Rep William J. Jefferson has long provided one of Louisiana’s favorite success stories: the sometime-sharecropper’s son who rose from rural roots to attend Harvard Law School, become a Democratic Party power player and reach the halls of Congress.
So when the FBI revealed that it had videotape of Jefferson accepting $100,000 in cash that the bureau said was intended to bribe a Nigerian official -- and that $90,000 of it had been found in the freezer of Jefferson’s home -- constituents of Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District reacted with shock, disappointment and a touch of amusement hardened by experience.
Friends say the allegations against Jefferson, who represents New Orleans, are simply out of character. Foes say they never trusted him. Now that the city’s mayoral elections are over and incumbent C. Ray Nagin is in office for four more years, Jefferson’s travails are the buzz around many quarters of this city.
“It’s really the new talk after the elections,” said Mike Miller, 26, as he walked his English bulldog, Buddha, one recent afternoon not far from Jefferson’s house on Marengo Street in a ritzy section of the city’s Uptown neighborhood. “We’ve got our mayor, and now we’ve got this big one with Bill.”
“When they found the money in the freezer, man ... " said Ricky Bragg between bites of spaghetti Bolognese at Fat Harry’s bar in Uptown. “I was kind of shocked. I just never thought he would get caught up -- allegedly -- in that type of situation.”
Jefferson, an eight-term congressman and a senior member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and its subcommittee on trade, has not been charged with any crime. And he has denied any wrongdoing in a case that alleges he offered to bribe a Nigerian official and accepted kickbacks to help a U.S. telecommunications company land deals there and in Ghana.
But the general sentiments among friends and supporters have been disbelief and denial.
“No one expected him to be involved in a scandal of this proportion,” said John Maginnis, a political analyst and independent journalist who publishes the Louisiana Political Fax Weekly.
The 59-year-old Jefferson, a tall, lean man -- low-key, soft-spoken and a dapper dresser -- has had a primarily scandal-free career.
Analysts believe his rise from privation to power has helped defuse the outrage that might have ignited if he were someone else.
Raised in rural northeastern Louisiana to parents who didn’t graduate from high school, Jefferson still managed to excel. The crowning moment of his career came in 1991, when he became the first African American elected to Congress from Louisiana since Reconstruction. Along the way, Jefferson raised five daughters -- three of them also Harvard Law School graduates, one of whom is a Louisiana state representative.
“I think people don’t want to believe that he’s gone wrong,” said Wayne Parent, a political analyst at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “Until now, he never really caused a lot of controversy, and that’s why reaction has been as slow as it has been. I don’t think people in Louisiana want to hear this.”
As a child, Jefferson attended the East Carroll Training School for the Colored. He went on to Southern University A&M; College -- considered a flagship of Louisiana’s African American university system, which includes Dillard and Xavier in New Orleans -- and then to Harvard Law, before earning a master of laws in taxation from Georgetown in 1996.
“He had tremendous confidence in his ability to do well,” said New Orleans attorney Trevor Bryan, a longtime friend and former law firm partner of Jefferson, who in the 1970s founded Jefferson, Bryan and Gray (now Bryan and Jupiter), which became the largest predominantly African American firm in the South. “He did good in his courses. He was always hardworking, almost a workaholic.”
Though a competent legal practitioner, politics was always Jefferson’s passion, friends said.
“He’s a smart guy, a guy who started with the idea of trying to get blacks involved in politics,” said New Orleans attorney Walter Wilkerson, who ran Jefferson’s campaign for the state Senate. “He was committed to improving conditions for blacks. The results have been mixed ... but before this incident, he was roundly applauded.”
“What is surprising is that he’s been devoted to political life and not to financial success,” Bryan said. “He had a lot of opportunity at various stages to make a lot of money. He gave up a good salary to go to Congress. His major goal was public service.”
But critics say the alleged evidence -- the videotape and the money supposedly found in Jefferson’s freezer -- is too damning to be ignored.
“We think the behavior is not fitting for a member of Congress, and that it’s time for him to step down,” said David Donnelly, national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund, a Washington-based nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog organization. The group has launched a petition calling for Jefferson’s resignation.
In an editorial Thursday, the Times-Picayune called on Jefferson to immediately announce that he would not run for reelection. “The congressman is entitled to the presumption of innocence and to his day in court. He is not entitled to inflict more pain upon an already traumatized district,” the newspaper said.
A composed and stoic Jefferson has continued to insist that he is still effective, and his director of communications, Melanie Roussell, said he was continuing his job, business as usual.
Since Katrina, Jefferson has introduced legislation that would allow eligible homeowners to temporarily defer mortgage payments; secured disaster recovery grants for local universities; co-sponsored a bill designed to rebuild the healthcare infrastructure in hurricane-damaged areas; and co-authored legislation that provides major tax incentives to business development in the Gulf Coast region.
In the Uptown neighborhood, where Jefferson has a house on a street defined by stately wooden frame homes with white-painted pillars, neighbors said the congressman and his family were usually visible and accessible.
“He seemed to be a decent guy,” said Uptown resident John Ritchie, who said he had met Jefferson on many occasions and voted for him.
“I personally liked the man. After Katrina, we need him in the House Ways and Means Committee. It’s a blow, not just for the city but the whole state. We need more positive things down here right now to get on our feet.”
Ritchie said he was willing to “wait and see” what comes out of the investigation because “there are two sides to every story.... Everybody deserves a fair shot.”
“I always voted for him because I liked the way he voted in Congress,” said Michelle Breaux, another neighborhood resident. “But it’s very disgusting what he’s been doing. I’ve met his daughters. They’re intelligent, well-educated. They can look after themselves. They don’t need Daddy’s help.”
The FBI affidavit said Jefferson channeled the bribery money into a company owned by his wife and daughters.
Jefferson has denied the charge, but some neighbors said they were not surprised by the alleged indiscretions. Many recounted news reports that Jefferson had diverted National Guard troops from their duties at the height of the rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina to take him to his house to retrieve some belongings. Jefferson has said the troops insisted on accompanying him because of alleged sniper fire in the area.
“I just never really trusted him,” said Joe Kopfler, 59, as he sat on a step in front of his home, around the block from Jefferson’s. “He always seemed like his morality wouldn’t be of a high standard.”
Other residents dismissed the scandal as another corrupt Louisiana politician. In the last decade, Louisiana has seen an attorney general, a congressman, a state Senate president, a federal judge and numerous local officials convicted of corruption. Investigators are currently looking at the administration of former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial; and Jefferson’s brother-in-law, Judge Alan Green, is serving time for mail fraud.
“It’s kind of so common around here ... money changing hands in brown paper bags,” said doctoral student Vico Marziale, 29, as he nursed a beer at Fat Harry’s. “We suspect all the politicians around here. It’s become a joke. You know, like ... ‘We’ve got another one.’ ”