferson discussed the importance of someone in Nigeria the document refers to as “John Doe #1”.
“We need him. We got to motivate him really good,” Jefferson allegedly told Mody. “He’s got a lot of folks to pay off.”
On August 3, 2005, a few days after the parking lot transaction, Jefferson’s Washington D.C. home was raided. Investigators found $90,000 in Jefferson’s freezer stuffed in frozen food containers and wrapped in aluminum foil, the document said.
Jefferson addressed the investigation May 15 while in New Orleans.
“I would take full responsibility for any crime that I committed that were the case. But I will not plead guilty to something I did not do, no matter how things are made to look and no matter the risk,” Jefferson said at the time.
In addition to the federal investigation, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has launched its own investigation of Jefferson’s bribery allegations.
The affidavit also quotes conversations between Jefferson and Mody about how Jefferson had placed iGate stock in his children’s names.
“I make a deal for my children, it wouldn’t be me,” he allegedly told Mody after passing cryptic notes about the shares.
The affidavit said Jefferson allegedly joked with Mody about the notes.
He was quoted: “All these damn notes we’re writing to each other as if we’re talking, as if the FBI is watching.”