Kentucky businessman cops plea for bribing congressman

A technology executive pleaded guilty Wednesday to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to a congressman in charges stemming from an investigation of Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat.

Vernon Jackson, 53, chief executive of the Louisville, Ky.-based telecommunications firm iGate Inc., admitted to bribery of a public official and conspiracy to bribe a public official during a plea hearing in U.S. District Court.

Court records make clear that the congressman whom Jackson admits bribing is Jefferson, who represents New Orleans in the House. The documents refer only to “Representative A.”

The congressman has not been charged. He denies any wrongdoing and his office has said he is cooperating with investigators.

In a statement, Jefferson said: “I was surprised and disappointed to learn of Vernon Jackson’s guilty plea and of his characterization of our relationship. As I have previously stated, I have never over all the years of my public service accepted payment from anyone for the performance of any act or duty for which I have been elected.”

Jackson faces a maximum of 20 years when he is sentenced July 27. The plea agreement calls for a sentencing guideline range not to exceed seven to nine years in prison, but the judge is not bound by that.

Prosecutor Mark Lytle said Jackson paid $367,500 in checks and wire transfers over a four-year period to a company controlled by the congressman’s wife in exchange for help promoting iGate technology in Africa. Jackson also gave the company a 24 percent stake in iGate and paid for $80,000 in travel expenses on the congressman’s trips to Africa to promote iGate, which uses technology to transmit data over traditional telephone lines.

The total value of the bribes is between $400,000 and $1 million, according to court records.

Jackson said in court that he was introduced in 2000 to the congressman, who agreed to help iGate receive a government certification making it eligible to obtain federal contracts. The congressman’s assistance helped iGate receive a contract at Fort Stewart, Ga.

In early 2001, the congressman told Jackson he would have to make regular payments if he wanted further business assistance, according to Jackson, court documents and Lytle. Jackson agreed, and as a result the congressman agreed to use his office to assist iGate’s business efforts in Africa.

In 2003, when Jefferson was on official business in Nigeria, he promoted iGate to a Nigerian company called Netlink Digital Television (NDTV), which was seeking to deploy Internet technology throughout Africa. NDTV agreed to a $45 million deal with iGate, and iGate eventually received a total of $6.5 million from NDTV, court documents indicate.

When the NDTV deal came through, Jefferson increased his demands, requiring a 35 percent share of iGate’s African profits, up from 5 percent in the initial deal, according to Lytle and court documents.

The congressman continued to promote iGate in 2004, meeting with the Nigerian president and vice president, among others, to promote the company, Lytle said.

The congressman also traveled to Cameroon and Ghana in 2004 and 2005 to meet with government and business officials to promote iGate, documents indicate.

Jackson declined comment after the hearing, but told U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III that “I take full responsibility for what I have done.”

Jackson is the second person to plead guilty in connection with the investigation of Jefferson.

Brett Pfeffer, a former legislative director for Jefferson, pleaded guilty in January to aiding and abetting bribery of a public official and conspiracy.

Pfeffer said that a congressman demanded bribes in exchange for his assistance in brokering two African telecommunications deals. Court documents make clear that Jefferson is the accused congressman, without naming him.

Jefferson denied the allegation, saying he has never demanded or accepted anything to perform a service for which he was elected.

Prosecutors said their investigation is ongoing.

“Public corruption significantly undermines confidence in our government institutions,” U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said in a statement. “Those that pay bribes in return for favorable treatment, and public officials who corruptly trade on their office and line their own pockets do so at great risk, because we will pursue these cases relentlessly.”

© 2006 The Associated Press