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Bribery case against Louisiana congressman began with trade mission to Africa in 1990s

Bribery case against Louisiana congressman began with trade mission to Africa in 1990s

During then-President Bill Clinton's trip to Africa in 1998, Rep. William Jefferson joined the cadre of politicians, press advisers, trade experts and foreign diplomats aboard Air Force One.
For the next 12 days, the congressman from Louisiana was never far behind as the president strolled arm-in-arm with Nelson Mandela, mourned the human cost of the slave trade and bounced across the savannah in a safari car.
A decade later, the trip looks increasingly like the starting point for a pattern of corruption Jefferson allegedly established during the expansion of African trade that followed Clinton's visit.
"He was perceived as someone who had the ear of and access to the president of the United States. When you add a congressman's position to his relationship with President Clinton, that's a powerful combination," said Shaun Clark, a prominent New Orleans lawyer familiar with the case against Jefferson.
An Associated Press analysis of the lawmaker's travel records, campaign donors and court papers reveals a shrewd opportunist who used the Clinton trip to capitalize on his power in Congress and experience in Africa.
Jefferson, a nine-term congressman, is accused of acting as the dealmaker for obscure American companies as they sought inroads into the lucrative African telecommunications and oil drilling markets. In return, he allegedly received bribes and company stock.
Jefferson, 61, denies any wrongdoing.
The Clinton trip was focused on promoting the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which was approved by Congress in 2000. The bill, which Jefferson helped craft, lowered duties for sub-Saharan African goods such as chemicals and agricultural products.
African countries participating in the program were required to adopt market-based economics, embrace democratic institutions and eliminate child labor and intellectual piracy.
Jefferson's interest in Africa started years earlier.
Elected to Congress in 1990, he established himself by 1994 as a top adviser to Clinton on Africa policy. He attended White House ceremonies for Mandela and went to Nigeria to demand release of political leaders jailed by a military junta.
All the while, he honed his financial acumen at Georgetown University, earning a master's degree in tax laws while working on the African trade bill.
To research the bill, Jefferson barnstormed Africa in 1997, stopping in the Ivory Coast, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Nigeria. He proclaimed that U.S. investment would "open a new world" for a continent troubled by genocide, disease and corruption.
On the Clinton trip, Jefferson kept a fairly low profile. But he soon became better known _ both at home and in Africa.
Jefferson ran unsuccessfully for governor and gained seniority on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He was toasted by good-government groups and rose within the Democrat Party and the Congressional Black Caucus.
After 1998, he made at least 13 trips to Africa, speaking to business groups and meeting the continent's top leaders.
As his influence grew, businessmen eyeing African opportunities gravitated into his sphere. In exchange for bribes, Jefferson allegedly introduced businessmen to African leaders, lobbied for federal money and went on trips to Africa to tout his clients.
According to prosecutors, those deals resulted in the most notorious aspect of Jefferson's case: the $90,000 (euro60,508) in alleged bribe money found by the FBI in his freezer.
In early 2001, prosecutors allege, Jefferson began promoting the technology of a Kentucky telecommunications company called iGate Inc. both in Congress and Africa.
All the while, he asked iGate to pay monthly consulting fees of $7,500 to a company run by his wife. He also demanded a slice of profits and stock shares.
By mid-2004, Jefferson and the iGate CEO had to find new financing after sealing a deal in Nigeria proved difficult. They turned to Lori Mody, a McClean, Virginia, businesswoman.
Mody allegedly gave Jefferson $100,000 in July 2005 to pay off Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar and get his support for the iGate technology.
But Mody, who was apparently disgruntled by Jefferson's bribe demands, had also been working with the FBI since March.
On Aug. 3, the FBI raided Jefferson's homes in Washington and New Orleans.
He is charged with 16 counts of racketeering, bribery, money laundering and obstruction of justice. His trial was scheduled to start Monday in Alexandria, Virginia, but it has been delayed, possibly for several months, pending an appeal on whether his status as a congressman protects him from prosecution.
Jefferson has avoided questions about the allegations and never offered any explanation for what happened to the $10,000 of the $100,000 not found in his freezer.
"They don't call him 'Dollar Bill' for nothing," said Elliott Stonecipher, a political consultant in Louisiana for 30 years. "We've always known, whether it was in his political life or in his financial dealings that were enmeshed with his political dealings, that he was someone dancing the line."


Updated : 2021-10-23 14:20 GMT+08:00