William J. Jefferson is a former Democratic politician who represented Louisiana’s Second Congressional District from 1991 to 2009. He was the first African American congressman elected from the state since Reconstruction. His career ended in a bribery scandal that resulted in his conviction in November 2009.
William Jefferson was born in 1947 in Lake Providence, Louisiana. He was one of ten children in his family, one of the few black landowning families in an area inhabited mostly by black sharecroppers and white plantation owners. Jefferson earned a BA degree from Southern University A & M College in 1969, and then earned a JD from Harvard Law School in 1972. From 1973 to 1975 he was a legislative assistant to Louisiana Senator J. Bennett Johnston.
In 1978, Jefferson ran for a seat representing New Orleans’ Uptown section in the Louisiana State Senate, defeating a white incumbent candidate. He remained in the State Senate for twelve years, although twice he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New Orleans. In 1990 Jefferson ran for and won the hotly-contested congressional seat of retiring Representative Corinne (Lindy) Boggs.
Jefferson’s first five years in the U.S. House of Representatives were without controversy. He earned a spot as a senior member on the influential Ways and Means Committee and became a vocal advocate of U.S. trade with Brazil and Africa. In the summer of 2005, however, an FBI investigation of Jefferson was launched to determine if Jefferson had used his political connections for the financial benefit of his wife and daughters. In May 2006, FBI agents executed a search warrant at Jefferson’s office in the Rayburn House Office Building, the first FBI raid of a congressional office. While not supporting Jefferson, a number of congressmen including Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert were outspoken in their criticism of the raid.
On June 4, 2007, a federal grand jury indicted William Jefferson on sixteen counts of corruption for racketeering and money laundering involving business ventures in Africa. The following year, he was defeated by Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao in a reelection bid. Tried by the Commonwealth of Virginia on corruption charges, he was found guilty of 11 of the 16 charges levied against him in August 2009. On November 13, 2009, Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison. This is believed to be the longest sentence ever given to a former member of congress. Jefferson’s attorneys are appealing the verdict.