Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of bribery, money laundering, obstruction of justice, violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, racketeering and conspiracy at a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va.
Jefferson is free on a $100,000 personal recognizance bond -- he took an oath affirming he would make future court appearances in lieu of paying the bond.
Jefferson had been in the crosshairs of a Virginia U.S. attorney's office for allegedly accepting bribes to steer business to a communications firm in Nigeria and soliciting bribes to benefit various companies owned by his family. A grand jury returned a 16-count indictment against the nine-term congressman Monday.
The investigation came to a head last August, when FBI agents raided Jefferson's Washington, D.C., home and recovered $90,000 from his freezer, allegedly "as part of the front-end bribe payment" to pay the Nigerian vice president, according to the indictment.
The cash "was separated into $10,000 increments wrapped in aluminum foil and concealed in various frozen food containers," the indictment continued.
After his arraignment, Jefferson made a lengthy statement outside the courthouse, denouncing the charges and asserting that the FBI had planned all along to give money to the Nigerian vice president.
Jefferson explained the cash FBI agents found in his freezer by saying, "The $90,000 was the FBI's money. The FBI gave it to me as part of its plan, part of their plan, that I would give it to the Nigerian vice president, but I did not do that. When all the facts are understood, I trust that I will be vindicated."
"I am absolutely innocent of the charges that have been leveled against me. … I'm going to fight my heart out to clear my name," Jefferson said.
With his wife, Andrea, standing at his side, Jefferson spoke at length about his family.
"Incredibly, we are the same family that the U.S. attorney and FBI would have you believe is a family made up of bribers, racketeers and conspirators against the laws of our country."
"My family and I have determined that I will not sacrifice my honor or cave to political pressure and that we will sell every stick of furniture in our home and anything else we may own to pursue justice and clear our name." Jefferson said.
Toward the end of his statement, Jefferson acknowledged some missteps.
"Did I make mistakes in judgment along the way that I now deeply regret? Yes, but did I sell my office or trade official acts for money? Absolutely not. This case involved private business activities and not official acts by me."
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment about Jefferson's statement.
Jefferson waived his right to a speedy trial because of the vast amount of evidence expected.
The congressman will have to surrender his passport; he is free to travel within the United States but must give some advance notice to the judge. Foreign travel will only be allowed for official congressional business.
Jefferson will also have to surrender guns he has at his home in New Orleans. Jefferson said he had several rifles and shotguns. "I've been hunting since I was 10 years old," he told the judge. Jefferson's attorney, Robert Trout, will take possession of his guns and passport.
The government said it needed four weeks to make its case, but Judge Ellis expressed his displeasure with the plan, saying, "I think that's too much. No trial should last that long," Ellis continued, saying, "The only people the jury wants to convict are the lawyers by the end of the trial."
The case will go to trial Jan. 16, 2008. If convicted, a court could sentence the lawmaker to up to 235 years in prison.
A motions hearing is set for September.