Profiting from good policy is still corruption

Published 4:14 pm Friday, May 4, 2012

Although his lawyers are considering a long-shot appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, one of Louisiana’s most prominent former public officials is heading for prison.

Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, was ordered to begin serving a 13-year bribery sentence by a judge in Alexandria, Va.

A federal appeals court had upheld all but one of the 11 counts on which Jefferson was convicted in 2009 — including bribery, money laundering and racketeering.

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The high-profile case involved Jefferson hiding marked bills given to him by an FBI informant.

Jurors saw videotape of the woman handing over a suitcase with $100,000 cash to Jefferson outside an Arlington, Va., hotel just outside Washington, D.C. Most of that money later was found in Jefferson’s freezer.

Prosecutors said Jefferson planned to use the money to pay his own bribe to the then-vice president of Nigeria to secure a multimillion-dollar telecommunications deal there.

The defense argued Jefferson was acting as a private business consultant in brokering the deals.

This did not fly even with the long-patient voters of Jefferson’s New Orleans district. He was upset in the 2008 election by Joseph Cao, a Republican. …

Although Jefferson was elected to Congress, he unsuccessfully sought the mayoralty in New Orleans and the governorship in 1999. The latter was a pretty much hopeless run against Gov. Mike Foster, but he still drew considerable support from state Democrats in his race against the incumbent Republican.

But allegations of personal corruption followed Jefferson for years, with a gibe from an opponent, “Dollar Bill,” gaining wide currency. He was part of an extended personal and political family that engaged, several times, the unwelcome attention of prosecutors.

Ironically, in Jefferson’s career in Congress, he was noted for promoting free-trade agreements with African countries — a progressive policy, good for this country and for Africa. His efforts gained support across party lines on the influential Ways and Means Committee, on which Jefferson served.

Alas, by seeking personal profit out of a good policy, Jefferson’s wheeling and dealing proved his undoing.

The damning videotapes were impossible to live down, and correctly so. But the cash-in-the-freezer angle made Jefferson another embarrassment for Louisiana.