When Congressman Bill Jefferson earned the moniker "Dollar Bill" back in the 1980s, most folks figured his reputation for avarice was a deeply personal and most unfortunate character flaw, one probably rooted in his years of abject poverty as a youth. Now, according to the feds, greed appears to be a Jefferson family value. The joke going around the Seventh Ward last week, after Jefferson's brother, sister and niece were indicted on 31 counts of fraud, money laundering and conspiracy for allegedly bilking government-fed nonprofits that they controlled, was that "Dollar Bill" was no longer the appropriate nickname. Now it should be "Family Dollar."
The congressman was not named in the 47-page indictment, but several unnamed Jefferson family members were referenced in connection with various alleged schemes to skim hundreds of thousands of dollars from social programs intended to benefit disadvantaged African-American youth in Central City, the Jeffersons' political base.
That's the ultimate irony and tragedy of the latest charges. The government programs and nonprofits that Assessor Betty Jefferson, brother Mose Jefferson and Angela Coleman (daughter of the assessor), along with various unnamed Jefferson family members, are accused of fleecing were supposedly designed to relieve the kind of stifling poverty that the elder Jefferson siblings escaped a generation ago. Instead of lending a hand to those who now stand where they once walked, the Jeffersons stand accused of using the plight of their own people to enrich themselves in a raw, nakedly cynical fashion.
When Dollar Bill was indicted last summer, I likened him to Tony Soprano. After seeing the subsequent indictments of his siblings and niece, I have to confess I underestimated him. America hasn't seen a crime family this well run since the Corleones. Only this one, according to the feds, is true-to-life.
If the government charges are true, Mose and Betty Jefferson, along with Coleman, effectively looted the nonprofits by writing phony paychecks to "straw payees" persons who supposedly worked for the organizations but who were in fact used as conduits in order to funnel cash back to the three Jefferson kin. The feds claim the scheme was in place for more than a decade, dating to a time before Betty Jefferson became the Central City and Irish Channel assessor.
Money for the nonprofits came mostly from the state, thanks to well-placed family members and allies in the state Legislature, which annually appropriated "slush funds" to be spent at lawmakers' discretion with little or no oversight. Over time, one can only imagine how easy it must have seemed to pull off the alleged scam. Trouble is, once the feds started looking at specific checks and deposits, the paper trail became so bright that it glowed in the dark.
There's no such thing as an airtight case, but this one comes awfully close.
Two political lessons emanate from this latest twist in the Jefferson saga: one relates to the continued downward spiral of the Jefferson machine and the other underscores criticisms of legislative slush funds (now called NGOs, or nongovernmental organizations).
Considering the depth and breadth of the pending federal charges against Bill Jefferson, the two indictments against his brother Mose (Bill's on-the-ground muscle and consigliere), and the allegations against his sister Betty (whose office is a power base unto itself), it's safe to say that the feds are driving a stake through the heart of the Jefferson political machine. How ironic that Bill Jefferson's downfall coincides with the rise of the first African-American presidential nominee.
Two years ago, I warned against underestimating Dollar Bill's chances of winning re-election. That warning still stands, but it's clear his days in politics are numbered. Mose Jefferson is scheduled to stand trial for public bribery in October right in the middle of his brother's re-election campaign.
As for NGOs, veteran legislative critic C. B. Forgotston summed it up best, noting that while state prosecutors have long turned a blind eye to legislative abuses, the feds have found fertile ground for bringing public corruption cases. "These slush funds/NGOs provide an opportunity akin to hunting over a baited field," Forgotston says.
Something tells me the hunt is far from over.