ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — Prosecutors called a former Louisiana congressman’s corruption the most extensive in the history of Congress. His punishment delivered a similar message.
William Jefferson, who famously hid $90,000 cash in his freezer, was sentenced Friday to 13 years in prison for taking bribes, the longest term ever imposed on a congressman for bribery charges.
The Democrat who represented parts of New Orleans for nearly 20 years was convicted in August of taking about $500,000 in bribes and seeking millions more in exchange for using his influence to broker business deals in Africa.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said public corruption was “a cancer on the body politic.”
“There must be some sort of greed virus that attacks those in power,” said Ellis, who lamented that so many other congressmen have been convicted on similar charges.
But the other punishments weren’t quite as severe. For example, former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., was sentenced to more than eight years in prison after pleading guilty in 2005 to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for taking bribes from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and ex-Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, served a 7-year sentence after being convicted in a 2002 trial of bribery and racketeering.
Defense attorneys were counting on those cases when they asked for less than 10 years; prosecutors wanted Jefferson to serve 27 years.
“His activity represented the most extensive and pervasive pattern of corruption in the history of Congress,” prosecutor Mark Lytle said.
Jefferson said nothing. His attorney advised him not to speak because he is appealing his conviction.
Jefferson was allowed to remain free until a hearing next week. Prosecutors want him to begin serving his sentence immediately, while the defense wants Jefferson to remain free while he appeals his conviction.
Jefferson was also ordered to forfeit roughly $470,000 in bribery proceeds — the government expects to seize Jefferson’s retirement savings and other assets to enforce the judgment. Jefferson, meanwhile, has filed for bankruptcy protection and his wife is claiming rights to some of those assets.
Jefferson was convicted in August of 11 counts, including bribery and racketeering, and acquitted on five others, including the one most closely associated with the money in his freezer.
The investigation started in March 2005. In August of that year, FBI agents searched Jefferson’s Washington home and found the cash. Prosecutors said he had planned to use the money to pay a bribe to the then-vice president of Nigeria to secure a multimillion-dollar telecommunications deal there, an accusation Jefferson denied.
The money ended up in the freezer when a disgruntled businesswoman, Lori Mody, agreed to wear a wire after telling the FBI she had been cheated out of $3.5 million in deals brokered by Jefferson. The jury saw videotape of Mody handing over a suitcase filled with $100,000 cash outside an Arlington hotel. Most of that money was recovered from the freezer.
The defense argued that Jefferson was acting as a private business consultant in brokering the deals and his actions did not constitute bribery.
New Orleans voters had long been loyal to Jefferson, who in 1991 became Louisiana’s first African-American congressman since Reconstruction. He rose from the poverty of the Louisiana Delta parishes to prominence as a street-savvy political tactician.
He was re-elected in 2006 even after news of the bribery scandal broke but was indicted and then lost to Republican attorney Anh “Joseph” Cao about a year ago.
Several residents of Jefferson’s former district said the sentence was just.
“I think it’s sufficient considering his age,” said Songy Turner, 56, of Marrero, La., a New Orleans suburb. “I’m really hoping that the newer politicians, the younger politicians, really consider being honest, really take their job seriously and make an effort to make Louisiana honest.”
Cristian Boise, 41, of New Orleans, said 13 years wasn’t enough for Jefferson’s actions, which may have hurt the state’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
“He abused the public trust,” Boise said. “He hindered our recovery efforts, and he really did this city a lot of harm at a time when it needed help.”
Associated Press writer Stacey Plaisance in New Orleans contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.