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Congressman charged with taking bribes around the world

Story Highlights

• William Jefferson faces 16 charges of bribery, obstruction, racketeering
• Louisiana Democrat's schemes reached across Atlantic, prosecutors say
• Investigators found $90,000 in Jefferson's home freezer
• Search of Capitol Hill office prompted constitutional questions
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Nearly two years after federal agents reported finding $90,000 in a freezer in his Washington home, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson has been charged with a global campaign to solicit bribes, obstruct justice and engage in racketeering, Justice Department officials said Monday.

The veteran Louisiana Democrat faces 16 criminal counts, said Alice Fisher, assistant U.S. attorney general in the criminal division.

"This case is about greed, power and arrogance," said Joe Persichini, director of the FBI's Washington field office, which led the investigation.

In addition to the racketeering and solicitation charges, Jefferson has been charged with money laundering, wire fraud, conspiracy and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. (Map: Locations and details of Jefferson's charges)

"Congressman Jefferson is innocent. He plans to fight this indictment and clear his name," said Jefferson's attorney, Robert Trout. He said the "creative" indictment does not say Jefferson promised anyone legislative favors.

Jefferson is the first U.S. official ever charged under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, which prohibits corporate bribery.

The charges are based on 11 schemes in which Jefferson allegedly solicited bribes for himself and his family from government and business officials in the United States, Nigeria, Botswana, Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tome e Principe, U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said at an afternoon news conference. (Watch prosecutors describe the alleged schemes Video)

"Mr. Jefferson corruptly traded on his good office and on the Congress where he served ... to enrich himself and his family through a pervasive pattern of fraud, bribery, and corruption that spanned many years and two continents," Rosenberg said.

Jefferson sought millions of dollars in cash and company stock and received "somewhat less than $400,000," Rosenberg said.

Jefferson has denied wrongdoing, and won a ninth congressional term in a December runoff despite the allegations. But the probe already has led to guilty pleas by a Kentucky businessman and a former aide to the congressman.

Jefferson's homes in Washington and New Orleans were raided in August 2005. The following May, investigators raided his Capitol Hill office, sparking a furor among congressional leaders who argued the search violated the Constitution's separation of powers.

Rosenberg said some documents seized in that search support the case. Fisher called the search "necessary, appropriate and constitutional."

In court papers defending the 2006 search, investigators disclosed that they had found $90,000 in cash in the freezer of Jefferson's Washington home -- part of a $100,000 payment delivered by an informant in the bribery probe, according to federal agents.

Jefferson will be arraigned and have the opportunity to enter a plea in federal court in Washington at 9 a.m. Friday, Rosenberg said. Conviction on all charges could bring a total of 235 years in prison.

"There will be no plea bargain," Trout said.

Fisher and Rosenberg denied that Monday's announcement was in any way affected by recent controversy surrounding the Justice Department and the firings of federal prosecutors.

"Frankly, we don't give a damn about politics," Rosenberg said. "... We believe he broke the law. That's why we brought the charges. Period."

The allegations against Jefferson emerged in the heat of the 2006 congressional election season, when Democrats were castigating House Republicans for tolerating what they called a "culture of corruption." After the raid on Jefferson's office, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi pushed Jefferson out of his seat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

But in February, Pelosi -- now speaker of the House -- agreed to place Jefferson on the Homeland Security Committee. The move drew criticism from Republicans, who accused Pelosi of backing away from promises to clean up Congress.

Pelosi said the assignment was appropriate, given the committee's jurisdiction over matters related to Hurricane Katrina. The 2005 storm devastated Jefferson's district.

CNN's Kevin Bohn and Kelli Arena contributed to this report.



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