Former congressman William Jefferson was convicted in 2009 on 11 of 16 counts of taking bribes. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf, File)
MCLEAN, Va. – A former Louisiana congressman sentenced to 13 years in prison on bribery charges who was famously caught hiding $90,000 cash in his freezer has been ordered to be immediately released from jail to receive a new sentencing hearing.
The ruling ordering the release of ex-Rep. William Jefferson follows a Supreme Court decision last year making it more difficult to convict public officials on bribery-related offenses.
Jefferson, 70, a Democrat who represented parts of New Orleans, has been serving his sentence since 2012. He was convicted of accepting more than $400,000 in bribes and seeking millions more in exchange for brokering business deals in Africa. The 2005 raid of his Washington home that turned up cash stuffed in frozen food boxes made him fodder for late-night comedians.
In a ruling made public Thursday, U.S. Senior Judge T.S. Ellis III in Alexandria said a new sentencing hearing is necessary because the Supreme Court has subsequently changed what constitutes "an official act" for which a public official can be convicted of bribery.
Ellis vacated seven of the 10 counts on which Jefferson was convicted. On two of the remaining counts, Jefferson received a five-year sentence, and on the third, he received a 13-year sentence. But Ellis said there is no guarantee that Jefferson would again receive a 13-year sentence on that count, so he ordered a new sentencing hearing for Dec. 1.
Before then, though, the government must decide by Oct. 16 if it wants to retry Jefferson on the seven counts that were tossed out.
Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in the Eastern District of Virginia, which prosecuted the case, said the office is weighing whether to seek a retrial.
In his 41-page ruling, Ellis wrote, "No one reading this opinion should conclude that Jefferson was innocent of crime; he was not innocent of crime."
Even under the stricter bribery rules spelled out by the Supreme Court last year when it tossed out corruption convictions against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Ellis said Jefferson's behavior went well beyond anything that occurred in the McDonnell case.
"The Supreme Court described Governor McDonnell's actions as `tawdry' and `distasteful,"' Ellis wrote. "Jefferson's actions went well beyond being `tawdry' and `distasteful'; they were plainly venal and reflected corrupt intent."
Jefferson's attorney, Robert Trout, said in an emailed statement, "We are continuing to review the opinion, but we are obviously very pleased that Judge Ellis has ordered Mr. Jefferson's immediate release." He declined further comment.
The $90,000 found in Jefferson's freezer was actually part of an FBI sting. A one-time business partner of Jefferson, Lori Mody, became disenchanted and believed Jefferson was ripping her off, and she approached the FBI. Mody agreed to wear a wire for the FBI and gave Jefferson $100,000 in cash, which Jefferson intended to use to pay a bribe to the vice president of Nigeria, according to court testimony.
Mody never actually testified at trial — her role in the case became complicated when it was revealed that she had a sexual relationship with one of the FBI agents investigating the case.
The definition of an official act was a key element in the Jefferson case ever since charges were first filed. Defense lawyers argued Jefferson was acting as a private business consultant when he accepted payments from a Kentucky businessman, Vernon Jackson, who sought Jefferson's help in developing telecommunications deals in Africa and with the U.S. military.
Prosecutors, though, said Jefferson was cashing in on the influence he wielded as a member of Congress and was taking bribes for actions that are routine for a member of Congress who is expected to provide service to his constituents.
Similar issues swirled around the trial of McDonnell, a Republican, who accepted gifts and loans from a businessman who sought McDonnell's help in getting a tobacco-based dietary supplement to be studied by state universities. In the McDonnell case, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that jury instructions must set limits on what constitutes an official act.
"Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) — without more — does not fit that definition of official act," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the McDonnell case last year.