Jefferson Conviction Is Bittersweet For Justice Dept.

Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) and his wife, Andrea. i i

Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) and his wife, Andrea. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images
Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) and his wife, Andrea.

Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) and his wife, Andrea.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The federal jury that found former Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson guilty Wednesday of 11 felonies, including bribery and racketeering, delivered its verdict four years and two days after FBI agents found $90,000 in his freezer.

But it was less than a complete victory for the Justice Department.

During the trial, prosecutors laid out five years' worth of deals in which Jefferson wanted payments from business people. The jurors saw a crisp FBI photo of the cash in his home freezer. They also saw a video of Jefferson collecting the money — the moment when the Democratic congressman reached into the trunk of an FBI informant's car and took a briefcase filled with the greenbacks.

The informant, a businesswoman, wore a wire during the handoff and at restaurant meals with Jefferson. She recorded incriminating conversations about business deals in Africa and the payments he expected. Neither she nor the congressman testified at the trial.

The government's case took eight weeks.

The defense case, by contrast, took a couple of hours and argued that Jefferson had been acting as a business consultant, not a member of Congress carrying out official acts.

The jury considered 16 counts against Jefferson and convicted him on 11.

Afterward, Joseph Persichini, assistant director of the FBI's Washington office, told reporters, "The people of New Orleans need to know that they gave Congressman Jefferson his power, and he used his greed to attain money."

Defense attorney Robert Trout vowed to appeal the verdict. "We certainly believe that we have very strong legal issues to appeal on," he said. "We've been fighting these issues since the day of the indictment, we feel very strongly about them, and we're going to continue to pursue them."

The jury meets again Thursday to decide whether Jefferson must forfeit nearly a half-million dollars that the government says he got from those business deals. Sentencing is set for late October. The 11 felonies could, conceivably, add up to 150 years in prison.

The verdict is good news for a Justice Department that has been on a losing streak when it comes to public corruption cases. The conviction of Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, then a sitting senator, completely collapsed amid evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. And there is an internal review of alleged problems in the conviction of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman.

So, the Jefferson case is a win, but still — the government had him on videotape taking the briefcase.

"I think the assumption is if you can't win that case, what are you going to win?" says Peter Zeidenberg, who used to prosecute similar cases for the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section and is now in private practice.

Zeidenberg says the government committed a serious error early on. Prosecutors and FBI agents searched Jefferson's office on Capitol Hill, but every bit of evidence collected was ultimately thrown out after an appeals court ruled the search a violation of the constitutional separation of powers.

That ruling, Zeidenberg says, set a much broader precedent: "It has just created a nightmare of issues for the Department of Justice, and has really hamstrung a whole bunch of their congressional investigations."

One such probe seemed to be aimed at former Republican Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida.

Feeney had had dealings with corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But when a grand jury tried to find out what Feeney told the House ethics committee about it, an appeals court once again said no.

The Justice Department has since told Feeney's lawyers that the investigation has ended.

Correction Aug. 7, 2009

We said material seized by government investigators during a search of Rep. Jefferson's congressional office was ruled inadmissible in its entirety. In fact, some of the documents were not included in the congressman's constitutional challenge, and 46 of them were entered into evidence against him.

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