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Supreme Court Won’t Hear Ex-Congressman’s Bid to Vacate Bribery Conviction

Former Rep. William J. Jefferson’s long-running legal battle to have his bribery conviction vacated ended Monday, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat who represented the district that encompasses most of New Orleans from 1991 to 2008, began serving a 13-year prison sentence in May for masterminding a scheme to bribe African officials that ended with government investigators finding $90,000 stashed in his freezer.

Jefferson, 65, asked the high court to hear his case after a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., upheld 10 of the 11 corruption counts on which he was convicted following a 2009 trial.

That appeals court rejected Jefferson’s argument that the federal bribery statute under which he was prosecuted did not apply because the plot was not related to his “official duties.”

“There was, in this case, an ongoing course of illicit and repugnant conduct by Jefferson — conduct for which he was compensated considerably by those on whose behalf he was acting,” the panel wrote in its opinion.

“An absurd result would occur if we were to deem Jefferson’s illicit actions as outside the purview of the bribery statute,” the panel said.

A two-year federal investigation revealed that Jefferson, during trips to Cameroon, Nigeria and other countries, used his position as a lawmaker to gain access to foreign officials. Though Jefferson used official congressional stationary and took embassy-paid motorcades during his visits, the meetings were primarily to discuss businesses with which he had a personal relationship. The executives of the firms would then send payments of cash and stock to companies that were owned by Jefferson’s family members but controlled by the congressman, according to court filings.

Jefferson’s legal team had argued in earlier appeals that the meetings did not relate to his legislative duties — and therefore did not fall under the bribery statue under which he was prosecuted — because he arranged and conducted the meetings on his own time. During oral arguments in Richmond, government prosecutors argued that Congress wrote the bribery statute to be intentionally broad, lest too many misdeeds fall outside its scope. Jefferson’s team maintained that a lawmaker’s actions outside the Capitol building are not covered by existing corruption laws.

“The argument that I think the U.S. attorney is making is that this would open us up to the possibilities of public corruption or insulate against that behavior,” Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, told Roll Call at the time. “And that’s a strong argument to make — there’s a sensitivity to public corruption cases.”

The Supreme Court also declined to take up an earlier appeal in the case brought by the Justice Department after a federal appeals court ruled that aspects of the FBI’s 2006 search of Jefferson’s Capitol Hill office violated the Constitution’s Speech or Debate clause. Legislative documents taken during the raid were returned to Jefferson, but computer hard drives and other items were not. Federal agents also kept evidence seized from Jefferson’s home, including the $90,000 found in his kitchen freezer. Jefferson also made an earlier unsuccessful appeal to the high court to have his indictment thrown out based on that ruling.

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