The art of the bribe

Rep. William Jefferson called the package he allegedly delivered at midnight to the suburban Maryland home of Nigeria’s vice president “African art.” Authorities say the “art” was meant to be cash — lots of it.

Court documents filed in the bribery probe of the Louisiana Democrat allege that Jefferson told an FBI informant he took the “art,” which authorities believe was code for $100,000 in $100 bills, to the Potomac home of Atiku Abubakar on July 31.

The money was allegedly part of $500,000 the Nigerian vice president sought in return for helping smooth the way for a technology venture in Nigeria that was arranged by Jefferson. Abubakar also reportedly wanted a large stake of the profits from the new business.

The day after he was to have delivered the money, provided by an FBI informant, Jefferson was recorded telling the informant: “I gave him the African art that you gave me and he was very pleased.”

The conversation and details of the alleged deal were included in an affidavit filed in August in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt to secure a warrant to search Abubakar’s house. The affidavit was unsealed Monday.

It is unclear whether any money was given to Abubakar, who is identified only as “the vice president of Nigeria” in the affidavit.

According to another search warrant affidavit for Jefferson’s congressional office, released last month in Washington, $90,000 in cash was found in a freezer at Jefferson’s Washington home. A briefcase similar to the one Jefferson is alleged to have used to carry the money was found in a later search of his New Orleans home, according to federal court documents filed there.

The 39-page affidavit released Monday in Maryland, some sections of which remain sealed, identifies the Potomac home as the residence of Jennifer Douglas, Abubakar’s wife. Although the search of the residence was mentioned in documents previously released by the courts, names and titles were blacked out to keep them secret.

A lawyer for Abubakar, who is running for president of Nigeria, said Abubakar is cooperating with authorities. Edward L. Weidenfeld said Abubakar’s relationship with Jefferson did not extend beyond standard diplomatic meetings.

“There is no relationship or any kind of arrangement of any sort between them,” Weidenfeld said.

In Nigeria, where Abubakar kicked off his campaign last week, his spokesman Mohammed Yakubu said they have yet to see details of the allegations. “We don’t have anything to say until we have seen these reports or allegations,” he said by telephone from Abuja.

Jefferson has strongly denied wrongdoing in the alleged scheme.

The informant was a northern Virginia businesswoman identified by law enforcement officials as Lori Mody. She is said to have gone to the FBI when she believed Jefferson and others were defrauding her on the business deal. Jefferson discussed with her the “payment of bribes to high-ranking foreign government officials,” including Abubakar, according to the affidavit.

Jefferson approached Abubakar, claiming he wanted to help an American firm invest $50 million to run Internet services over the wires of Nigerian telecom company Nitel. The venture was to include Mody, a Kentucky telecommunications company called iGate Inc., and the Nigerian firm Rosecom.Net.

The affidavit states Jefferson wanted a stake of 5 percent to 7 percent in the Nigerian venture for his five daughters and one of them, lawyer Jamila Jefferson, to be retained to help set it up.

The congressman met July 18 with Abubakar in Potomac and the vice president “agreed to help secure the necessary approvals” for iGate to begin work in Nigeria, Jefferson said. In return, Abubakar wanted at least 50 percent of the profits from Rosecom.Net and a payment of up to $500,000 before the deal was completed, the documents alleged.

Jefferson, who represents most of New Orleans, has served in Congress since 1990. The raid on his Capitol Hill office sparked outrage from congressional leaders who claimed the Bush administration was violating the separation of powers doctrine. President Bush later sealed FBI files on the raid for 45 days.

Former Jefferson aide Brett Pfeffer has pleaded guilty and was given an eight-year term for his role in the bribery scandal. He is cooperating with authorities. Vernon Jackson, chief executive of iGate, also pleaded guilty to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Jefferson.

© 2006 The Associated Press