A federal grand jury handed up a 16-count indictment against Rep. William Jefferson, D - La., on charges right out of "The Sopranos," including money laundering, racketeering, and obstruction of justice, with allegations of corruption spanning years and two continents.
The 94-page document outlines in detail allegations that Jefferson used his office to promote various business interests seeking contracts throughout Africa in exchange for more than $8 million in fees and stocks for himself and his family. The indictment also outlines the first time any U.S. official has been charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars bribing foreign leaders. According to court documents, Jefferson told colleagues that he needed cash to pay bribes to Atiku Abubakar, Nigeria's former vice president. The indictment refers to Jefferson's dealings with a high-ranking official in the executive branch of the Nigerian government who had a spouse in Maryland, but it does not name Abubakar specifically.
"This case is about greed, power and arrogance," said Joseph Persichini, Jr, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington, D.C., field office. "Everyone is entitled to honest and ethical public service."
But in a defiant press conference declaring the nine-term incumbent "innocent," Jefferson's attorney, Robert Trout, said that the FBI was guilty of entrapment. "They decided that it was an opportunity to bring down a congressman," Trout said. "They get excited about that."
Prosecutors said Jefferson, a former member of the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means improperly used his position, his office, congressional staffers, letterhead and e-mail to help various telecommunications, oil exploration, sugar and fertilizer companies invest throughout Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome, Principe, Botswana, and the Republic of Congo.
Jefferson, the co-chair of the Africa Trade and Investment Caucus, is alleged to have done this for a series of corrupt quid pro quos in the form of "monthly fees or retainers, consulting fees, percentage sghares of revenue and profit, flat fees per item sold, and stock ownership in the companies seeking his official assistance."
In fact, while not alleging any wrongdoing by any of his staffers, the government charged Jefferson with running his congressional office as if it were a criminal enterprise.
The charges helped explain why in May 2006, the FBI took the historically unprecedented step of raiding Jefferson's Capitol Hill congressional office, prompting a constitutional debate over whether the raid constituted an unconstitutional breach of the separation of powers. Jefferson's attorney, Trout, however, pointed out that since many of those documents have yet to be turned over to the FBI -- the constitutionality of the search is still being appealed -- the indictment indicates that the Justice Department's assertion "that they needed those papers … was not true, and the violation of the Constitution was not justified."
While hardly unexpected, news of the indictment Monday put Democratic leaders -- who campaigned against a "culture of corruption" for last November's midterm elections -- in an awkward position.