Last June, a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, issued a sixteen-count, ninety-four-page indictment alleging, among other things, that Jefferson sought hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribe money in a deal to sell high-speed Internet service in Africa. Two men had already pleaded guilty to bribery and were in prison, prepared to testify against him. Jefferson vowed that he would prevail in court. “This is not who I am. This is not what I have done,” he declared after a hearing that month, having posted a $100,000 bond. Standing in the sunlight with his wife, Andrea, he told reporters, “I am innocent of all the charges.”
Confronted with 172,000 pages of evidence and two thousand hours of secretly recorded conversations, Jefferson and his lawyers have put the Justice Department through an expensive scrimmage. They have appealed the indictments on the grounds that the grand jury heard improper testimony. The defense also claims that the swirl of transactions involving Jefferson weren’t bribes or a misuse of congressional power. Instead, they say, he was providing assistance for bona fide ventures, as his office allowed.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, is expected to rule on the defense lawyers’ motions this summer. If the ruling goes against Jefferson’s side, as most observers expect, then the trial could begin this falland that could have serious political ramifications. At the very least, it would likely force Jefferson to give up his congressional seat in order to concentrate on his own defense. More significantly, such a trial would put nationwide media attention on the alleged crimes of a congressional Democrat during the home stretch of an election in which his party is trying to win the presidency and expand its congressional majority on an agenda of change and reform.
Jefferson’s political free fall has been a sorry spectacle, particularly for a man who had once seemed so promising. Early in his career, Jefferson ranked among the most impressive African American politicians of his generation, one who possessed a strong appeal to whites as well as blacks. As a lanky state senator, he won over voters with his radiant smile and his political and legal savvy. “We thought he would become our first black governorhe had it all,” recalls Baton Rouge Advocate editorial writer Lanny Keller, who covered the Louisiana state legislature in the 1980s. But to many who have known Jefferson over the years, the quagmire in which he finds himself is one of his own making. If character is fate, then traits Jefferson has long exhibited give his story a sad inevitability.
For the citizens of Louisiana, Jefferson’s descent could not have been more ill-timed. A month after the FBI took the cash from his refrigerator, 80 percent of New Orleans was submerged in flooding from Hurricane Katrina. At a moment when his district desperately needed a strong advocate in Washington, Jefferson was the new face of crooked Louisiana politics. (The congressman declined numerous interview requests for this article.)
The crash of a corrupt lawmaker is one of the oldest stories in Washington. What distinguishes this tale from the spate of others in the last few years is not only his party affiliation (all the rest have been Republicans) but his motive. Tom DeLay was brought down by financial schemes aimed at heightening his and his party’s political power; Duke Cunningham by bribes to support his lavish and debauched personal lifestyle. By all accounts, Jefferson was driven by a different aim, one that lends to his saga an air of Faulknerian tragedy. For William Jefferson, it was all about his familypromoting it, employing it, and enriching it.
William Jennings Jefferson was born in Sweet Providence in 1947, the sixth of ten children. As a child, for a time, he helped support the family by picking cotton in the fields. And like every black child of that era, he carried the heavy burden of racial segregation, which was ruthlessly enforced in Sweet Providence. Black residents were prevented from voting by the use of “literacy tests.” The sheriff’s office was known to be brutal and unscrupulous.
The Jeffersons were not sharecroppers, but farmers who owned their land and their four-room wooden house. This gave them a certain respectability in the eyes of their neighbors. Jefferson’s father, Mose, was a church deacon and a sideline plumber who later landed a job as an equipment operator for the Army Corps of Engineers. Still, poverty was inescapable. “They were so poor that often the only meat was if someone shot a rabbit,” says Allan Katz, a New Orleans political consultant and former Times-Picayune reporter who covered state politics while Jefferson was in the state legislature. “From the time [Jefferson] was eleven his dad would hand him a rifle with one bullet and say, ‘Don’t miss, son.’” The tale, a familiar one in Louisiana politics, may be apocryphal, but it folded into the persona of a man who triumphed over hardscrabble origins.
Some of the most vivid impressions of Jefferson’s youth rise from the pages of a book he self-published last fall called Dying Is the Easy Part. Billed as a collection of short stories that he wrote in 2002 while he was recovering from a heart attack, the book reads more like a memoir than fiction. Jefferson declares in the introduction that the stories are about “the people, the surroundings, the difficulties, and the triumphs of my life,” and he writes about family members by name.
Jefferson’s mother, Angeline, is the heroine of Jefferson’s stories. Bent on resisting the institutional segregation of her time, Angeline “was regularly in the faces of the all-white school board members arguing for more books and good teachers for our colored schools. And she was always taking the literacy test to register to vote,” Jefferson writes. “When the registrar once told her she would register to vote over his dead body, she stirred things up when she replied to him that she could live with that, provided it happened soon.”
One of the stories in the collection best illustrates Jefferson’s feelings about his mother. In it, Jefferson’s older teenage brother gets into a scrape with local whites and runs home. Fearing retaliation, the family stays up all night, guns at the ready. Eventually, the sheriff arrives with his deputies and informs Angeline that her son had better go north if he intends to fight with whites. Jefferson recounts:
Thanks in part to the self-assurance that Angeline instilled in her children, most of them attended college and pursued careers in business or education. Their achievements sometimes took them to worlds beyond Angeline’s imagination. Years later, when Bill told his mother that he had been accepted to Harvard Law School, her face went blank. She brightened when he explained that Harvard was the college that President Kennedy had attended.
But while Jefferson’s upbringing was inspiring, it left scars. Jefferson became convinced that loyalty to family was paramount, no matter the cost. “The parents made him aware that he was responsible for the well-being of his brothers and sisters,” says Katz.
Sweet Providence also left Jefferson with a hard-nosed view of power: it was something to be wrested from those who controlled it. In the early 1980s, Jefferson, then a state senator, used a revealing football metaphor in conversation with Raymond Strother, a political consultant who handled one of Jefferson’s campaigns. “You white guys tackle each other and help the opponent up,” Jefferson explained. “We were taught to tackle somebody and keep ’em from getting up.”
A few months later, Jefferson vaulted to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend Harvard Law School, and join an academic milieu light years from that of Southern. As always, his approach to this new situation was to work hard. James Gray, a native of Baton Rouge and graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, studied with him. “Many a night, very late, when I was tired, thinking, ‘Let me quit’there’s Jeff, still at it,” Gray recalls. “So you sit and study more.” (Jefferson did find time to marry Andrea, in 1970.)
Gray and Jefferson both believed that the gains of the civil rights movement had handed men like them a responsibility to give back to the community. When Gray graduated from Harvard Law, he eschewed job offers on Wall Street for a legal career in New Orleans. Jefferson clerked for a federal judge in New Orleans and later worked in Washington as a legislative assistant to Louisiana’s then Senator J. Bennett Johnston. In 1976, Bill and Andrea Jefferson moved back to New Orleans, and Jefferson teamed up with Gray and another Harvard Law graduate, Trevor Bryan, a New Orleans native who had gone to Amherst as an undergraduate, to open a partnership focusing on civil cases. Unlike his partners, Jefferson was a country boy; his parents hadn’t made it past elementary school. Yet he managed to turn his experience into an advantage. “No one could sit down and negotiate the way Jeff did,” recalls Gray. Jefferson, Bryan, and Gray eventually grew into one of the largest African American law firms in the South.
These were good years for Jefferson. His career prospects were bright, and Andrea had returned to graduate school at the University of New Orleans, where she would earn a PhD in education. The couple also had a growing family, one that eventually included five daughters. “He and Andrea doted on those girls but set strict standards about excellence,” says Katz. (Three graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law, the other two from Brown and Boston University.)
Jefferson quickly proved to be skilled at political life. He understood how to work a room and how to cultivate white legislators and get them to support a bill. His diligence rarely flagged. When the senate was in session, he often went to the law office at four a.m., putting in six hours of work before the ninety-mile drive to Baton Rouge.
The timing of Jefferson’s arrival in the legislature was fortuitous. It coincided with the election of Dave Treen, Louisiana’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. As it happened, Treen had a much better record of putting African Americans in state jobs than did his predecessor, Edwin Edwards. But Jefferson, like Edwards, was a Democrat. As Edwards planned a comeback from his law office in Baton Rouge, Jefferson became his indispensable ally. He worked hard to gut Treen’s initiatives in the legislature, and to build support for Edwards in the black wards of New Orleans. In 1983, Edwards crushed Treen to win his third governorship. Jefferson was now in a position to ask for favors to be returned.
As Jefferson’s power grew, however, so did the flaws in his character. For one, he was acquiring a reputation for being unreliable. “You always had to be on your toes with Bill,” says Ronnie Burke. “He would be for you one minute, against you the next.” He could also be absurdly cheap. “We’d go to lunch,” says Allan Katz, “and he’d say, ‘You’re paying, aren’t you?’ He had the mannerisms of a poor boy.”
His parsimony extended beyond trifles. In 1982, when Jefferson challenged New Orleans’s first black mayor, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, for reelection, Ray Strother, who had set up shop in Washington but still did business in Louisiana, handled Jefferson’s media campaign. “Jeff still owes me $25,000 from that race,” says Strother. “He just never paid.” Several years later, Strother bumped into Jefferson when Jefferson was contemplating a run for governor. Would Strother handle his media? “I told him to pay me the $25,000 first,” says Strother. “He didn’t call back.” It was Dutch Morial, the legendary pugilist of New Orleans politics, who drew a bead on Jefferson’s obsession with money and gave him the nickname that stuck like glue: “Dollar Bill.”
To many Louisiana politicians, the state was a cash cow to be milked in the legislative chambers and offices in Baton Rouge. State legislators with insurance licenses did business with the state; others worked as (or for) vendors to state agencies. Once, during a break in statehouse proceedings, one old-boy pol confided to another: “Look, I agree with all you wanna do. I’m just powerful concerned about the legality of it.”
Legalities did not much concern Edwin Edwards, who during four terms as governor in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s gave carte blanche to toxic waste disposal companies that did business with his brothers and cronies. (Edwards, now eighty years old, is halfway through a ten-year term in a federal penitentiary for extortion involving casino licenses.) “I’m convinced that Jefferson was corrupted by his years in the legislature,” says Strother. “The perception in the black community was that white politicians got rich, and blacks wanted in on that.” Indeed, as racial barriers came down, many black politicians embraced the existing political culture rather than pushing to change it.
By the late 1980s, Jefferson the civil rights idealist had devolved into a standard-issue machine politician. In his case, his political organization relied heavily on the Jefferson clan. Having found a reliable client in the historically black Southern University system, Bill helped his wife take a seat on the system’s supervisory board, a position fraught with enough conflict-of-interest possibilities to raise a furor in any state but Louisiana. He helped his brother Archie look for investment opportunities after Archie had lost his law practice for borrowing against client accounts to support a drug habit. (The state supreme court disbarred Archie for issuing worthless checks and criticized him for “a fundamental lack of moral character and fitness.”) Jefferson’s older brother, Mose, renowned for whirlwind installations of cardboard political signs about the city, began operating low-income rental properties in Central City that would dovetail with Bill Jefferson’s political interests. And in the 1980s, Bill teamed up with five of his ten siblings to form Jefferson Interests, a company that ran stores specializing in appliance rentals to the poor. Jefferson even sponsored a bill that would allow such stores to file theft charges against renters who failed to return the appliances on time. The bill failed. (When he ran for mayor in 1986, Jefferson denied having sponsored the bill, until journalists confronted him with proof to the contrary.)
The U.S. Congress gave Jefferson job security and a national profile. He served on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and became an enthusiastic proponent of expanded trade with Africa. If he had a reputation in Washington, it was as a quiet wonk rather than a machine pol. Meanwhile, his power in Louisiana only increased. In 1999, he decided to run for governornot because he had any chance of winning, but because he wanted to position himself as the most powerful black politician in Louisiana, the go-to man for whites in future statewide races.
Still, Washington brought Jefferson his share of problems, too. As always, he felt he didn’t have enough money. Although he received a payout from his law firm of his share of the profits (he’d been earning $400,000 a year from his practice in the late 1980s), Jefferson had mounting financial obligations as he and Andrea worked to put five daughters through college. (At the time, his congressional salary was $125,000.) In addition, while Louisiana politics allowed for vast conflicts of interest, in Washington such arrangements came under closer scrutiny.
And the conflicts were increasingly vast. The case of Jefferson’s sister Betty, who had ridden Bill’s coattails to a seat on the Orleans Parish school board, offers a particularly telling glimpse of how Jefferson combined his dual aims of accumulating personal power and enriching the clan. In 1994, Ronnie Burke supported a candidate for the city council who was running against Mose Jefferson’s girlfriend. An angry Jefferson took revenge by running Betty against Burke for the position of tax assessor in 1998. “I lost,” says Burke. “Jefferson wanted to be the dictator. He wanted no independence whatsoever.” Once Betty was in office, she was able to do some favors of her own. In 1984, Jefferson had purchased a twenty-seven-unit apartment complex in Central City. Although he paid more than $315,000, and insured it for $268,000, Betty Jefferson cut the building’s assessed value to a mere $45,000, leaving him with a pittance in property taxes.
After 2000, Jefferson’s blunt exercise of power in Louisiana angered an ever-widening circle of people. One bruising episode involved his wife, who had been appointed vice chancellor for academic affairs at Southern University in New Orleans in early 1999, a position that carried a $75,000 salary. To many, this looked like a pure patronage deal. “Even though she had a PhD, Andrea had barely taught at the college level,” says Bill Stewart, a professor of social work at SUNO. “She had taught in secondary schools.” Stewart and some twenty other faculty members protested, to little effect, that the congressman’s wife was unqualified.
Andrea Jefferson was not a success at her new job. Stewart says that she was “into delegation, to put it politely,” and mismanaged even simple tasks like issuing the school calendar. It also bothered SUNO colleagues that Andrea had approved making New Orleans chief of police Richard Pennington an adjunct professor in criminal justice earning $18,000 a year to teach one class each semester. (Normally, adjuncts earned only $3,000 per course.) Since Pennington was Bill Jefferson’s candidate for mayor in the 2002 election, many suspected favoritism was at play.
In 2001, a new SUNO chancellor, Joseph Bouie, ordered Andrea demoted. In response, Andrea accused Bouie of fiscal mismanagement and sexual harassment of a female colleague. She also filed immediately for whistle-blower status to protect her job. In 2003, the SUNO board awarded Andrea Jefferson a $50,000 settlement and moved her to a $70,000 job as assistant vice president for development in the Southern University system. Bouie was cleared of sexual harassment but lost his job as chancellor and took a pay cut, dropping from $120,000 to his old faculty salary of $63,000. The board cited financial mismanagement. Lea Polk, a dissenting member of the board, complained at the time that the decision “reeks of politics.”
Even more egregious was the case of Eddie Jordan. Jordan had been a U.S. attorney during the Clinton years, overseeing, among other things, the prosecution that sent former Governor Edwin Edwards to prison. In 2002, Jordan ran to succeed the retiring Orleans Parish district attorney, and Jefferson went all out to support him, even backing Jordan over James Gray, Jefferson’s old law partner and Harvard Law School friend. Jordan won the DA race.
Beholden to the Jefferson clan, Jordan turned to Mose Jefferson for personnel advice. At Mose’s urging, Jordan, who is African American, fired fifty-six veteran staffers, of whom forty-four were white, and replaced them with mostly black Jefferson supporters. Outraged, the fired white staffers sued for reverse discrimination and won a $1.9 million verdict in federal court. With interest and legal fees, as Jordan lost successive appeals, the sum increased to $3.7 million. The episode left the DA’s office in disarray as Hurricane Katrina spawned the worst crime wave in the city’s history. Under an avalanche of negative media coverage, Jordan quit in October 2007, accepting what amounted to a buyout by a group of wealthy businessmen who wanted him to leave. By then Jefferson had bigger problems.
Jefferson was attempting to promote a company called iGate, which had developed an expanded bandwidth technology. The head and founder of iGate was an African American businessman named Vernon Jackson. Jefferson had been a booster of Jackson and iGate since 2000. Now, iGate was seeking to market streamlined Internet access to Nigeria and Ghana. But it would require a multimillion-dollar investmentwhich is what Jefferson wanted out of Mody. At first, things worked out well: Mody liked the plan and put up money. After dealing more extensively with Jefferson, however, Mody became suspicious that she was being defrauded. She contacted the FBI.
As a “cooperating witness,” Mody allowed the FBI to tape her phone calls, and agreed to wear a wire during her meetings with Jefferson. One recording was made over dinner at a Virginia restaurant on July 21, 2005. During the meeting, Jefferson explained that there was a complex network of officials on the Nigerian side who would require a cut of any deal. The most important one, Jefferson said, was the vice president of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar, who would be the gatekeeper on the deal. Another key player was the man in charge of the Nigerian Internet company, Suleiman YahYah. “We got to motivate him real good,” Jefferson explained. “He’s got a lot of folks to pay off.” Then, as if to allay Mody’s concerns about bribing YahYah, Jefferson said airily, “If he’s got to pay Minister X, we don’t want to know. It’s not our deal. We’re not paying Minister X a damn thing. That’s all, you know, international fraud crap. We’re not doing that … Whatever they do locally, that’s their business.”
Jefferson’s plan, according to prosecutors, was to “motivate” Abubakar with bribes, a portion of which would presumably be passed on to YahYah. Jefferson planned to deliver the money, $500,000 in all, in installments to a home Abubakar kept in Potomac, Maryland.
Among the most damning pieces of evidence secured by the FBI was a video taken several days after Jefferson’s dinner with Mody. In it, Mody opens the trunk of her car and Jefferson removes a red briefcase containing $100,000 in bills marked by the FBI. That exchange allowed the Department of Justice to secure warrants for simultaneous raids on Jefferson’s homes in New Orleans and Washington. On August 3, 2005, the FBI found the foil-wrapped $90,000 in Jefferson’s freezer.
The web of Jefferson’s financial dealings is complex. It includes more than $400,000 worth of payments from Jackson to Jefferson or to companies made up of Jefferson kin. Jamila, Jefferson’s eldest daughter, received money for legal work. Brothers Mose and Archie also allegedly received money, as did Andrea Jefferson.
The long wait between the August 2005 raids and Jefferson’s indictment in June 2007 owes to a 2006 FBI raid on Jefferson’s Capitol Hill office, an act that enraged his colleagues in Congress. It was the first time a congressional office was invaded by another arm of government. Jefferson’s attorneys filed motions that secured the return of certain documents. Given the wealth of information already at the government’s disposal, the office raid was a prosecutorial blunder.
Jefferson pulled out every stop in his campaign. And in a black-majority district, many longtime supporters sympathized with him as a target of the federal government. His pitch struck a chord with thousands of people who had lost their homes and were in urgent need of temporary housing. They blamed the federal Army Corps of Engineers for the design flaws on the levees and viewed FEMA with undisguised contempt. To these voters, a federal government that once put men on the moon was now treating them, in their hour of greatest need, with virtually criminal neglect. With heavy black supportand just enough votes from Harry Lee’s backers in the suburbsJefferson won his ninth term. Ironically, his victory showed how much people in his district despised Washington. If he was a crook, well, send him back with the crooks.
Yet now, even a fighter like Jefferson must sense that his empire is crumbling. Vernon Jackson, iGate’s founder, has already pleaded guilty to bribery involving Jefferson, and has been sentenced to seven years in federal prison. Mose Jefferson is under federal indictment in a separate bribery case involving the president of the Orleans Parish school board and the purchase of instructional math software for New Orleans schools. (Mose had been taped in calls about $140,000 in alleged payoffs he made to a school board official who has now pleaded guilty and is poised to testify against him.) Jefferson’s daughter Jalila Jefferson-Bullock campaigned last fall for the state senate seat that launched her father’s political career, but lost in a runoff race by a landslide to Cheryl Gray, the daughter of his old law partner, James. And whatever the outcome of Jefferson’s case, the legal and financial repercussions will be enormous. Several attorneys who have followed the case speculate that if the appellate court denies the defense’s motion and upholds the bribery allegation, Jefferson will plead guilty to reduced charges in order to get a shorter prison sentence and prevent potential prosecutions of his brothers.
Jefferson’s fight to overcome the poverty of Sweet Providence and the early cruelties of segregation had always traveled hand in hand with a sense of obligation to the clan. But orchestrating African Internet deals with payments routed to front companies made up of kinfolk bears little resemblance to the brave mother who stood up to a redneck sheriff. It looks more like Jefferson was soaking Vernon Jackson, the African American high-tech entrepreneur, as if he were a housing project resident who had fallen behind on rental payments for a stereo. “If it turns out the allegations are true,” says his former law partner James Gray, echoing many in New Orleans, “the biggest thing I would feel is sadness.”
On the fateful August morning in 2005 when FBI agents invaded Jefferson’s home in New Orleans, he was at first amenable to answering questions. Then agents told him that the $100,000 he’d recently received from Mody had come from the FBI. “I think I should stop talking to you boys,” Jefferson reportedly replied. An agent then asked Jefferson if he wanted to see some government video. Jefferson said yes. What followed was the footage of Jefferson removing the briefcase of money from the trunk of Mody’s car. Stunned, Jefferson sank back on his couch and uttered the words that will most likely be his political epitaph: “What a waste.”