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Before the Search: The Rise of Rep. William Jefferson

Rep. William Jefferson, pictured at a May 22 news conference on Capitol Hill.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Rep. William Jefferson, pictured at a May 22 news conference on Capitol Hill.

If you live outside of Louisiana, you'd probably never heard of Congressman William Jefferson until a few weeks ago. Since then, though, he's been hard to miss. The FBI alleges that the Louisiana Democrat took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes -- even hiding some of the cash in his freezer.

The subsequent search of Jefferson's congressional office has touched off another controversy, over the Constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.

It's a sad turn of events for the many people who watched Jefferson rise from humble beginnings in the tiny northeast Louisiana town of Lake Providence.

Disciplined Upbringing

One of 10 kids, Jefferson grew up picking cotton on his family's small farm. His parents, Mose and Angeline Jefferson, were big on two things: discipline and hard work.

"They was pretty strict on all of them, they was pretty strict," recalls James Brown, who lives in Jefferson's boyhood neighborhood "If they said, 'Do it,' they was going to do it. And when work time came, them children worked."

The Jefferson children had one advantage many of the other kids in Lake Providence didn't: They were allowed to go to school, even during the cotton harvest. Elizabeth Branum Trass was Jefferson's high-school math teacher.

"He was a good student," Trass says. "He had no behavior problems, and he was just kind of an all-around boy."

'The Pride of Lake Providence'

It was in high school that Jefferson first showed an interested in politics. He ran for class president, but he was one of the few boys in his class, and he lost to a girl. Apparently undaunted, he sailed through high school, attending Southern University and then Harvard Law School.

Jefferson became, as Branum-Trass puts it,"the pride of Lake Providence." Which is why, she says, it's been so hard for her and others to hear the bribery allegations being leveled against him.

"I really did not want to read and hear all of it," she says, "because when you have respect for a person, and you've never heard anything negative about them, you just don't know how to accept it."

After Harvard, Jefferson returned to Louisiana. He got married, started a family and founded a law firm. In 1979 he won a seat in the state Senate. But he was always drawn to New Orleans: He ran for mayor twice, losing both times.

One of his opponents, former New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, recalls Jefferson as a serious, driven politician. "Oh, I was impressed with him," Barthelemy says.

Ethical Scrapes on the Way Up

As a state senator, and an increasingly powerful lawyer, Jefferson was seen as one to watch. At the same time, though, critics were starting to whisper about him: They accused Jefferson of using his political position to funnel work towards his law firm. They talked about questionable real-estate deals and tax problems. And they christened him with a nickname -- "Dollar Bill Jefferson."

Ed Renwick directs the Institute for the Study of Politics at Loyola University in New Orleans. He says that, taken individually, none of the ethical scrapes William Jefferson got into seemed to amount to much. In 1990 Jefferson was elected to Congress. And if there were any nagging ethical questions, he seemed to leave them in his dust as he headed to Washington.

Renwick says in subsequent years, it has helped that Jefferson never faced a real re-election challenge.

"If we had a place where each time the race came up it was contested, well, then, people would be much more aware of these things," Renwick says. "But how long has it been since Jefferson has had an opponent for Congress?"

Making a Name on the Hill

Sixteen years, to be exact. During that time on Hill, Jefferson has made a name for himself. He has headed the Congressional Black Caucus. He sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He appeared to have it all together until just a few weeks ago, when the FBI released an 83-count affidavit accusing him of bribery.

According to the FBI, Jefferson took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, with some of the cash ending up in the freezer of his Washington, D.C., apartment. Longtime critics back in New Orleans say it's just "Dollar Bill."

Jefferson hasn't yet been charged in the matter. But as a man whose life has embodied the American Dream, lately he has been embracing another ideal dear to the heart of Americans -- that of being innocent until proven guilty.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Luke Burbank
Luke Burbank is kind of amazed that NPR is letting him co-host its new morning show, The Bryant Park Project, NPR's new morning news show launched on October 1, 2007.
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