ALEXANDRIA, Va. >> A former congressman convicted nearly a decade ago on bribery charges had his sentence reduced Friday to time served, knocking nearly eight years off a prison term in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling make it tougher to convict public officials of bribery.
The resentencing ended a 12-year legal saga for William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, whose case made headlines in 2005 after he was caught with $90,000 stashed in his freezer.
Jefferson walked out of an Alexandria courtroom a free man Friday, now facing only a year of post-release supervision after serving five years and five months of his original 13-year-prison sentence.
“I’m going to go back home and get a Christmas dinner,” a smiling Jefferson told reporters after Friday’s hearing.
Jefferson, 70, was convicted on 10 bribery-related counts in a 2009 trial. In October, though, the judge who sent him away ordered him freed. He said that a 2016 ruling by the Supreme Court overturning the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on corruption charges changed the law as to what constitutes an “official act” for which a public official can be charged with bribery.
The judge, T.S. Ellis III, tossed out seven of ten counts of conviction against Jefferson, and said Jefferson was entitled to a new sentencing hearing on the three counts that held up.
The new landscape prompted prosecutors and Jefferson’s lawyers to negotiate, and this week they jointly proposed a universal settlement in which Jefferson’s sentence would be reduced to time served plus a $189,000 fine, which amounts to what has already been collected on a $470,000 judgment entered at the time of his conviction.
At Friday’s hearing, Ellis had the option to impose a stiffer sentence, but said the negotiated deal represented a reasonable conclusion to the case.
Ellis emphasized, though, that he viewed Jefferson’s conduct as worse than what occurred in the McDonnell case. He added that Jefferson was still guilty of crime even under the stricter standard dictated by the Supreme Court.
“Public corruption is a cancer,” he said. “It needs to be prosecuted and punished.”
Jefferson did not address the court during the hearing but told reporters afterward he was grateful to his lawyers, family and friends for their support and that he wants to be active in the community. He exchanged hugs with family members and friends who congratulated him on his freedom.
Asked if he was angry to have served five years in prison only to have the law on which he was convicted change, he said, “I don’t have time to be angry with anything.”
Asked if he feels he did anything wrong, he declined to comment.
Jefferson was convicted of accepting more than $400,000 in bribes and seeking millions more in exchange for brokering business deals in Africa. The 2005 raid of his Washington home that turned up cash stuffed in frozen food boxes made him fodder for late-night comedians.
At his trial, Jefferson argued that he was acting as a private business consultant in brokering the deals and that his actions did not constitute bribery under federal law.
The $90,000 cash was actually part of a government sting initiated after a one-time business associate of Jefferson approached the FBI after she felt she was getting scammed.
While Jefferson was convicted in 2009, he did not begin serving his sentence until 2012. Ellis took the unusual step of allowing Jefferson to remain free because he felt the issues Jefferson was pursuing on appeal — which included the definition of an official act under the bribery law — were significant enough to merit consideration.
But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Jefferson’s claims, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up his case. It was only after the McDonnell case in 2016 that the Supreme Court articulated a new, stricter standard for what constitutes and official act that gave Jefferson the new opportunity to appeal his case.