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Bribery Trial Begins for Democrat Jefferson

Nearly four years after federal agents found $90,000 in alleged bribe money in his freezer, former congressman William Jefferson goes to trial today on charges he sought money, stock and payments to his relatives in exchange for his help in landing African business deals for U.S. companies.

The Louisiana Democrat has maintained his innocence since the FBI raided his homes in New Orleans and Washington in August 2005 and found cash an informant allegedly gave Jefferson to bribe a Nigerian official. Juror screening is to begin in Alexandria, Va., for Jefferson's trial on 16 federal charges, including bribery, conspiracy, money laundering and racketeering.

The last congressional corruption trial ended with the conviction of then-senator Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, last fall. In April, Attorney General Eric Holder asked a judge to throw out Stevens' conviction. The two top officials in the Justice Department's anti-corruption division are under investigation for their roles in the Stevens case, where prosecutors failed to turn over key evidence that could have helped the senator's defense to charges he failed to report gifts from wealthy friends.

Jefferson's case is being handled by the department's fraud section and local federal prosecutors in Virginia, Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said.

Still, a loss in the Jefferson case would be a "huge blow" to the department, said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who heads the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "You're just not going to get anything better than a congressman with $90,000 in his freezer."

Although Jefferson won re-election in his Hurricane Katrina-ravaged district in 2006, he lost his bid for a 10th term last year to Republican Joseph Cao.

The 2007 indictment accuses Jefferson of pressing businessmen for kickbacks in exchange for his help in setting up ventures in several African nations. Jefferson urged the Export-Import Bank and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency to help finance the business deals and used official travel to set up meetings with African officials where bribes were discussed, the indictment says.

In July 2005, according to government court filings, the FBI videotaped Jefferson accepting a briefcase containing $100,000 in cash from a Virginia businesswoman working as an informant. Agents had recorded the serial numbers of the $100 bills and found all but $10,000 wrapped in foil in the freezer of Jefferson's Washington home, prosecution filings say.

FBI agents who interviewed Jefferson before searching his New Orleans home showed him the video. Afterward, "Jefferson sunk back onto the couch and, with total dejection, remarked, "what a waste,' " prosecutors said in a court filing.

Jefferson's defense lawyers have suggested in their filings that his actions were private business arrangements, not public corruption. His lawyers have argued he isn't guilty of bribery because he didn't intend to break the law and didn't agree to take any legislative actions to help the companies that provided stock and payments to his relatives.

Defense lawyer Robert Trout declined to comment Monday.

Jefferson's case will have a lasting impact on Capitol Hill corruption cases, regardless of the trial's outcome, former federal prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg said. That's because a federal appeals court ruled the unprecedented FBI search of Jefferson's House office in 2006 violated the Constitution's shield of congressional activities from intrusion by the executive branch. "Right now, prosecutors are really in the dark as to how they go about investigating corruption on Capitol Hill," he said.

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