Bill Jefferson uttered his own epitaph as FBI agents raided his homes in New Orleans and Washington on Aug. 3, 2005. He slumped onto a sofa after agents handed him a warrant that turned up the infamous $90,000 in marked bills in his freezer and sighed, "What a waste."
Indeed. What a waste of talent and opportunity.
I have known Bill Jefferson since his first days in Louisiana politics. In 1979, he burst onto the scene as a rising star by winning a state Senate seat. He ran as the pro-business candidate in the traditionally labor-friendly Irish Channel, and he quickly established himself as a master of collegial politics in the Senate.
It didn't take him long to turn against his early political sponsors in the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), which, in retrospect, should have come as no surprise. His majority-black district was never going to be a LABI stronghold. What was surprising to a lot of folks who supported "Jeff" in those days, however, was how quickly his venal instincts came to the fore.
In 1977, Jefferson was part of a legal team that helped then-mayoral candidate Dutch Morial challenge a state law that forces judges to resign when they run for nonjudicial offices. Morial was a state appellate judge at the time. After Morial won the election, he helped Jefferson's law firm get lucrative work from the Orleans Parish School Board.
Despite that favor, Jefferson kept dunning Morial for a legal fee from Morial's failed legal challenge. As a young political reporter for The Times-Picayune, I was sent to City Hall to ask Morial about the dispute, which was about to become public.
Morial was furious. An intense and keenly perceptive man (he served in the counter-intelligence division of the U.S. Army), Morial had a great knack for sizing up people very quickly — and nailing them square in the chest with a thumbnail assessment. Over the years, I saw him do it many times. This time, he nailed Jefferson.
"That man worships the almighty dollar," Morial said, noting that all the attorneys in the case, including Jefferson, understood from the get-go that the work would be done pro bono. Then Morial held up his arms and squared his fingers, as if framing an imaginary object, and repeated himself: "He worships the almighty dollar. They should call him 'Dollar Bill.'"
From that moment on, they did. But while Morial gets credit for tagging Jefferson with that moniker, it's the fallen congressman who earned it and made it stick.
As jurors in northern Virginia returned a verdict of guilty on 11 of 16 counts against Jefferson last Wednesday, I recalled how the politician earned the name Dollar Bill. America knows Bill Jefferson as the guy with $90K in his freezer. The jurors got to know him better.
They acquitted him of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act — the charge most directly linked to the cold cash — but they nailed him for a series of crimes that more closely reflect his nickname ... and his legacy: conspiracy, bribery, corruption and racketeering.
Bill Jefferson came from nothing, a childhood in the oppressive poverty of Lake Providence, La., the poorest parish/county in America. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps and earned a Harvard law degree, won election to the state Senate and became Louisiana's first black congressman since Reconstruction.
But apparently no amount of cash could wash away the bitter taste of poverty he carried with him.
What a waste, indeed.