Saturday, November 14, 2009

Former Louisiana congressman William Jefferson stood motionless in U.S. District Court in Alexandria Friday as he was sentenced to 13 years in prison for corruption - the longest prison term ever imposed on a former member of Congress.

The nine-term Democrat from New Orleans - found with $90,000 stuffed in his freezer - lost his re-election bid last year while under indictment - a result that U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis found satisfying.

“Public corruption is a cancer on the body politic,” the judge said after an afternoon of delays and long recesses had turned to blustery evening. “It eats away and destroys the function of that body. It needs to be surgically removed.

“There must be some sort of greed virus that infects those in power,” he said, referring to other congressmen convicted of corruption, including former Rep. Randall “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2006 for taking bribes, as well as for tax evasion. “All of these cases are sad.”

The sentence was sharply lower than the 27 to 33 years federal prosecutors had sought. Jefferson’s attorneys had sought less than 10 years.

Jefferson, in a slightly rumpled black suit, his shoulders stooped, did not speak on his own behalf prior to sentencing. His attorney, Robert Trout, said his client plans to appeal, thus would not make any statement. Jefferson has 10 days to file that appeal.

The judge ordered him to report to prison within 60 days.

Jefferson, 62, was convicted in August on bribery, money laundering and racketeering charges. Prosecutors said he took in $478,000 in bribes and sought millions more. One of 10 children from an underprivileged background, Jefferson is a Harvard Law School graduate.

Mr. Trout tried to mitigate his client’s actions, saying “This is not a $500 million bribery scheme.”

“You’re not asking me to believe that he didn’t expect to get more … out of this?” Judge Ellis interjected.

Jefferson was convicted of taking cash and gifts in exchange for helping American business people gain access to West African countries, where Jefferson had ties, for ventures in oil, sugar refining and telecommunications.

The $90,000 in his freezer was given to him by an FBI informant on the understanding it would be used to bribe the vice president of Nigeria, Akita Abubakar. The jury acquitted Jefferson on that count, even though Judge Ellis instructed them that the money did not need to be given to Mr. Abubakar to constitute evidence of conspiracy to bribe.

If he had been convicted on that count, Jefferson would have been the first U.S. lawmaker found to have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Mr. Trout also argued that corrupt activities overseas should incur a different penalty than those that take place in the United States. “We are simply arguing for a more balanced view of what happened here,” he said.

Again, Judge Ellis was not persuaded.

“He didn’t just agree to do things in Africa, he agreed to do things here in the United States, with U.S. agencies. You think I should view those [overseas acts] for sentencing differently than I would for things that happened here?”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle said Jefferson was acting in an official capacity on his trips overseas and was accompanied by U.S. Embassy and agency staff.

“When the congressman went to Africa, he carried with him the imprimatur of the U.S. government,” Mr. Lytle said.

“He involved his family, his wife, his daughters and sons-in-law in this scheme. The jury found that congressman Jefferson conducted his office as a criminal enterprise,” he said.

Mr. Lytle described Jefferson’s actions as “the most extensive and pervasive pattern of corruption in the history of Congress.”

The trial was delayed by a constitutional battle. Federal agents raided Jefferson’s Rayburn House Office Building office in May 2006, an action criticized by House and Senate leaders of both parties as an infringement on the separation of powers of the executive and legislative branches.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled the prosecution could proceed.

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