In June, a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., indicted nine-term Congressman William Jefferson, 60, charging him with 16 felony counts detailed across 95 pages. The indictment portrays Jefferson as a bribe-fisted mastermind of an alleged scheme to bring high-speed Internet service to Africa " in exchange for funneling cash and stock to his relatives.
'This is not who I am. This is not what I have done," Jefferson declared after a court hearing that saw him released on a $100,000 bond. Standing in the sunlight with his wife, Andrea, he said: 'I am innocent of all the charges."
Jefferson is scheduled to stand trial in northern Virginia on Jan. 16, despite a slew of pre-trial motions and a mountain of evidence to review before then " 172,000 pages and roughly 2,000 secretly recorded conversations " although a last-minute delay is always possible. As the case moves toward a showdown, Jefferson has seen his iron grip on New Orleans politics, which extends back as long as his 17 years in the U.S. House, loosen to the point where his own daughter couldn't even get 30 percent of the vote in a runoff for the state Senate seat that launched his political career in 1979.
No matter what the outcome of his criminal case, Bill Jefferson's political star has fallen.
The congressman refused interview requests for this article.
Jefferson became the new face of corrupt Louisiana politics after a 2005 FBI raid on his Capitol Hill home netted $90,000 in marked cash, sheathed in tin foil, from his freezer " bribe money, according to the Justice Department. Talk show hosts and pundits made Jefferson the butt of endless jokes for the cold cash, for which he stoutly insisted there was 'an honorable explanation."
The trial judge presiding over Jefferson's criminal case recently denied his attorneys' motion for a change of venue to the District of Columbia, where juries tend to be predominantly African American. Northern Virginia juries tend to be white " and more conservative.
Ironically, Jefferson was popular among whites in the early years of his career. 'We thought he would become our first black governor " he had it all," says Baton Rouge Advocate editorial writer Lanny Keller, who covered the state Legislature in the 1980s. Jefferson, a lanky state senator with a radiant smile, was a rising star, his Harvard pedigree and silky-smooth manner impressive to reform-minded whites. In the collegial Louisiana Senate, Jefferson honed his legislative skills and quickly became an insider. By the mid-1980s, he was one of the Senate's most influential members.
Jefferson came of age in the civil rights era. By 1990, when he was elected to Congress, he had built a major African-American law firm and directed a well-oiled political machine built around his large family. He left the law firm to go to Congress. Today his dynastic political machine is an embarrassing throwback to the kind of old Southern politics Jefferson sought to change as a civil rights idealist. In addition to his daughter Jalila's recent loss in state Senate District 5, the Oct. 30 resignation of New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan, once a Jefferson protégé, was a stunning setback for his political machine.
Both losses happened, in a way, because of Jefferson. Jordan's office was hit with a $1.9 million federal judgment " which grew to $3.7 million with interest that accumulated while appeals ran " in a reverse-discrimination case. Jordan fired several dozen white clerical employees and replaced them with African-Americans on the advice of a Jefferson operative dispatched to shepherd the new DA through his transition. Many of the fired white workers sued and ultimately won. And state Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock's loss in the Senate race to another black lawmaker, state Rep. Cheryl Gray, was in large measure a rebuke of her father in a district that was, until recently, the home base of the Jefferson political machine. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Jefferson's indictment, voters all over New Orleans are fed up with political corruption.
Jefferson's career, once so promising, now stands as a sell-out of the civil rights movement and the political ethos it spawned. How did a man of such uncommon talent and intelligence go so wrong?
William Jennings Jefferson was born in 1947 in Sweet Providence, a village outside the northeastern Louisiana town of Lake Providence, which today is a bleak place with shuttered storefronts. East Carroll Parish, in the rural Delta along the Mississippi River, is the poorest civil parish in the state and one of the poorest in the nation, so poor that since 1980 the population has fallen by 20 percent. In an eerie vestige of the Old South's 'lend-lease" use of inmates, the sheriff rents out prisoners from the local jail on the cheap or dispatches them as free labor to prepare for public events, according to The New York Times.
In this semi-feudal environment, Bill Jefferson was the sixth of 10 children raised in a four-room wooden house on a farm. Segregation was ruthlessly enforced. 'Brutality, forced confessions " there was no line the sheriff's office wouldn't cross to get the man it wanted," he writes in Dying Is the Easy Part (Wheatmark), a self-published story collection that reads as a memoir. The back cover calls the work fiction, but Jefferson writes about family members by their names and notes in the introduction: 'The stories told here are about the people, the surroundings, the difficulties, and the triumphs of my life."
As a boy he picked cotton in the fields. His father, Mose, was a farmer and sideline plumber who later landed a job as an equipment operator for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He was also a deacon in the local church. Bill Jefferson's mother, Angeline, 'was regularly in the faces of the all-white school board members arguing for more books and good teachers for our colored schools. And she was always taking the literacy test to register to vote," he writes. 'When the registrar once told her she would register to vote over his dead body, she stirred things up when she replied to him that she could live with that, provided it happened soon."
Jefferson began writing the book in 2002 while recovering from a heart attack. His stories are grounded in a memory of rural folkways and hard times, caused more by hostile whites than poverty. He recalls an older brother running home after a scrape with white bigots. The family stayed up all night with guns, fearing retaliation. The sheriff arrived with deputies, and in a tense standoff with his mother, said that her son had to go up North if he was going to fight with whites. Jefferson writes of the incident:
—Mama was simply up against it, up against all the racial discrimination and hate she found so hard to accept — to abide, to endure. She boiled over. "He's gotta go up North to keep somebody from whippin' his ass?" she screamed out. "He ain't goin' nowhere." Mama had a big voice to match her size. Tonight, with this declaration, her loud voice seemed to echo off our towering pecan trees, through the pitch black night, and right straight across Black history.
—The sheriff and his men left; the family prevailed.
Dying Is the Easy Part is an extended meditation on family-as-survival; loyalty is the core value.
'The parents made him aware that he was responsible for the well-being of his brothers and sisters," says Allan Katz, a political consultant who has known Jefferson many years. 'They were so poor that often the only meat was if someone shot a rabbit. From the time he was 11 his dad would hand him a rifle with one bullet and say, "Don't miss, son.'"
That image of a large family's meal hanging on one bullet, a staple in stories on Jefferson's early years, is absent from the book. Perhaps it was exaggerated. 'His momma and daddy were well-respected, successful people given the context," says James Gray, who studied at Harvard with Jefferson and later became his law partner in New Orleans. 'They were farmers who owned their land, not sharecroppers." (Ironically, it was Gray's daughter who recently defeated Jefferson's daughter for his old Senate seat.)
Most of the Jefferson siblings went to college and found careers in business, education or, in the case of Bill and an older brother, Archie, as lawyers.
Sweet Providence showed Jefferson that power was something to be wrested from those who controlled it, its properties negotiated, and not something that contestants easily shared. In the early 1980s, Jefferson, as a state senator, used a football metaphor in conversation with Raymond Strother, a political consultant: 'You white guys tackle each other and help the opponent up. We were taught to tackle somebody and keep 'em from getting up."
Strother believes that attitude defined Jefferson's life " 'Never waste energy on an opponent, use every advantage we can " no sportsmanship."
Jefferson dreamed of attending West Point, but writes that he was denied admission because of his race. In the mid-1960s he attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, where he became student body president and dated an attractive girl from New Orleans, Andrea Green. They were stars on campus. In his last semester, the spring of 1969, he led a protest over poor library facilities, increased tuitions and out-of-touch administrators. The event ignited larger demonstrations over the historic subjugation of black people, galvanized media coverage and bestirred a visit from then-Gov. John McKeithen, a backwoods populist undergoing a political shift, forging ties with black ministers. In a victory for the campus politician, Jefferson met with the governor, who pledged campus improvements.
When Jefferson shared the news of his acceptance to Harvard Law School with his mother, her face went blank. Harvard? She brightened when he told her it was the college President Kennedy had attended. Years later, he said in an interview: 'John Kennedy's call to all of us who were teenagers during my time was that, no matter what we did, whether we became lawyers or physicians or teachers or business people, we owed it to get involved in the life of our communities."
A few months after eyeballing the governor, Jefferson vaulted to Cambridge, and an academic milieu light years from Southern's cramped quarters. During law school he and Andrea married.
James Gray, a native of Baton Rouge and graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, studied with him. Gray, who had been an infantryman in Vietnam after Morehouse, recalls that in the library, 'Many a night, very late, when I was tired, thinking "Let me quit' " there's Jeff, still at it. So you sit and study more."
Gray shared Jefferson's conviction that gains of the civil rights movement placed a responsibility on men like them to give back to the community. When Gray graduated in 1973, he eschewed job offers on Wall Street for a legal career in New Orleans. Jefferson, who had graduated a year earlier, was clerking for a federal judge in New Orleans. Jefferson soon moved to Washington, gaining political experience as a legislative assistant to Louisiana's then-U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston.
In 1976, when Jefferson and Andrea moved back to New Orleans, they had two young daughters. He and Gray opened a law practice that focused on civil cases with another Harvard law graduate, Trevor Bryan, a New Orleanian who had gone to Amherst as an undergraduate.
In contrast to his law partners, Jefferson was from the country; his parents never made it past elementary school. His early struggles fired his determination to succeed. 'No one could sit down and negotiate the way Jeff did," recalls Gray. The firm of Jefferson, Bryan and Gray grew into one of the largest African-American law firms in the South, with 26 lawyers.
In 1979, Jefferson campaigned for the state Senate in a New Orleans district that included the Irish Channel, a neighborhood that was no longer all Irish, nor even all white. Still, Jefferson needed white votes to unseat the longtime incumbent, Fritz Eagan.
'We supported Bill and he won," says Ronnie Burke, who was tax assessor in the district, a position held by his father before him. In backing Jefferson, Burke broke with Irish hegemony because of his family's falling out with the Eagans. 'But you always had to be on your toes with Bill," Burke continues. 'He would be for you one minute, against you the next." Almost 20 years later, Burke's last observation was borne out when Betty Jefferson, Bill Jefferson's sister, ran against Burke for assessor and won. Her main backer was her brother.
Bill and Andrea Jefferson eventually had five daughters. 'He and Andrea doted on those girls but set strict standards about excellence," says Katz. Three daughters would graduate from Harvard College and Harvard Law, the other two from Brown and Boston University. Andrea went back to graduate school at UNO, subsequently earning a Ph.D. in education.
When the state Legislature was in session, Jefferson often went to the law office at 4 a.m., putting in six hours of work before the 80-mile drive to Baton Rouge. 'We'd go to lunch," says Allan Katz, who was a Times-Picayune reporter at the time, 'and he'd say, "You're paying, aren't you?' He had the mannerisms of a poor boy." He also had serious skills in working a room and cultivating white legislators to support a bill.
Jefferson's arrival in the Senate coincided with the election of Louisiana's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Dave Treen. Treen, a conservative in Congress, quickly set about to broaden his base. He put more African Americans in state jobs than his predecessor, Edwin Edwards. Though plodding and humorless in comparison to Edwards, Treen was seriously trying to do better by blacks. Edwards, planning a comeback, worked hard to derail Treen's legislative proposals. Jefferson became one of Edwards's most reliable allies.
Ray Strother, who had moved his campaign consulting practice from Louisiana to Washington, still did business in Baton Rouge and got to know Jefferson well. When Strother's father died in Port Arthur, Texas, Jefferson hired a plane to fly him to the funeral, a gesture he never forgot. But there was another side to Jefferson that bothered Strother.
In 1982, when Jefferson challenged New Orleans' first black mayor, Dutch Morial, in his bid for re-election, Strother handled Jefferson's media campaign. 'Jeff still owes me $25,000 from that race," says Strother. 'He just never paid."
Reneging on a campaign debt dovetails with a strain in Jefferson's composition that, to others, seemed to border on desperation. It was the late Dutch Morial, a legendary political pugilist, who derisively dubbed him 'Dollar Bill" for his obsession with money. Years later, Strother bumped into Jefferson, who was contemplating a run for governor. Would Strother handle his media? 'I told him to pay me the $25,000 first," says Strother. 'He didn't call back."
Strother continues: 'I'm convinced that Jefferson was corrupted by his years in the Legislature. The perception in the black community was that white politicians got rich, and blacks wanted in on that."
Indeed, legislators with insurance licenses did business with the state; others worked as (or for) vendors to state agencies. 'The state" as a source of business was, in a very real sense, a cash cow. Edwin Edwards, as governor in the 1970s, gave carte blanche to toxic waste disposal companies that did business with his cronies. With Jefferson's support, Edwards crushed Treen to win his third governorship in 1983. As racial barriers came down, many black politicians embraced the political culture rather than pushing for changes to the structural dynamics.
Jefferson found a reliable client in the historically black Southern University system " itself a vestige of the separate-but-equal political fiction in higher education. Andrea Jefferson took a seat on the system's supervisory board.
Jefferson's law firm had other clients, to be sure. By his own account, Jefferson was earning $400,000 from his legal practice in the late 1980s. But the civil rights idealist was devolving into a standard-issue machine politician whose organization relied heavily on family members. The catalytic figure in mobilizing voters was Jefferson's older brother, Mose, renowned for whirlwind installations of political signs in yards, on street corners and grassy medians. Mose also began buying or operating low-rent properties in Central City that would dovetail with Bill Jefferson's political interests. Another brother, Archie, lost his law practice after borrowing against client accounts to support a drug habit. The state Supreme Court disbarred Archie Jefferson after he was convicted of issuing worthless checks, criticizing him for 'a fundamental lack of moral character and fitness." Bill Jefferson helped his brother find investment opportunities.
In the 1980s, with half of the 10 siblings in or around New Orleans, Bill formed Jefferson Interests, a company that ran stores with monthly appliance rentals to poor people. When he ran for mayor in 1986, an opponent charged that the company 'harassed and intimidated" housing project dwellers who were late on their payments and that Jefferson had sponsored an unsuccessful bill to allow for filing theft charges against renters who failed to return the appliances on time. Jefferson denied sponsoring the measure until reporters confronted him with the bill, and he admitted he had filed it.
Was Bill Jefferson dragged into projects that milked the poor by brothers Mose, Archie and Bennie, who figured into those operations, or did he scan the potential profits and call the moves? His mother's admonition, 'It's your responsibility to look after your little sister," seems to have defined his role with his siblings. Large families can be famously messy; the Jeffersons were tightly focused on making money via one another's careers. His sister, Betty, rode his coattails to a seat on the Orleans Parish school board and today is an assessor. A sister-in-law, Caroline Gill Jefferson, served as a judge at Civil District Court until recently. His wife Andrea's brother, Alan Green, was a district judge in Jefferson Parish until he was convicted of mail fraud (in connection with an alleged bribery scheme) and sent to federal prison.
When Bill Jefferson ran for the congressional seat held by the retiring Lindy Boggs in 1990, his political career and business interests had melded into a Faulknerian family enterprise. In that election, he squared off against then-political newcomer Marc Morial, son of the late mayor Dutch Morial, who attacked him for bilk-the-poor business dealings. Jefferson, who was 13 years older than Marc Morial, cut an image of greater maturity. On election night, tax assessor Ronnie Burke was in Jefferson's downtown hotel suite, working the phone, as Jefferson waited with his family and the politically powerful Bishop Paul Morton, their pastor at Greater St. Stephen's Full Gospel Baptist Church. On getting word from the clerk of court, Burke was the first to say: 'Congratulations, Congressman!"
By then, Jefferson's law school friend James Gray had left the firm. There was no falling out; rather, says Gray: 'Jeff and BOLD [a black political organization] were in a constant battle. I wasn't in a battle with BOLD. There's a problem being law partner with a high-profile (state) senator. People think you're his agent."
Several years later, in 1994, Burke supported Oliver Thomas for the City Council District B seat against Mose Jefferson's girlfriend, Renee Gill Pratt. 'The congressman got mad and ran his sister (Betty) against me for assessor [in 1998]. I lost," says Burke. 'Jefferson wanted to be the dictator. He wanted no independence [from him] whatsoever."
Burke withdrew from electoral politics, moved to Jefferson Parish, took a job in the District Attorney's office and became a Republican. Betty Jefferson cut the assessed value of a 27-unit complex in Central City that Bill Jefferson had bought in 1984 to a fraction of what the congressman had paid for it. For Jefferson, everything was going according to plan.
Jefferson launched a campaign for governor in 1995, but pulled out before the election and threw his support to a younger congressional colleague, Cleo Fields of Baton Rouge. He made his second bid for governor four years later against popular incumbent Mike Foster. Shadowed by a money-grubbing image, he had little crossover appeal to whites. African Americans were less than a third of registered voters; no one expected him to win.
But that race was not necessarily about winning. He ran in order to position himself as the most powerful black political broker in the state, a go-to guy for whites in future statewide races. Campaigns by then had become a Jefferson business enterprise. Regardless of the candidate, his political organization, the Progressive Democrats, had people who knew how to work an election and get out the vote " and people to put into political jobs. With Betty ensconced as a tax assessor, the congressman succeeded in 2002 in getting Gill Pratt elected to the City Council. The councilwoman rented a satellite office at $1,800 a month in a Central City building owned by a nonprofit that Mose Jefferson controlled. Gill Pratt lost her seat in 2006 after one term.
Even after selling his interest in the law firm, Jefferson finished his first decade in Congress with growing financial obligations as he and Andrea worked to put five daughters through Harvard and other Eastern colleges. His congressional salary was $125,000 at the time.
In late 1998, Andrea resigned her position on the Southern Board of Supervisors and early the next year was appointed vice chancellor for academic affairs at Southern University in New Orleans with a $75,000 salary. SUNO had been plagued by financial difficulties under chancellors who got their jobs in what amounted to patronage hires. The chancellor who hired Andrea was later sacked for mismanagement.
'Even though she had a Ph.D., Andrea had barely taught at the college level," says Bill Stewart, a professor of social work at SUNO. 'She had taught in secondary schools. You want someone who has some understanding of what it means to be a faculty member. Would you want your editor being someone who had never worked as a journalist?"
Stewart and some 20 other faculty members protested that the congressman's wife was unqualified. 'Andrea is into delegation, to put it politely," says Stewart. 'She delegates to committees and task forces or just ignores things she didn't want to deal with. The school calendar got screwed up. They had a terrible time dealing with this through the year because it was put together wrong. That's almost impossible to do because you do the same thing year after year."
In 2001, a new SUNO chancellor, Joseph Bouie, who had come from the social work department, ordered Andrea Jefferson's dismissal. She accused him of fiscal mismanagement, sexual harassment of a female colleague, and filed for whistle-blower status to protect her job.
It bothered certain SUNO colleagues that Andrea Jefferson approved New Orleans Police Chief Richard Pennington as an adjunct professor in criminal justice at $18,000 a year. Ad hoc teachers earned $3,000 per course at the time.Pennington taught one course a semester, effectively earning $9,000 per course. Pennington became Bill Jefferson's candidate for mayor in the 2002 election. He lost to Ray Nagin.
In 2003, the Southern board awarded Andrea Jefferson a $50,000 settlement and moved her to a $70,000 job as assistant vice-president for development in the Southern University system. Bouie lost his job as chancellor, with a pay cut from $120,000 to $63,000, his old faculty salary. The board cited financial mismanagement, a continuing crisis he had inherited. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cleared him of sexual harassment. Bouie said he was fired for refusing to 'participate in political nepotism."
'This smells," Lea Polk, a dissenting member of the Southern board, complained at the time. 'It reeks of politics."
In 2002, as he sailed to his seventh term in Congress, Jefferson went all-out for Eddie Jordan in the race to succeed Harry Connick Sr. as Orleans Parish District Attorney. Jefferson backed Jordan over his old law partner, James Gray.
On paper, Jordan had credentials: as U.S. Attorney in the Clinton years, he oversaw the prosecution that sent former Gov. Edwin Edwards to prison for extortion involving casino licenses. Jordan won " and then turned to Mose Jefferson for personnel advice. In a bungle of breathtaking proportions, Jordan fired 56 veteran staffers, of whom 44 were white, and replaced them with Jefferson supporters.
The fired staffers filed suit in federal court, charging reverse-discrimination, and humiliated Jordan, who is African American, by winning a $1.9 million verdict, which with interest rose to $3.7 million as Jordan lost appeals on the case. To pay the claims, Jordan needed funds either from the Legislature, where he had few friends, or from City Hall, where he became an object of derision. As the city's homicide rate climbed after Katrina, the DA's office fell into disarray. Most murders went unprosecuted.
In late October, several business leaders approached Mayor Nagin with an offer to find Jordan work if he would quit, which he did. The city then set about negotiating with the plaintiff attorneys to pay the settlement " all to satisfy Bill Jefferson's overreaching operation. Jefferson issued a statement saying that he had no role in any of the personnel changes and effectively dissed Jordan for doing exactly what the congressman had orchestrated. Less than three weeks later, Jefferson's daughter Jalila lost her state Senate bid to James Gray's daughter.
Congress gave Jefferson political job security and a national profile. He served on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and became an active proponent of expanded trade with Africa. After his indictment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi removed him from Ways and Means. Its chairman, Charles Rangel, has contributed $5,000 to Jefferson's legal defense fund.
The FBI got onto Bill Jefferson when Lori Mody, a venture capitalist in the Virginia suburbs who had hired Jefferson's former legislative assistant, Bret Pfeffer, to run her company, feared she was being defrauded in dealing with the congressman. Jefferson had brought her together with Vernon Jackson of iGate to market streamlined Internet access in Nigeria and Ghana. Jackson, of Louisville, was a black self-made businessman who developed an expanded bandwidth technology.
The bribes to which Jackson has since pleaded guilty were allegedly arranged by Jefferson " some $400,000 worth, according to the government. Pfeffer likewise has pleaded guilty to charges relating to the alleged bribery and corruption scheme. Both he and Jackson are sitting in prison; both are set to testify against Jefferson next month.
Jefferson is accused of routing the money to benefit his kinfolk: iGate payments to one of his daughters for legal work and to several other companies for collections by Mose, Archie and Andrea. None of Jefferson's relatives has been indicted in the case. The law prohibits forcing a wife to testify against a husband. According to a former federal prosecutor, Justice Department attorneys are wary of family indictments for having the potential to backfire should jurors sympathize or conclude that the government is abusing its power.
Lori Mody, as a 'cooperating witness," let the FBI tap her phones and outfit her with a tiny body microphone for meetings with Jefferson.
Details of the enterprise surfaced at a dinner between the two in a Virginia restaurant on July 21, 2005. Jefferson explains that Atiku Abubakar, the vice president of Nigeria and a gatekeeper on the deal to pair Mody's company with a Nigerian Internet provider, wants a cut. 'We have to deal with him," Jefferson says of Abubakar.
The Nigerian Internet company is run by a man called Suleiman YahYah. 'We got to motivate him real good," Jefferson says of YahYah. 'He's got a lot of folks to pay off." Then, as if to allay her concerns about bribing YahYah, Jefferson says airily, 'If he's got to pay Minister X, we don't want to know. We're not paying Minister X a damn thing. That's all, you know, international fraud crap. We're not doing that. Whatever they do locally, that's their business."
Jefferson allegedly planned to 'motivate" Abubakar with bribes, a portion of which he would presumably pass to YahYah " $500,000 in all. Jefferson planned to deliver installments to the Nigerian vice president at a home he kept in Potomac, Md. Several days after the dinner with Mody, an FBI agent filmed her opening the trunk of her car. Jefferson removed a red satchel containing $100,000 in bills marked by the FBI. That exchange allowed the Justice Department to secure warrants for simultaneous raids on Jefferson's homes in New Orleans and Washington on Aug. 3, 2005. It was at Jefferson's Washington home that agents found $90,000 in the freezer.
As Jefferson digs in for the legal fight of his life, the family operation is reeling from a separate federal probe in New Orleans, one that seems to focus on Mose.
In June, the former president of the Orleans Parish School Board, Ellenese Brooks-Simms, pleaded guilty to fraud and bribery charges. Citing government sources, The Times-Picayune, reported that Mose paid Simms $140,000 to secure her support for a software math program for use in public schools. Mose reportedly earned $900,000 in fees from the software company to open doors for the contract. The company president denied authorizing bribes and is not identified as a prosecution target. After negotiating her plea, Brooks-Simms secretly recorded conversations with Mose. He has not yet been indicted.
With stories of her uncle and her father plastered in the headlines, state Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock campaigned for the state Senate seat that launched her father's political career. Her main opponent was Rep. Cheryl Gray, a Stanford graduate with a law degree from Tulane and the daughter of Bill Jefferson's old law partner, James Gray. In late September, Cheryl Gray's residency in the district was challenged by a man who, on being questioned in court, turned out to be a Jefferson cousin and a tenant of Mose. The residency suit was dismissed.
Gray led in the primary and easily beat Jefferson-Bullock in the Nov. 17 runoff. The long reach of Bill Jefferson's power seems to be coming to an end.
Whatever the outcome of his case, Jefferson's legal bills will be astronomic. Several attorneys who have followed the case speculate that at some point he will back off his defense and plead to reduced charges to forestall potential prosecutions of his relatives.
Jefferson's path out of Sweet Providence and the early cruelties of segregation carried a yoke of obligation to his family. Politics became a form of business as his extended family coalesced around him. The federal indictment alleging bribes and corruption is a far cry from his brave mother standing up to a hostile sheriff.
'If it turns out the allegations are true," says James Gray, echoing many in New Orleans, 'the biggest thing I would feel is sadness."
On that fateful August morning in 2005, less than a month before Katrina smashed the city, FBI agents invaded Jefferson's Uptown New Orleans home and told him the $100,000 from Mody had come from the FBI. 'I think I should stop talking to you boys," Jefferson reportedly replied.
An agent asked if he wanted to see some government video. Jefferson answered yes. Watching footage of himself removing the satchel from the trunk of Mody's car, Jefferson reportedly sank back on his couch and uttered the words that could become his political epitaph:
'What a waste."
A New Orleans writer, Jason Berry's books include Lead Us Not Into Temptation, Vows of Silence and Last of the Red Hot Poppas, a comic novel about Louisiana politics.