WASHINGTON -- Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana was indicted yesterday for allegedly using his congressional office to enrich himself and his family through a pattern of fraud, bribery and corruption that spanned five years and two continents.
The charges - the first against a Democratic member of Congress in the wake of the Justice Department's recent crackdown on public corruption - follow a two-year investigation that gained public notoriety when FBI agents raided Jefferson's home and found $90,000 in cash in his freezer.
In an unusually sweeping 94-page indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., Jefferson is charged with soliciting millions in fees and company stock in exchange for using his office to promote wide-ranging business interests in West Africa, including a telecommunications startup, an oil exploration company and a waste recycling firm.
He allegedly negotiated one deal in a congressional dining room on Capitol Hill and took official trips abroad to promote ventures in which he or his family had a financial stake without disclosing the true intention of the travel on congressional disclosure forms.
According to the indictment, the trips were designed to "give the false impression that defendant Jefferson was merely acting as an impartial public servant promoting United States business interests abroad."
The 16-count indictment, including allegations of money laundering, bribery and racketeering, contains the first charges ever brought against a U.S. official for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, enacted 30 years ago to combat bribery of foreign officials by U.S. corporations.
Jefferson, a member of Congress since 1990, is expected to be arraigned and enter a plea of not guilty Friday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. If convicted on all charges, he could be sentenced to up to 235 years in prison.
Addressing the media outside his Los Angeles office, Jefferson's attorney, Robert Trout, said that "Congressman Jefferson is innocent" and "he plans to fight this indictment and clear his name."
Trout told reporters that the Justice Department had inspected every aspect of Jefferson's public and private life, and he accused federal agents of contriving "to trap" him in a government sting. Federal agents have searched Jefferson's home and car and raided his congressional office.
"But even after they had turned over every rock, they did not allege in this indictment that" Jefferson had "promised anybody any legislation," Trout said. "There is no suggestion that he promised anyone any appropriations. There were not earmarks. There were no government contracts. None of the things that congressmen do is in this indictment."
The charges against the nine-term congressman, announced at a Justice Department news conference, present a dilemma for Democrats who rode to power last November on a promise of changing the "culture of corruption" in Washington.
Remarking yesterday on the indictment, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California said the charges were "extremely serious" and would constitute "an egregious and unacceptable abuse of public trust and power" if proven true.
Pelosi led an effort to strip Jefferson, 60, of his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee last year even though he had not yet been charged with a crime.
Republicans countered by introducing a resolution to refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee and challenged the new Democratic majority to take swift action against their indicted colleague.
Jefferson is charged with soliciting bribes from 11 companies for himself and his family, as well as bribing a Nigerian government official. The scheme allegedly covered five years, from August 2000 to August 2005, and included a front company that he set up to hide the money.
"But the essence of the charges are really very simple," said Chuck Rosenberg, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria. "Mr. Jefferson corruptly traded on his good office and on the Congress."
The indictment alleges that Jefferson and his family attempted to extract millions in fees in exchange for various favors, although Rosenberg conceded the amount they actually pocketed appeared to be far less, perhaps no more than $500,000.
Jefferson first attracted the interest of federal investigators in 2005 in connection with his role in promoting a fledgling Louisville, Ky., digital technology firm, iGate Inc., which was looking to gain a foothold in Africa.
An investor in the venture became concerned, contacted the FBI and agreed to wear a listening device for federal authorities.
According to the indictment, Jefferson told the investor during a meeting in July 2005 that he would need $500,000 to bribe a Nigerian official to ensure "that the little hook is in there."
The investor delivered $100,000 in cash - marked bills from the FBI - that was intended as a first installment on the bribe. Jefferson later assured the investor that he had delivered the "African art" to the official.
The FBI eventually found $90,000 of the marked bills in Jefferson's freezer, "wrapped in aluminum foil, and concealed inside various frozen food containers," according to the indictment.
Rosenberg said Jefferson's schemes included such ventures as oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea, satellite transmission contracts in Botswana, offshore oil rights in Sao Tome and Principe, and the promotion and sale of waste recycling systems in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea.
Richard B. Schmitt and Ann Simmons write for the Los Angeles Times.