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August 2009


How to Become a Bounty Hunter

Commentary: There’s No Other Way to Say It: Jefferson Was a Crook

Allan Lengel

Allan Lengel

By Allan Lengel
WASHINGTON — Like a run of the mill drug dealer, he hid cash in the freezer.

Like a run of the mill drug dealer, he used cryptic code words in conversations. In one instance, he used the words “African Art” when referring to a cash bribe to an African official.

Like a run of the mill drug dealer, he was paranoid about the FBI, and said so much during a meeting with rich Virginia investor/FBI informant Lori Mody, who just happened to be wearing an FBI wire.

Still, William J. Jefferson , a 9-term Congressman, was anything but a run of the mill criminal. He had a law degree from Harvard. He had an advanced tax degree from Georgetown . He had a sophisticated wife and well educated daughters. He was intelligent. Low key. He was thoughtful .

And he was more than just another Congressman to many of his constituents.

He was the first African American Congressman to be elected in Louisiana since Reconstruction.

“Since he’s been in office, he’s one of the few black officials who has been able to get in office and do something for the people,” a 58-year man old man told me down in New Orleans during Jefferson’s successful re-election campaign in 2006. Jefferson lost two years later.

On Wednesday, Jefferson was convicted of 11 of 16 counts of public corruption. The case centered on allegations that Jefferson took bribes in exchange for using his Congressional influence to promote businesses in Africa he or his family members had a hidden interest in.

He’ll be sentenced in October and you can be sure he’ll get some serious prison time. At 62, whatever it is, it’s likely to amount to a life sentence — or close to one.

Now, instead of being a stand up politician, instead of being someone people could rely on, Jefferson becomes another cliché in this town, a crooked politician, who came with ideals, who left with a criminal record — someone few outside his district knew of — that is until the FBI raided his home on Capitol Hill on Aug. 3, 2005, and found $90,000 in FBI marked bills that the rich Virginia woman/FBI informant Lori Mody gave him.

Back in 2005, while I was a reporter at the Washington Post, I wrote about the raid. And when a source tipped me off about the money in freezer, I was amused and surprised. But the source said matter of factly, something to the effect: “Drug dealers hide money in the freezer all the time.”

Thus, my earlier reference to drug dealers.

Jefferson liked to live on the edge. He shook down business people for bribes. He did it before the FBI came along. He did it while the FBI was watching and listening.

During trial, his attorney Robert Trout, who did a fine job, said Jefferson was a “rock star” in Africa. What Trout didn’t say was that Jefferson used his official office, and his rock star status, to meet with high ranking African officials to promote those businesses he had hidden interest in.

Sadly, it’s not as if Jefferson didn’t hear the alarms, didn’t get fair warning. In 2006, someone with knowledge of the African political landscape, told me that Jefferson had apparently been warned that rumors had been circulating — even before the FBI raided his homes in 2005 — that he was on the take in Africa. Jefferson apparently gave it little thought.

In the end, at trial, the best Jefferson’s attorney could say was that, yes, Jefferson may have violated some Congressional ethics, and yes, he may have done some pretty stupid things, but he did not break the law. Echoes of Dick Nixon: “I am not crook”.

No crook? Well, the tape FBI conversations sure made him sound like one.
So, while to compare him to a drug may be a little harsh, calling him a crook is pretty accurate.

In the end, shortly after the verdict was announced, I thought: The bigger crime here would have been for William J. Jefferson to get acquitted and walk free. The joke would have been on all of us.

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