I never bought former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's narrow definition of what constitutes an "official act," and when he went on trial in 2009 for parlaying his elected position for personal gain, neither did the jury.
The U.S. Supreme Court did.
So more than five years into his 13-year prison sentence, Jefferson is heading home after being released by the same judge who oversaw his Alexandria, Virginia, federal trial, but who now says that his juror instructions ran afoul of the high court's ruling in an unrelated case. Judge T.S. Ellis threw out seven of the 10 counts on which the longtime New Orleans representative was convicted and will resentence him Dec. 1.
Former nine-term U.S. Rep. William Jefferson is going free, at least for now, a federal judg…
Jefferson may be thanking God for the new development, as his wife Andrea did when the news came down, but he should also thank another disgraced official who sought to capitalize on his position, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
The McDonnell trial was more than a reminder that Louisiana doesn't own a patent on sleazy, self-dealing politicians. It became a test case for what type of behavior the feds can successfully prosecute.
McDonnell was convicted of accepting $175,000 in cash and gifts — money to pay his debts and cater his daughter's wedding, designer clothes for his wife, and the use of a country club, vacation home and Ferrari — from a Virginia businessman who wanted a pair of state universities to conduct research on a diet supplement he was marketing.
His lawyers argued that he never used the power of his office to help his benefactor. It didn't work at trial, but the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately threw out the jury's guilty verdict.
That was last year, seven years after Jefferson, a member of the Ways & Means Committee and leading congressional expert on African trade, was convicted in a wide-ranging case stemming from allegations that he shepherded business deals between Americans and government officials in western Africa for investors who paid him and his relatives.
Jefferson's defense contended that his actions weren't illegal because they didn't involve things like legislating or earmarking, and that other activities in which he used his position to arrange access for his business associates, such as writing letters on congressional stationery and having staff arrange travel, don't count as official acts.
That's an awfully implausible take on how political power functions in the real world. American and foreign officials know who's in Congress, and understand their influence. Of course, that gives them a leg up on the average person on the street
A congressman's letter may not affect legislation, but it opens doors. Jefferson's lawyers may have argued at trial that he didn't wear a necktie to a key meeting with investors at the Export-Import Bank because he was there as a citizen, not a congressman. But tell me again how the government employees involved didn't know just who he was and didn't have incentive to please him.
To a layperson — to me, anyway — an official act would be anything done under the color of one's office.
But not to Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion letting McDonnell off the hook.
"In sum, an 'official act' is a decision or action on a 'question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy," Roberts wrote. "Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) — without more — does not fit that definition of an official act."
"A more limited interpretation of the term 'official act' leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this court," he wrote.
That ruling gave Ellis little wiggle room.
"No one reading this opinion should conclude that Jefferson was innocent of crime; he was not innocent of crime. Even by McDonnell’s standard he engaged in and was convicted of some criminal conduct," Ellis wrote in his 41-page order. "The Supreme Court described Gov. McDonnell’s actions as 'tawdry' and 'distasteful.' Jefferson's actions went well beyond being 'tawdry' and 'distasteful'; they were plainly venal and reflected corrupt intent."
You could argue that Jefferson's probably served enough time to get the message, particularly given that McDonnell, who was sentenced to two years, never spent a day in prison.
But you'd also hope that we'd have laws to punish such behavior. Apparently not.