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Democratic Lawmaker Indicted on Bribery, Other Charges

A Democratic lawmaker in Congress has been indicted on charges related to a two-year-long government corruption investigation. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, William Jefferson, a Democrat from Louisiana, has denied any wrongdoing since the probe began.

In a 94-page indictment handed down by a grand jury in Virginia, the government accuses Congressman Jefferson of a wide range of serious offenses involving 16 counts of soliciting bribes, racketeering and money laundering linked to business deals he tried to broker in several African countries.

In a news conference at the Department of Justice, officials said they are confident in the evidence amassed during their investigation, although they were careful to note that the lawmaker is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Chuck Rosenberg is U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia.

"The charges against Mr. Jefferson include two counts of conspiracy to solicit bribes and to commit wire fraud, and in the first conspiracy also to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Actm," said Chuck Rosenberg. "Two counts of soliciting bribes as a member of Congress, six counts of wire fraud, one count of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, three counts of money laundering, one count of obstruction of justice and one count of violating the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization, or RICO Act, through a pattern of activity, including 11 different bribe schemes."

The investigation involved, among other things, an undercover operation in which the lawmaker was videotaped accepting $100,000 in marked bills from an informer.

In a subsequent search of his Washington, D.C. home, authorities found $90,000, which court documents say was the same money, wrapped in aluminum foil and stored in food containers in a kitchen freezer.

In announcing the indictment, federal authorities said Jefferson told the informer that the money was to have gone to a high-ranking Nigerian official allegedly to support a joint venture there. Officials also detailed an instance in 2004 when Jefferson is alleged to have solicited a bribe in a congressional dining room on Capitol Hill.

Alice Fisher is the assistant attorney general in the criminal division of the Department of Justice:

"The public deserve, and is entitled to expect, that government officials are free from corruption," said Alice Fisher.

Other schemes, according to court documents, included efforts to secure telecommunications deals in Nigeria and Ghana, oil concessions in Equatorial Guinea, satellite transmission contracts in Botswana, Equatorial Guinea and Republic of Congo, offshore oil rights in Sao Tome and Principe, promotion and sale of waste recycling systems in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, and development of a sugar plant and other projects in Nigeria.

Congressman Jefferson, who was re-elected in his home district in Louisiana last year, has maintained his innocence. However, two of his former associates struck plea deals with federal prosecutors and were jailed for eight and seven years.

He is scheduled to be arraigned before a judge in Alexandria, Virginia on June 8. If convicted on all charges, he could face up to 235 years in prison.

The investigation also saw an unprecedented FBI raid on the lawmaker's congressional office, sparking intense debate between Congress and the Justice Department about constitutional boundaries protecting members of Congress from such searches.

Federal officials defended the action, saying it was necessary because the congressman and his lawyers failed to respond to requests for documents, and litigation regarding the issue is continuing.

Officials said that some of the documents obtained in that search support the charges in the indictment against Congressman Jefferson, but they declined to give further details, and also would not go beyond court documents in specifying the Nigerian official involved.

Jefferson's situation has been an embarrassment for congressional Democrats who made corruption a key part of their campaign to regain control of Congress from Republicans.

Although Democratic leaders removed Congressman Jefferson from a key seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, he has remained active on Capitol Hill pending the outcome of the federal case against him.