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Jefferson's bribery conviction: a mixed legacy

Justice Department prevailed in the infamous 'freezer cash' case, but it lost ground in law enforcement's ability to wiretap or investigate members of Congress.

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The post-Jefferson standard is now being tested in the courts in the case of former Rep. Rick Renzi (R) of Arizona, who is contesting evidence from a wiretap that included a conversation related to official business.

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The new threshold for federal investigators is that “not only can’t you use it, you can’t accidentally see it,” adds Ms. Sloan. “That is a very expansive view of the ... Constitution."

A boost for Justice Department

Still, the Justice Department did win a conviction in the case – though not on all the counts. It was a much-needed win, after the department's embattled public integrity section had to drop a high-profile corruption case against former Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska in April, after failing to disclose evidence to the defense.

“It was important for the Justice Department to win this case because of the Stevens case and all the problems that surrounded that prosecution. Now, they can claim that they legitimately won a substantial victory,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia.

Indeed, that's what Justice did.

"Congressman Jefferson had a contract with the citizens of Louisiana and the citizens of the United States," said US Attorney Dana Boente, in a press briefing after the guilty verdict Wednesday. "The citizens were owed honesty and integrity, and he used his influence and power to enrich himself and his family."

Jefferson was convicted on 11 counts of corruption over business dealings in Africa. He faces a 20-year jail sentence.

As for the infamous freezer cash, prosecutors said it was intended as a bribe to the vice president of Nigeria to help leverage a telecom deal for a Virginia investor who was also an FBI informant.

Jefferson’s lead attorney, Robert Trout, had argued that his client’s business dealings fell into a “gray area” of ethical violations but were not criminal or related to his official duties as a congressman.

In the end, the cash in the freezer figured in none of the convictions announced Wednesday in the US District Court in Alexandria, Va. These included bribery, racketeering, money laundering, and wire fraud.

“The two most interesting elements in the case – the money in the freezer and the foreign dealings – both ended up in acquittals,” says Mr. Turley.

CREW applauded the convictions. “Accepting Mr. Jefferson’s argument that ... [what he did] was not bribery would have left members of Congress free to sell their services to the highest bidder,” Sloan said in a statement.

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