Indicted Congressman Who Allegedly Hid $90,000 in Freezer Seeks Reelection

September 1, 2008 - 12:58 AM
Indicted Louisiana House Member Bids for 10th Term
Indicted Congressman Who Allegedly Hid $90,000 in Freezer Seeks Reelection (image)

He is accused of taking about $500,000 in bribes and travel expenses and about 34 million shares of corporate stock.

New Orleans - Sordid bribery allegations and jokes about "cold cash" hidden in Rep. William Jefferson's freezer apparently did not matter much to voters two years ago when the New Orleans Democrat won a runoff election for his long-held congressional seat with a surprising 57 percent.

Hurricane Katrina was a fresh memory throughout much of the city. Jefferson lost his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee amid the burgeoning scandal, yet could argue that his seniority and clout in Congress were vital to the region.

Now that two more years have passed, Jefferson's political future has become more precarious. He is awaiting trial in Virginia on federal bribery charges; his brother and two sisters are ensnared in a separate federal criminal case in New Orleans.

Donations to his re-election have slowed and there is a reported campaign debt of $250,000. Still, few count Jefferson completely out as he faces six challengers in Saturday's primary.

"He's still influential in Congress. He still has supporters in Congress, and in the district," pollster and political analyst Silas Lee said.

Political scientist Ed Chervenak of the University of New Orleans said he detects a sense among some people in the 2nd Congressional District that Jefferson is being persecuted, but he questions whether that will be enough to save the nine-term incumbent.

"It's really the great unknown in terms of whether people will rally around Jefferson or whether they just say, `We've had enough,'" Chervenak said.

While campaigning for a new term, Jefferson also is preparing for a December federal trial in Virginia on allegations that he took bribes, laundered money and misused his congressional office for business dealings in Africa. He is accused of taking about $500,000 in bribes and travel expenses and about 34 million shares of corporate stock.

In what became fodder for late-night talk show monologues well before he was indicted, Jefferson is famously alleged to have hidden in his freezer some $90,000 received from an FBI informant. Jefferson, who did not grant an interview for this story, has maintained his innocence.

Meanwhile, his brother Mose and sister Betty, a New Orleans tax assessor, have been indicted on federal fraud charges in New Orleans. Both are accused of using family owned companies to funnel federal and state grant money to themselves for personal use.

A second sister, Brenda Jefferson, pleaded guilty in June to helping conceal the alleged scheme.
 
Attacks on Jefferson in television and online ads by his opponents have been unmistakable if oblique, not mentioning him by name.
 
Former television reporter Helena Moreno sits in a house still in ruins three years after Katrina, bemoans the lack of progress and promises to "restore honesty and integrity" to the office. State Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans says the people of the district "need and deserve real leadership right now."
 
While the recovery from Katrina is the biggest issue, the race also boils down to geography, demographics, turnout and political alliances.
 
Most of the district's 369,000 registered voters are in New Orleans. But almost one-third are in neighboring Jefferson Parish, where popular Sheriff Newell Normand has endorsed parish councilman Byron Lee. Most of the voters are black; almost one-third are white.
 
If voting patterns break along racial lines, that would aid Moreno, the only white candidate in the primary, in earning a spot in an expected Oct. 4 runoff.
 
Turnout is expected to be low and the vote will be divided among several well-known candidates.
 
In addition to Moreno, Lee and Richmond, City Council member James Carter, former council member Troy Carter (no relation to James) and Kenya Smith, a lawyer and former aide to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, are running.
 
"Jefferson's got a core constituency in both parishes," said demographer Gregory Rigamer. "They're going to split this vote up really fine."

The Democratic nominee will face three little-known challengers--one each from the Green, Libertarian and Republican parties.