Amidst his legal battles, CBC members stand by congressman (FCN, 07-01-2007)
WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) – His is one of the most complex corruption probes ever against a member of Congress. Despite what prosecutors argued was an “open and shut” case in Aug. 2005, Congressional Black Caucus member William Jefferson (D-La.) clings to his office, and may even win reelection again this year.
Rep. Jefferson’s appeal of his trial judge’s refusal to throw out bribery charges before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals resulted in what will likely be a months-long postponement of his trial which was set to begin in late February. He claims grand jury witnesses discussed constitutionally prohibited details of his legislative work, claiming his Congressional work is protected by the Constitution’s so-called “separation of powers.”
If he’s convicted, Rep. Jefferson could get 235 years in prison. The New Orleans Democrat faces counts that include racketeering, soliciting bribes, fraud, money-laundering and obstructing justice in connection with business deals in Africa.
In August 2005, the FBI raided Jefferson’s Washington, D.C. townhouse and allegedly found $90,000 in the freezer that prosecutors claim was part of $100,000 an informant had handed Mr. Jefferson days earlier in a northern Virginia parking garage. Mr. Jefferson maintains his innocence and says there is “an honorable explanation” for the money. Two of his former business associates have already gone to prison and acknowledged their parts in a scheme to funnel money to companies controlled by Mr. Jefferson and members of his family in exchange for him helping promote a telecommunications business in Nigeria and Ghana.
Ironically, a political strategist told The Final Call on condition of anonymity, “One difference is, his case doesn’t involve American money. What he’s accused of is using his influence in a foreign country.” Rep. Jefferson’s case is different, the strategist said, from other members of Congress who have been convicted recently of taking bribes. In some cases, federal money was “earmarked” to go to people who were giving bribes to federal officials, so that the public purse was enriching the official as well as the person who bribed the official.
“I am absolutely innocent of the charges that have been leveled against me and I’m going to fight my heart out to clear my name,” Mr. Jefferson said last July after his arraignment on the 16 criminal charges.
“They can attempt to break one, psychologically, and financially … No matter what, the truth will always come to light … this is not who we are. This is not who I am. This is not what I have done.” said Mr. Jefferson, with his wife Andrea Green-Jefferson at his side.
Congressional Black Caucus members have officially stood by, defending their colleague’s presumption of innocence. “The Constitution entitles every citizen to be presumed innocent until a court of law decides otherwise. We just have to leave it to the courts,” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a member of the Judiciary Committee told The Final Call when the charges were first announced.
CBC Chair Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) offered support. “While the charges against Congressman William Jefferson are gravely serious and warrant thorough deliberation, the law of the land entitles every citizen the presumption of innocence until the court of law deems otherwise,” Rep. Kilpatrick said in a statement. “Therefore, we trust the merits of the case against Congressman Jefferson will be examined in a court of law instead of the chambers of public opinion. We stand by our members until proven guilty in a court of law.”
Republicans had sought to politicize the matter and to embarrass the House’s Democratic leadership, many of whose members are Black. He has been stripped of all seniority, and removed from all committee assignments, including the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee by the House Democratic leadership.
House Majority Whip and CBC member James Clyburn (D-S.C.) also offered support, and Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) reportedly contributed $5,000 to Mr. Jefferson’s legal defense fund.
“The allegations leveled against Mr. Jefferson are serious, and should not be treated lightly,” Mr. Clyburn said in a statement. “But they are allegations and in our system must not be treated as guilt. We must allow the judicial process to run its course, after which there will be plenty of time to express our political will.”
Mr. Jefferson maintains his innocence, and the latest trial delay may permit his re-election to a 10th term in November.
“Suffice it to say that the alleged facts in the indictment were contrived merely as part of a sting and all of the allegations are misleading, and all the allegations are untrue,” Mr. Jefferson told reporters after entering his innocent plea.
“This case involves purely private business activities and not official acts by me. Did I bribe a foreign official? Absolutely not. The $90,000 was the FBI’s money. They FBI gave it to me as part of their plan that I would give it to the Nigerian vice president. But I did not do that,” said Mr. Jefferson.