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La. congressman pleads not guilty to bribery

Jefferson vows he will clear his name

Representative William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, and his wife, Dr. Andrea Green Jefferson, left court yesterday . (Larry Downing/Reuters)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Representative William Jefferson pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges that he solicited bribes for himself and his family from 11 companies while using his office to broker business deals in Africa.

"I am absolutely innocent of the charges that have been leveled against me," Jefferson said after the hearing. "I'm going to fight my heart out to clear my name."

Prosecutors say Jefferson, a Lousisiana Democrat , used his influence as co chairman of the congressional Africa Investment and Trade Caucus to broker deals in numerous African nations, and that he demanded kickbacks for himself and for family members. He is also charged with bribing a Nigerian official.

He allegedly received more than $500,000 in bribes and demanded millions more between 2000 and 2005.

The 94-page indictment issued Monday details 11 separate bribery schemes and 16 criminal counts, including racketeering, soliciting bribes, wire fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of justice.

Jefferson was released on a $100,000 unsecured bond. His trial is scheduled for January, and he faces up to 235 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

Jefferson said his family has a spotless record.

"We are the same family that the Department of Justice and FBI want you to believe is a family made up of bribers, racketeers, and conspirators," he said. "This is not who we are. This is not who I am. This is not what I have done."

As conditions for his release, US District Judge T.S. Ellis III denied the congressman access to shotguns and rifles in his Louisiana home. Jefferson said the guns were used for hunting.

Ellis also ordered Jefferson to surrender his passport.

Jefferson, 60, must seek permission to travel anywhere outside Louisiana or the Washington area, the judge said.

According to court records, FBI agents videotaped Jefferson picking up a $100,000 cash bribe in 2005 from an informant in a hotel parking garage. Two days later, FBI agents raided Jefferson's home in Washington and found $90,000 in cash stuffed in a box in his freezer. Jefferson alluded to that money yesterday, but he declined to answer any questions.

"The $90,000 was the FBI's money," he said. "The FBI gave it to me as part of its plan -- part of their plan -- that I would give it to the Nigerian vice president, but I did not do that. When all the facts are understood, I trust that I will be vindicated."

According to court records, Jefferson told the informant that he needed cash to pay bribes to the country's vice president, Atiku Abubakar. Abubakar has denied any wrongdoing.

Prosecutor Mark Lytle said the government had compiled evidence filling eight file cabinets and had extensive tape recordings. The prosecution's case could take up to a month to present, he said.

Robert Trout, Jefferson's lawyer, said the complexity of the case required Jefferson to waive his right to a speedy trial.