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Jefferson's Fall from Grace 

Fans of The Sopranos have been looking forward to the series' final episode with mixed feelings, but now there's a cure for their withdrawal pains. Whenever they need a dose of corruption, betrayal, racketeering, family intrigue, self-dealing, bribery and extortion, they can read the 94-page federal indictment of Congressman Bill Jefferson.

The comparison is not a stretch. In Count 16 of the 16-count indictment, the United States Department of Justice accuses Jefferson of turning his congressional office into a criminal enterprise -- with himself as the boss of the racket.

Tony Soprano, say hello to Dollar Bill Jefferson.

In all respects except murder and prostitution, the government effectively alleges that Jefferson would have fit right in as a cast member of the HBO series. (To read the indictment, go to http://www.citizensforethics.org/files/jefferson.indict.pdf.)

The most glaring example of that is the way that Jefferson like many mobsters preyed upon the very people who turned to him for help. Count 1 of the indictment sets forth an alleged scheme to bribe Nigerian government officials in order to bring American telecommunications technology to that country -- with Jefferson squeezing money up front from Vernon Jackson, the African-American inventor of that technology, before agreeing to open doors for Jackson's company, iGate. According to the indictment, and in what seems to be Jefferson's pattern, the congressman first demands a small percentage of the company's ownership for a dummy corporation headed by a Jefferson family member. He later extorts a much larger percentage, plus regular cash payments, as the deal progresses. All the while, according to the indictment, Jefferson also is squeezing cash from a Nigerian businessman on the other side of the deal -- and planning to substitute Jefferson family members for Jackson at iGate, thereby pushing Jackson out of the picture altogether.

Several times during the scheme's development, Jefferson wrote to Jackson demanding payments for "amounts currently due" to one of the dummy corporations, ANJ, which was headed by the congressman's wife Andrea.

Today, Jackson sits in a federal prison, having been sentenced to more than seven years for his part in the scheme.

Among the bad news for Jefferson is that he will be tried before the same judge -- T. S. Ellis III -- who gave Jackson that seven-year sentence. If Ellis gave that much time to a guy who was, in effect, a victim and who is now a cooperating witness, one can just imagine what might be in store for the scheme's mastermind. (If convicted on all counts, Jefferson's maximum sentence would be 235 years.)

Another example of Jefferson's alleged Mafia-like criminality is the way he involved family members in his dealings. Time and again, according to the indictment, he set up or caused to be set up dummy corporations with his wife, children and/or siblings as nominal heads or legal advisers. And each time, those dummy corporations were used to skim larger and larger shares of money and/or stock from legitimate players as the deal progressed.

"I make a deal for my children. It wouldn't be me" getting the bribes directly, Jefferson tells a one-time investor who is now a cooperating witness. According to Count 1, Jefferson made that statement during a meeting at which he demanded a larger share of the investor's company in order to close the deal in Nigeria. At another meeting with the same investor, Jefferson defends his demand that his family get more stock by saying, "That way I provide for them, all this stuff and that helps us."

Lest anyone think Jefferson is really just trying to help his family, he later tells the same investor, during a discussion about taking over iGate and pushing Jackson out of the picture, "I'm in the shadows behind the curtain somewhere."

Actually, Jefferson is now officially "in the shadows" in Congress. He has voluntarily taken a "temporary" leave from the one committee seat that he still held -- on the House Committee on Small Business -- in the face of a near-unanimous move by his colleagues to boot him off that committee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi fed him to the lions a year ago by taking him off the Ways and Means Committee, based on the FBI raid of his office and the $90,000 in marked Benjamins found in his freezer. All of Congress has now officially distanced itself from Jefferson; he is a pariah.

Meanwhile, many are wondering why his family members were not even named in the indictment -- or indicted themselves.

Some speculate that prosecutors feared an indictment of several family members along with the congressman would generate sympathy among jurors. Somehow, it's difficult to imagine a jury in northern Virginia feeling sorry for a guy who would do the things Jefferson is accused of doing.

Might they feel sympathy for Jefferson's wife, siblings and daughters? For his daughters, yes, no doubt. Jefferson's wife Andrea and his brother Mose, who allegedly are among the nominal heads of several dummy corporations, are another story. According to the indictment, they seem to have been part and parcel of the alleged schemes all along.

The greater likelihood is that Jefferson's relatives remain officially unnamed and unindicted to give the government leverage in plea negotiations -- and to give Jefferson a graceful way out. He can resign, plead guilty and accept a jail term in exchange for sparing his family members his fate.

But plea negotiations will have to come quickly, because Judge Ellis is on "senior status," which means he does not have a full docket. Last Friday, he set the case for trial in January 2008 -- a mere seven months from now.

Then there's the venue itself. Northern Virginia is not exactly Central City. The jury pool will not contain many folks who know Jefferson's up-from-poverty life story -- but you can bet they already know about the 90 grand in Dollar Bill's freezer.

What we have witnessed in the past 22 months -- the initial raid on Jefferson's residences came less than four weeks before Katrina -- is the systematic unraveling of an empire and the long, slow but steady downfall of one of Louisiana's most powerful (and, at one time, most promising) political figures. Tony Soprano makes a convenient metaphor for Bill Jefferson's current predicament, but perhaps the more accurate comparison would be to one of Shakespeare's tragic heroes.

Because in the end, Jefferson's fall from grace has been entirely of his own making.

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