WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic Rep. William Jefferson, accused of hiding $90,000 of intended bribes in his freezer, was charged on Monday with soliciting bribes and paying off a Nigerian official.
The 16-count indictment charges the Louisiana lawmaker with racketeering, soliciting bribes for himself and his family, fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Jefferson, 63, a member of Congress since 1991 whose district includes New Orleans, faces a maximum of 235 years in prison if convicted. His lawyer said Jefferson was innocent and would fight the charges.
The investigation has centered on whether Jefferson used his position to promote the sale of telecommunications equipment and services offered by a Louisville-based firm to Nigeria, Ghana, and possibly other African nations in return for stock and cash payments.
Jefferson won re-election to a ninth term in Congress in November, when voters shrugged off the federal bribery investigation.
The indictment provided some new details about the lengthy probe, including commentary from an FBI witness who gave Jefferson $100,000 in cash that was intended as a bribe for the unnamed Nigerian official in 2005.
It said Jefferson put in his home freezer $90,000 of the cash, which was separated in $10,000 amounts, wrapped in aluminum foil and concealed inside various frozen food containers.
Jefferson said the bribes should be funneled through companies controlled by staffers and relatives, according to the indictment. “I‘m in the shadows behind the curtain somewhere,” the indictment quoted him as saying.
‘CONGRESSMAN JEFFERSON IS INNOCENT’-ATTORNEY
Jefferson’s attorney, Robert Trout, told a Los Angeles news conference that his client would challenge the indictment and would not plea-bargain.
“Congressman Jefferson is innocent. He plans to fight this indictment and clear his name,” Trout said.
In November, Democrats won control of the U.S. Congress from Bush’s Republicans, promising to end a “culture of corruption.”
Most of the scandals that have rocked Capitol Hill in recent years involved Republicans, many of them briberies tied to now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Former Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio pleaded guilty last year in the Abramoff scandal. In a separate case, former California Rep. Randy Cunningham, a Republican, pleaded guilty to bribery charges.
Two former associates of Jefferson have pleaded guilty to bribery charges and have been cooperating in the investigation, which included an unprecedented search by FBI agents of his congressional office last year.
The indictment says the bribery conspiracy began in 2001.
It said the purpose of the conspiracy was “to provide for the unjust enrichment of defendant Jefferson and his family members by corruptly seeking, soliciting and directing that things of value be paid to him and his family members in return for ... Jefferson’s performance of official acts.”
In Congress, House Republican leader John Boehner said he planned to introduce a resolution to have the ethics committee review the case against Jefferson and recommend within 30 days if Jefferson should be removed from office.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said if the charges are true, “they constitute an egregious and unacceptable abuse of public trust and power.” But she cautioned he “must be considered innocent until proven guilty.”
additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Andy Sullivan in Washington and Kemp Powers in Los Angeles