It’s our job to follow the evidence, wherever it might lead. That’s certainly true in cases of public corruption, our highest priority among criminal threats.
Public Corruption Primer
An FBI public corruption case is any criminal case where it’s alleged that either a public official (elected, appointed, or under contract) and/or a private individual has been or is engaged in a corrupt scheme that:
Involves a direct or indirect abuse of a public official’s trust; and/or
Undermines the integrity of federal, state, or local governmental operations in violation of federal law.
Categories of corruption the FBI investigates include legislative, executive, law enforcement, judicial, municipal, regulatory, contract, and prison.
The actual corrupt activities can vary. They include: bribery, fraud, extortion, embezzlement, conflict of interest, nepotism, influence-peddling, and the facilitating of criminal activity (i.e., money laundering and drug trafficking).
Unfortunately, public corruption matters keep the FBI very busy. At the end of fiscal year 2012, we had a pending caseload of close to 4,000 investigations. That same year, our public corruption investigations resulted in 830 arrests, almost 1,250 informations/indictments, and nearly 1,120 convictions.
So back in 2005, when we received reliable information that a sitting member of the U.S. Congress was allegedly using his official position to solicit bribes from American companies interested in doing business in Africa, we opened an investigation.
The congressman in question was William J. Jefferson, who had been serving the 2nd district of Louisiana since 1991.
Our investigation revealed that from 2000 to 2005, Jefferson sought hundreds of millions of dollars for himself and other co-conspirators from companies whose success depended on the approval of certain U.S. and West African government agencies. He ended up pocketing more than $478,000, but Jefferson wasted significantly more in U.S. government resources to further his illegal aims.
At one point, Jefferson turned from bribe recipient to bribe payer when he was caught on camera taking $100,000 in cash from our cooperating witness for use in paying off an African government official. A few days later, the FBI—while serving a search warrant on his residence—found $90,000 of that same cash in Jefferson’s freezer. And a legally authorized search of Jefferson’s office turned up documents later used as evidence during his trial.
Our investigation uncovered at least 11 distinct bribery schemes that involved Jefferson leading official business delegations to Africa, corresponding with U.S. and foreign government officials on congressional letterhead, and using some of his own staffers—unbeknownst to them—to promote the bribe-paying businesses.
In addition to damaging recorded conversations between Jefferson and our cooperating witness, his trial also featured more than 45 witnesses, including a dozen U.S. government officials he tried to influence to get favorable treatment for the businesses promising him bribes. He was convicted in August 2009 and ultimately sentenced to 13 years in prison. Jefferson appealed several times, but last November, the U.S. Supreme Court denied his petition to review his conviction.
Part of the $90,000 found in then-Congressman William Jefferson’s freezer during a law enforcement search of his residence; this particular bundle was wrapped in aluminum foil and concealed inside the pie crust box to the right.
Like many of our corruption cases, our investigation of Jefferson involved the use of sophisticated techniques like cooperating witnesses, consensual monitoring, court-authorized electronic surveillance, video surveillance, and analysis of financial records…all capabilities we’ve used against organized crime, sophisticated financial fraud rings, international drug cartels, and more. Because of our experience, our tools and techniques, our resources and reach, and our ability and authority, the FBI has a singular charge to investigate and root out corruption at all levels of government.
FBI case agent Tim Thibault of our Washington Field Office stressed the importance of a cooperating witness—a Virginia businesswoman—in the case: “She came to us saying that Congressman Jefferson offered to use his congressional office to assist her company in an international business deal in exchange for a percentage ownership of her company. She agreed to cooperate by providing us with historical information regarding her interactions with the congressman and other co-conspirators and by wearing a body recorder and meeting with the congressman to help the FBI gather valuable evidence of his corrupt activity.”