Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges of bribery and corruption in his promotion of telecommunications equipment and services in Africa.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis accepted the plea during an arraignment in federal court in Alexandria and set a trial date of Jan. 16, as Mr. Jefferson's attorney, Robert Trout, promised a "vigorous" defense. Mr. Jefferson, who faces 235 years in prison if convicted, was released on $100,000 bond with travel restrictions, including surrender of his passport.
Mr. Jefferson, in his first public statements on the case, said he is "innocent of these charges, and I plan to fight to clear my name" despite accusations by the FBI that it found $90,000 in suspected bribe money in a freezer in his home.
"In a few days, Andrea and I will celebrate our 37th wedding anniversary. We are the parents of five children," he said, noting his five daughters have degrees from Harvard College, Harvard Law School, Boston University, Emerson, Brown University and Georgetown.
"We believe in public service. We believe in obeying the law. And we believe fervently in almighty God," he said. "Incredibly, we are the same family the Department of Justice and FBI would have you believe is a family made up of bribers, racketeers and conspirators against the laws of our country."
Mr. Jefferson said he is at "a great disadvantage" in defending himself against a Justice Department with unlimited resources and a willingness to "engineer circumstances, leak information and even violate the Constitution in pursuit of its goals," but said he would prevail in his defense and would continue to serve in office.
He also said the $90,000 found in his freezer was money that belonged to the FBI, who gave it to him as part of a plan by the bureau to pass it to Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar.
"I trust I will be vindicated," he said.
A 16-count indictment handed up Thursday by a federal grand jury in Alexandria said Mr. Jefferson, 60, sought bribes for himself and his family, including the $90,000 in cash found during a search of his Washington home.
He is charged with racketeering, soliciting bribes, wire fraud, money-laundering, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
The indictment said Mr. Jefferson used his office to "corruptly seek, solicit and direct that things of value" be paid to him and his family in exchange for his performing official acts. The "things of value," according to the indictment, included bribes in the form of payments from monthly fees or retainers, consulting fees, percentage shares, flat fees for items sold and stock ownership.
Two of Mr. Jefferson's associates have struck plea agreements with prosecutors.
Brett M. Pfeffer, a former member of Mr. Jefferson's staff, pleaded guilty to soliciting bribes on behalf of his boss and was sentenced to eight years in prison. Vernon L. Jackson, president and chief executive officer of the Louisville-based telecommunications firm IGate, pleaded guilty to paying from $400,000 to $1 million in bribes to Mr. Jefferson and was sentenced to seven years.
For the past two years, the FBI investigation has focused on accusations that Mr. Jefferson took payments to promote the sale of telecommunications equipment and services offered by IGate to Nigeria, Ghana and other African nations.
According to court documents, the FBI says Mr. Jefferson's family received an equity stake in a Nigerian company controlled by an IGate investor, who later became a cooperating witness. The documents say Mr. Jefferson's family received more than $400,000 from IGate.
In exchange for the cash, the documents said, Mr. Jefferson communicated with "Nigerian Official A," thought to be Mr. Abubakar, to secure an IGate business venture in Nigeria, and met with high-level Ghanaian officials to obtain approval for IGate in Ghana.
Mr. Abubakar has denied any wrongdoing and he is not mentioned by name in the indictment.
The House Committee of Standards of Official conduct on Thursday reauthorized a panel to investigate Mr. Jefferson.