NOVEMBER 16, 2009
Referring to a congressman who stashed a $90,000 cash bribe in his freezer as a “cancer on the body politic,” a Virginia federal judge slapped the once-powerful Democrat with a 13-year prison sentence for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes during his lengthy political career.
Disgraced Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson, the first lawmaker charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act while in office, received the longest prison sentence of any current or former member of Congress. In August a federal jury convicted him of nearly a dozen felonies, including bribery, fraud, money laundering and racketeering.
After an eight-week trial the jury found that Jefferson, who represented New Orleans in the U.S. House of Representatives for nearly two decades, took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes—and unlawfully used his office to seek millions more—to broker business deals in Africa. Prosecutors said he was involved in 11 separate bribery schemes during a five-year period alone.
The lawmaker’s lengthy corruption scheme gained notoriety when the FBI, hot on his tracks for years, videotaped him accepting a $100,000 bribe in a leather briefcase at a hotel in Virginia. Authorities subsequently found $90,000 of the marked bills stashed in the freezer of Jefferson’s house, wrapped in foil and hidden in boxes of frozen pie crust. This earned him the nickname “Dollar Bill.”
In a frantic effort to elude jail, Jefferson adopted various outlandish defense tactics that repeatedly got struck in court. First he played the race card by requesting his corruption trial be moved from the jurisdiction (Virginia) where he was caught taking the $100,000 bribe on video because there weren’t enough blacks for the jury pool.
Then he demanded the charges get dropped by claiming that the bribery indictment unconstitutionally infringed on his privileges as a congressman because grand jury testimony given by his staffers violated the Constitutional clause that protects legislative activity from intervention by other branches of government. Judicial Watch explains the Speech or Debate clause in an amicus brief involving the Jefferson case.
In another desperate argument, Jefferson claimed his misdeeds were technically influence peddling and not bribery as federal prosecutors charged. Based on that laughable theory, federal bribery laws apply to a congressman only if a bribe is exchanged for official action like taking votes or sponsoring legislation.
Corruption is a Jefferson family affair. Five members of the once-prominent Jefferson family have been charged with federal crimes in the last few years and little sister Brenda Jefferson was the first to plead guilty last summer. William Jefferson’s conviction resolves the second case and three others are still pending. Applauding “Dollar Bill’s” sentence in an editorial, Jefferson’s hometown newspaper writes that his crimes reinforced the negative stereotypes about Louisiana as a bed of political corruption.
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