Before the Search: The Rise of Rep. William Jefferson The $90,000 in cash allegedly found in his freezer; the FBI raid of his office; and the conviction of a top aide on bribery charges are just the latest in a long string of stories, scandals and allegations surrounding Rep. William Jefferson.
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Before the Search: The Rise of Rep. William Jefferson

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Before the Search: The Rise of Rep. William Jefferson

Before the Search: The Rise of Rep. William Jefferson

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


And I'm Melissa Block. Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson has been all over the news lately. The FBI alleges the Louisiana Democrat took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, even hiding some of the cash in his freezer. The subsequent search of Jefferson's congressional office has touched off another controversy over the separation of powers. This week Luke Burbank traveled to Louisiana to find out more about the congressman, where he came from, and where he might be going.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

Jefferson Road is easy to miss if you aren't familiar with Lake Providence. The good news though is that in this tiny Northeast Louisiana town it's just a matter of pulling over and asking directions from the first person you see. They'll know how to get there. You take the right off of 65 just before the correction center, drive down a dusty dirt road and look for the big pecan tree. That's the spot where William Jefferson's story begins.

Mr. JAMES BROWN (Resident, Lake Providence, Louisiana): He picked cotton right there behind this church. That was the main cotton field, here and it jumped over to them trees and go on down to them other big tree you see way down there.

BURBANK: James Brown lives on Jefferson Road, named for William Jefferson's late father, Mose Jefferson. One of ten kids, the congressman grew up picking cotton on his family's small farm. Mose and Angeline Jefferson were big on two things; hard work and discipline.

Mr. BROWN: They were pretty strict on all of them, they was strict. If they said do it, then we're going to do it. And when work time, them children worked.

BURBANK: But they did have one advantage a lot of the other kids in Lake Providence didn't. The Jefferson children were allowed to go to school even during the cotton harvest. Elizabeth Branham Trask(ph) was Jefferson's high school math teacher.

Ms. ELIZABETH BRANHAM TRASK: He was a good student. He had no behavior problems and he was just kind of all around boy.

BURBANK: It was in high school that Jefferson first showed an interest in politics. He ran for class president but he was one of the few boys in his class and he lost to a girl. Apparently undaunted, he sailed through high school, attended Southern University, and won a scholarship to Harvard Law School. Jefferson became, as Branham Trask puts it, the pride of Lake Providence, which is why, she says, it's been so hard for her and the others to hear the bribery allegations being leveled against him.

Ms. BRANHAM TRASK: I really did not want to read and hear all of it, you know? Because when you have respect for a person and you've never heard anything negative about them, then you, you just don't know how to accept it.

BURBANK: After law school, Jefferson returned to Louisiana. He got married, started a family, and founded a law firm. In 1979 he won a seat in the state senate. He also ran for mayor of New Orleans twice, once against Sidney Bartholomew.

Mr. SIDNEY BARTHOLOMEW (Former Mayor, New Orleans): Oh, I was impressed with him.

BURBANK: Bartholomew says Jefferson was a serious guy, not your typical Southern politician, given to speechifying and glad-handing. Jefferson was always driven though. Bartholomew remembers a time during that race when he decided not to ride on a Mardi Gras float because, he feared, he'd catch a cold. William Jefferson on the other hand turned up bright and early for the parade. A few days later, the two men squared off in a debate.

Mr. BARTHOLOMEW: And fortunately my voice was in good shape. His voice was in bad shape because of the weather and he was, could hardly speak. You know, so it was difficult for him to do the debate.

BURBANK: Jefferson lost both times he ran for mayor. Still, as a state senator, and an increasingly powerful lawyer, he was seen as one to watch. At the same time, though, critics were starting to whisper about William Jefferson. They accused him of using his political position to funnel work towards his law firm. They talked about questionable real estate deals and tax problems. And they christened him with a nickname.

Mr. ED RENWICK (Director, Institute for the Study of Politics): Dollar Bill Jefferson.

BURBANK: Ed Renwick directs the Institute for the Study of Politics at Loyola University in New Orleans. He says taken individually, none of the ethical scrapes William Jefferson got into seemed to amount to all that much. In 1990, Jefferson was elected to Congress and if there were any nagging ethical questions he seemed to leave them behind in the dust as he headed to Washington. Renwick says in subsequent years, it's helped that Jefferson never faced a real re-election challenge.

Mr. RENWICK: If we had a place where each time a race came up, it was very contested, well, then people would be much more aware of all of these things. How long's it been since Jefferson's had an opponent for Congress?

BURBANK: Sixteen years, to be exact. During that time on the Hill, Jefferson's made a name for himself. He's headed the Congressional Black Caucus, he sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Loyola's Ed Renwick says Jefferson appeared to have it all together until just a few weeks ago, when the FBI released an 83-page affidavit accusing him of bribery.

Mr. RENWICK: I couldn't imagine him doing such a thing. I mean, the gamble. If you're intelligent, educated, successful, making money and powerful, why do you want to gamble all of it?

BURBANK: According to the FBI, to benefit his five children the document alleges he tried to cut his kids in on shady business deals and to line his own pockets. The affidavit also alleges Jefferson took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, some of the cash ending up in the freezer of his Washington apartment. Here in New Orleans, long-time critics say it's just Dollar Bill at it again. His constituents, however, also here in New Orleans, actually seem more suspicious of the FBI than they are of their congressman. For the record, Jefferson maintains his innocence.

If you think about it, William Jefferson's life is a classic American story. He rose from a poor town in the segregated South to Harvard Law School and on to the heights of power. The big question is how the next chapter will read. Luke Burbank, NPR News, New Orleans.

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