NEW ORLEANS – Rep. William Jefferson was once famous in Louisiana circles as the sharecropper’s son who made his way to Harvard, steered by parents who preached the value of education.
Today, Jefferson is infamous nationally as the Louisiana Dem-ocrat who stashed $90,000 of alleged bribe money in his kitchen freezer.
Those who have watched his career’s spectacular rise and potential fall believe the terrible poverty he escaped was ultimately his undoing. He rose to become his state’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, but people who know him say he still had a thirst for wealth.
“His perceived flaw among his peers has always been that, shaped by his humble beginnings, Bill loved money and desperately wanted to be a rich man,” said Allan Katz, a New Orleans-based political consultant who has known Jefferson for more than 30 years. “It was the Deep South kind of hardship that shaped African-American backgrounds.”
One of 10 children, Jefferson, now 59, grew up in one of the poorest parts of Louisiana. He was good with a hunting rifle and told a story that showcased his dead aim: If his father needed three rabbits, he would give his son three bullets. But, according to Katz, the family told the story another way.
“They had a gun and could only afford one bullet at a time. … If he missed, the family didn’t eat,” Katz said.
The lessons of poverty were apparently lasting. An accomplished attorney and aspiring politician, Jefferson became known early on for a pursuit of money that earned him the nickname “Dollar Bill.”
As local legend goes, the name came from Jefferson’s mentor – legendary New Orleans Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial. Morial had asked his protege for some legal work and was given it – along with a staggering bill. Outraged, Morial coined the moniker.
It followed Jefferson harmlessly enough until last month, when the FBI reported capturing the eight-term congressman on videotape accepting a leather briefcase with $100,000 in alleged bribe money from an undercover informant in front of a northern Virginia hotel. The marked bills – $90,000 worth – wound up in Jefferson’s freezer, the FBI said after a search of Jefferson’s Washington home.
No charges have been filed against the congressman, and Jefferson has been forceful in his denial of wrongdoing. “There are two sides to every story,” he recently said, adding that he could not answer specific questions on the advice of his lawyers.
But the clumsy bravado outlined in government documents has held Washington rapt.
According to a 95-page affidavit filed by the FBI, Jefferson demanded bribes in exchange for helping iGate Inc., a Kentucky-based technology company, win Internet and telephone service contracts in Africa. The company’s chief executive, Vernon Jackson, pleaded guilty last month to bribing Jefferson with more than $400,000 in cash and millions of shares of company stock.
In a related allegation, the FBI said Jefferson offered to help a Virginia businesswoman win similar contracts in exchange for a kickback, proposing she deliver a substantial amount of money to move the deal along. “Cash,” he allegedly instructed in a note to her. She reportedly cooperated with investigators and taped the conversation.
Despite his reputation for wanting wealth, many who know Jefferson were shocked by the allegations because, by most measures, he has achieved success. Like many lawmakers, he keeps two homes, one in Washington, D.C., and one in his district – a wood, two-story house in the racially diverse Uptown neighborhood. He drives a Lincoln Town Car.
The only clue to a motive came from the evidence against him: “I make a deal for my children,” he allegedly said on tape, while demanding that his stake in a Nigerian venture be raised from 7 percent to 30 percent.
Already, the case has had a far-reaching impact in Washington. An FBI search of Jefferson’s congressional office May 20 sparked a blustery showdown between the executive and legislative branches over separation of powers, causing President Bush to call a 45-day cooling-off period.
And it has upset the dynamic of the approaching November elections, when Democrats had hoped to make GOP corruption a cause for reclaiming control of Congress. Democrats have been highlighting the misdeeds of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., now in prison on bribery and tax-evasion charges, and of GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now cooperating in one of the largest corruption investigations in recent memory. But the Jefferson case has made it harder for Democrats to grab the high moral ground.
Jefferson has resisted calls for his resignation, while his staff offers up an emotional defense.
“He puts his district’s interest before anything, and more specifically before party interests,” said his communications director, Melanie Roussell.
Gangly and impeccably dressed, Jefferson has a reputation for impressive lawmaking skills and a thirst for education that continued into adulthood.
Raised on a farm in rural Lake Providence to sharecropper parents who did not graduate from high school, he flourished at the East Carroll Training School for the Colored.
He went on to Southern University A&M College – considered a flagship of Louisiana’s black university system – and then to Harvard Law School.
He began as a lawyer, but his passion was politics. He made history with his 1991 election to Congress. Along the way, he married Andrea Green-Jefferson, a former vice chancellor of Southern University in New Orleans. They raised five daughters, three of whom followed their father to Harvard Law.
Until the scandal broke, Jefferson’s seat was considered one of the safest in Congress. There was even talk of a budding Jefferson dynasty, with some political observers anticipating that one of his daughters would eventually take his seat.
“He could have stayed there until he retired, or died,” said political consultant Katz.
Already, at least five still officially undeclared challengers are vying for his seat. But many constituents say they remain enamored of his rags-to-riches rise and his hard work on their behalf.
Still, there is a sense of damage in a place that, with another hurricane season just started, doesn’t need one more burden.
“We are so traumatized,” said Stephen Sabludowsky, a New Orleans-based attorney and publisher of BayouBuzz.com, a Web site about everything Louisianan. “We’re going through so many things, we don’t want the world’s attention on us again.”
Sabludowsky has urged Jefferson to resign rather than saddle the beleaguered city with a distracted congressman. He did so reluctantly, though, describing Jefferson this way: “Incredible … just in terms of his intelligence, his political acumen, the influence that he has in the Congress.
“That’s what makes this such a shame,” Sabludowsky said.