A four-year saga comes to a head today as government prosecutors bring their case against Democratic former congressman William Jefferson, who stands charged with 16 felonies including bribery, racketeering, obstruction of justice and money laundering.
Jefferson – best known for having kept over $90,000 in cash in his freezer – represented for nearly two decades the Louisiana district that includes New Orleans. Bucking a trend, Jefferson actually won re-election in 2006 even after the news media reported he was under federal investigation. He lost in 2008, after a grand jury handed down its indictment against him.
The government's carefully-crafted case against the former lawmaker accuses him of soliciting bribes, and using the resources and power of his congressional office to push business deals in several West African countries. Among their allegations, prosecutors say Jefferson told his staffers to send letters using his official letterhead touting business deals from which he stood to profit. Jefferson has pleaded not guilty, and said he has an "honorable explanation" for his actions.
While the frozen money may be the most well-known piece of evidence in the case against Jefferson, the prosecution relies more on hundreds of hours of surreptitiously-recorded conversations involving the ex-congressman, as well as piles of emails, faxes and other documents taken in raids.
While corruption trials involving sitting and former lawmakers seem increasingly quotidian, the Jefferson case can claim one piece of history: In 2006, federal agents executed a search warrant for Jefferson's Capitol office, the first time such a thing has ever happened.
The raid sparked a furor on Capitol Hill, and the case was delayed while lawyers for Jefferson and the government fought over how and whether the material taken from the raid could be reviewed, considered and used in the case. An appeals court eventually ruled the raid was unconstitutional.
Prosecutors chose carefully which acts to charge. At a May hearing, they reportedly confirmed they had evidence Jefferson sought to sell legislative favors, including inserting earmarks, but chose not to prosecute those alleged acts because they were protected under the so-called "speech and debate" clause. That powerful snippet of law protects lawmakers from prosecution for voting on bills, writing legislation, or other acts that are part of conducting their official business.
Melanie Sloan, of the anti-corruption watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said if Jefferson's arguments persuade the jury, it could make lawmakers all but completely immune from prosecution for all sorts of corruption.
"Acts within the legislative sphere can't be prosecuted because of speech-and-debate," Sloan said. "If you're saying" – as Jefferson has argued – "anything outside that sphere isn't an 'official act,' you're then saying there's no abuse of his office for which a Member of Congress can be prosecuted." Sloan said she expects the government to win its case.