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Rep. Jefferson Indicted on Fraud, Bribery Counts

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Rep. Jefferson Indicted on Fraud, Bribery Counts

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Rep. Jefferson Indicted on Fraud, Bribery Counts

Rep. Jefferson Indicted on Fraud, Bribery Counts

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Nine-term Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana was indicted Monday on 16 federal counts of bribery, racketeering, fraud and money laundering. The indictment includes charges that he paid off a Nigerian official. Almost two years ago, investigators found $90,000 in cash in Jefferson's freezer.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

And I'm Rebecca Roberts.

The congressman with cash in his freezer has been indicted. Today, a federal grand jury charged New Orleans Democrat William Jefferson with running an international scheme arranging trade deals in exchange for bribes.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: It was not quite two years ago that FBI agents said they found $90,000 in Jefferson's home freezer. An agent said in an affidavit that after they searched his house in Washington, D.C., they easily traced the marked bills back to a bribe that Jefferson had been videotaped accepting a few days earlier.

This afternoon, U.S. attorney Chuck Rosenberg said it's one element of the indictment.

Mr. CHUCK ROSENBERG (U.S. Attorney, Southern District of Texas): Mr. Jefferson secreted in his freezer at his Washington, D.C. residence $90,000 of the $100,000 in cash that the cooperating witness had given to him. The $90,000 was separated into $10,000 increments wrapped in aluminum foil and concealed inside various frozen food containers.

OVERBY: Now, that alleged payoff is contained in an indictment that runs for 16 counts and 94 pages. It accuses Jefferson of soliciting money from 11 companies mainly in the United States but also in several African countries. Some of the money allegedly went to government officials in Nigeria. The Justice Department says that nearly $400,000 went to Jefferson himself and to members of his family.

The indictment also says that companies wanting Jefferson's help were pressured into lopsided contracts with some of eight companies controlled by Jefferson's family. Again, U.S. attorney chuck Rosenberg.

Mr. ROSENBERG: The alleged criminal behavior is spread over time and distance. But the essence of the charges in this case are really rather simple. Mr. Jefferson corruptly traded on his good office and on the Congress where he served as a member of the United States House of Representatives to enrich himself and his family through a pervasive pattern of fraud, bribery and corruption that spanned many years and two continents.

OVERBY: The case has been hanging over the congressman like a sword. A former congressional aide and a businessman are in prison after admitting they were in a bribe scheme with him. A year ago, the FBI raided his congressional office for documents. That set off illegal battles that stalled the case for months.

Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher, head of the Criminal Division, toady expressed no second thoughts about that raid.

Ms. ALICE FISHER (Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice): At the time we conducted the search, we believed that the search was necessary, appropriate and constitutional. We continue to believe that it's necessary, appropriate and constitutional.

OVERBY: But officials said they can make their case against Jefferson without the documents from Capitol Hill. Jefferson was once a rising young star in the House. Elected in 1990 and given a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. House Democrats took that away from him after the office raid. Still, he won reelection last fall.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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Prosecutors: Congressman Took $400K in Bribes

USA v. William J. Jefferson

Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA), seen in a file photo from Feb. 6, 2007, could face up to 235 years in prison. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) was indicted Monday on federal charges of racketeering, soliciting bribes and money-laundering, marking the latest chapter in a case that has raised thorny issues about the separation of powers and the legal protections afforded to members of Congress.

The charges stem from a long-running bribery investigation into business deals Jefferson tried to broker in Africa. Federal prosecutors Monday outlined a case that has all the features of a pot-boiler, including clandestine meetings, code words and a freezer full of cash.

"Mr. Jefferson traded on his good office to enrich himself and his family through a pervasive pattern of fraud, bribery and corruption that span many years and two continents," said U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg.

Prosecutors allege that Jefferson collected more than $400,000 in bribes.

Jefferson's lawyer responded to the charges by saying that his client is innocent. He is due to be arraigned Friday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

In May 2006, the FBI raided Jefferson's congressional office, the first such raid on a sitting congressman's Capitol office. That move sparked a constitutional debate over whether the executive branch had stepped over the line.

Jefferson and some congressional legal experts say the raid on his office violated the "speech-or-debate" clause of the U.S. Constitution, which protects federal lawmakers in their legislative duties. The FBI maintains the raid was "necessary, appropriate and constitutional." The debate over the raid has tied the case up for a year and is still working its ways through the courts.

Federal prosecutors now suggest that they can make their case against Jefferson without relying on the documents seized during the contested raid of his Congressional office.

The alleged violations include racketeering, soliciting bribes, wire fraud, money-laundering, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Prosecutors allege that Jefferson had his hands in a number of corrupt dealings, including a sugar plant in Nigeria and a satellite transmission firm in Botswana.

Court records indicate that Jefferson was videotaped taking a $100,000 cash bribe from an FBI informant. Most of that money later turned up in a freezer in Jefferson's home. He had separated the money into $10,000 increments and wrapped the bundles in aluminum foil, federal investigators say.

Two of Jefferson's associates have already struck plea bargains with prosecutors and have been sentenced. Jefferson is accused of soliciting bribes for himself and his family, and also for bribing a Nigerian official.

Responding to suspicions about the timing of the indictment, given the controversy surrounding the Justice Department itself, Rosenberg said: "Frankly, we don't give a damn about politics. We believe he broke the law, and that's why we brought the charges. Period."

If convicted on all of the 16 charges, Jefferson faces up to 235 years in prison.

Monday afternoon, defense attorney Robert Trout told reporters that FBI agents had tried to catch Jefferson in a sting.

"They decided that it was an opportunity on their part to bring down a congressman," Trout said. "They get excited about that. In this case, they picked the wrong congressman, and they picked the wrong facts."

Trout said that when Jefferson is arraigned on Friday, he will plead not guilty. And he will not plea bargain.