LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Former Democratic congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana has been found guilty of 11 felonies, including bribery and racketeering. A federal jury returned the verdict in Alexandria, Virginia, yesterday. That would be four years and two days after FBI agents found $90,000 in Jefferson's home freezer. But as NPR's Peter Overby reports, it was still less than a complete victory for the Justice Department.
PETER OVERBY: There's a nice, crisp, FBI photo of the cash in the freezer. The jurors saw that. They also saw an FBI video of Jefferson collecting the money. It was in a briefcase in the trunk of a car belonging to an FBI informant. Jefferson reached in and took the briefcase.
The informant, a businesswoman, wore a wire at the handoff. Also, at restaurant meals with the congressman, she recorded incriminating conversation about business deals in Africa and the payments he expected. Neither she nor Jefferson testified at the trial.
Prosecutors laid out five years' worth of deals in which Jefferson wanted payments from business people. The government's case took eight weeks. The defense case took a couple of hours, mainly arguing that Jefferson had acted 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, spoke to reporters.
Mr. JOSEPH PERSICHINI (Assistant director, FBI Washington office): The people of New Orleans need to know that they gave congressman Jefferson his power, and he used his greed to obtain money.
OVERBY: And defense attorney Robert Trout spoke, too. He promised to appeal.
Mr. ROBERT TROUT (Attorney): We certainly believe that we have very strong legal issues to appeal on. 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. this.
OVERBY: The jury meets again today. It has to decide if Jefferson will need to forfeit nearly half a 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 the Justice Department, which 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 prosecutors' misconduct. And there's an internal review of alleged problems in the conviction of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. So the Jefferson case is a win - but still, they had him on videotape, taking the briefcase.
Mr. PETER ZEIDENBERG (Attorney): I think the assumption is if you can't win that case, what are you going to win?
OVERBY: Peter Zeidenberg used to prosecute cases like this one for the department's public integrity section. Now, he's in private practice. He says the government committed a serious error early on. Prosecutors and FBI agents searched Jefferson's office on Capitol Hill. Ultimately every bit of evidence they got was thrown out. An appeals court said the search was a violation of the constitutional separation of powers.
POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: It is not correct that material seized by government investigators during a search of Jefferson's congressional office was ruled inadmissible in 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.
And as Zeidenberg says, that ruling set a much broader precedent.
Mr. ZEIDENBERG: It has just created a nightmare of issues for the Department of Justice, and has really hamstrung a whole bunch of their congressional investigations.
OVERBY: One such probe seemed to be aimed at former Republican congressman Tom Feeney of Florida. He 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, again, an appeals court said no. Now, D.O.J. has told Feeney's lawyers the investigation has ended.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.