In the original Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker are in search of a freighter pilot to get off the planet. They travel to Mos Eisley spaceport. Kenobi knows that the best pilots carouse in the town’s cantinas and taverns.
But before they go into Mos Eisley, Kenobi counsels young Skywalker to watch his step.
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” Kenobi warns.
Perhaps it’s little wonder then that the American public doesn’t hold the same contempt for Capitol Hill as Kenobi has for Mos Eisley.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III threw the book at former Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) late Friday afternoon. A federal jury convicted Jefferson in August of accepting nearly $500,000 in bribes and attempting to extort more to help broker business deals in Africa. And at federal court in Alexandria, VA, Ellis handed Jefferson the longest sentence ever meted out to a current or former Member of Congress: 13 years behind bars.
“Public corruption is a cancer on the body politic,” Ellis lectured Jefferson from the bench as the former Congressman stood before him. “Public corruption is a cancer that needs to be surgically removed.”
Over the past few years, a host of federal judges have “surgically removed” other former lawmakers convicted of corruption.
Former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) got eight years for taking bribes. A judge sentenced former Rep. Jim Traficant (D-OH) to seven years for bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. And a federal judge gave former Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) a two-and-a-half year sentence for conspiracy and filing false financial disclosure forms in connection with the Jack Abramoff case. The government released Ney after 17 months in jail.
But the public’s taken note of more than just lawmakers who served time.
There’s the conviction and exoneration of former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK). Federal probes involving Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), Don Young (R-AK) and former Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA). The unresolved indictment on a state charge of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX). Potential ethical lapses involving Sens. John Ensign (R-NV) and David Vitter (R-LA). And Ethics Committee inquiries into the conduct of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY), Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Laura Richardson (D-CA).
With Jefferson’s fate in his hands, Ellis seemed noticeably disturbed at the “hive of scum and villainy” that sometimes doubles as Capitol Hill.
“All of the cases are sad with all of these Congressmen. I recall being particularly stung by Cunningham’s conviction,” Ellis opined.
Ellis and Cunningham were both naval aviators. Ellis said they even flew the same aircraft and noted that Cunningham “distinguished himself more that I did” as a pilot, becoming a Vietnam War flying ace.
Ellis lamented the scourge of corruption and allegations of wrongdoing that has settled in the halls of Congress.
“There must be some sort of a greed virus that attacks those in power,” Ellis said. “No one is immune from that greed.”
To prosecutors, the Jefferson case was special. The government asked Ellis to lock up the 62-year-old Jefferson for 27 to 33 years.
“His activity represented the most extensive and persuasive pattern of corruption in the history of Congress,” said prosecutor Mark Lytle. “The government found he conducted his Congressional office like a criminal enterprise.”
Jefferson’s defense attorney Robert Trout told the court that his client expected a “stern” sentence. He fretted that if the government succeeded in trumping Cunningham’s sentence, Jefferson’s decree would be “the longest sentence ever imposed on a Member of Congress. And the Department of Justice would tout it as such.”
Jefferson was born in poor, rural Louisiana. But he made it to Harvard Law School. And Trout appealed to Ellis to consider this.
“From his starting point, what he has accomplished is nothing short of extraordinary, considering the starting point,” Trout told Ellis.
But Ellis was having none of it.
“It’s clear you’ve lived an extraordinary life. It makes this event all the sadder for me,” Ellis told Jefferson. “You are a person of gifts. These gifts have been squandered.”
Jefferson’s case came to light when the feds unearthed more than $90,000 in his freezer during a 2006 raid on his New Orleans home. The cash was stowed in boxes of Pillsbury pie crust and Boca Burgers.
The government nailed Jefferson on 11 of 16 counts. And at the sentencing, Trout argued that his client “was acquitted of the offense that got all of the national attention and was the source of late-night jokes."
The FBI’s investigation of Jefferson even ignited a minor Constitutional crisis. On Memorial Day weekend, 2006, the feds secured a warrant and searched Jefferson’s Congressional office in the Rayburn House Office Building. Never before had one branch of the government raided the offices of another. Then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) demanded that the FBI return documents seized in the raid. Hastert argued the search broached a firewall separating the branches of government. Former House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) even called a hearing on the matter.
But all of that made little difference Friday. Jefferson was a convicted felon. And Ellis was poised to deliver the former Congressman’s punishment.
Before the hearing started, Jacques Chevalier, formerly of Natchitoches, LA, stood outside the courthouse to wish Jefferson well.
“I think this is a black man being discredited because he’s black,” Chevalier said. He worried about the length of Jefferson’s sentence compared to other politicians.
“They get off with a pat on the gluteus maximus,” Chevalier protested.
Neither Jefferson nor Trout spoke to the press before or after the hearing. But Jefferson’s pastor, Bishop Paul Morton did talk to reporters after arriving at the courthouse in a chaffeurerd Lincoln Town Car. Morton is the head of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship which often holds large services in the Louisiana Superdome.
“I just told (Jefferson) that right overpowers might,” Morton said before entering the courthouse. In the courtroom, Morton took a seat next to Jefferson’s five adult daughters and wife Andrea.
Shortly before handing down his sentence, Judge Ellis declared a short recess. Reporters and court officials milled about. Jefferson went out into the hallway to confer with one of his daughters. And about halfway through the recess, Morton donned his coat and met Jefferson by the elevators. They spoke for a moment. And then Morton left without shaking Jefferson’s hand. Well before Ellis imposed the former Congressman’s sentence.
The conviction remains on appeal, But if you’re Jefferson, perhaps you know it’s bad when even your pastor slips out early.
But with the Congressman facing 13 years behind bars, perhaps there will be enough time for ministerial visits in prison.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.
- The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway located just behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.