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FBI probes La. state office tied to Rep. Jefferson

A Louisiana state office that once had oversight authority on a series of controversial charities tied to Rep. William Jefferson (D-La) is being investigated by the FBI.
Presidential Intervention: 'People are livid about this,' said a senior law-enforcement official
The FBI investigation of Rep. Bill Jefferson, D-La., has been extended to include the Louisiana office of Urban Affairs.Lauren Victoria Burke / AP / AP
/ Source: NBC News

A Louisiana state office that once had oversight authority on a series of controversial charities tied to Rep. William Jefferson (D-La) is being investigated by the FBI.

Jefferson, according to court documents, is also being investigated concerning allegations that he solicited and accepted bribes to help promote a cable television and Internet business in West Africa.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco's office confirmed the FBI probe of the state's Office of Urban Affairs, announcing that it had complied with a subpoena for records from the department. Marie Centanni, the Governor's press secretary tells NBC News, "The Governor's office staff has complied with the FBI's request for information dating back to 1996 regarding certain programs funded by the former Office of Urban Affairs."

Centanni said that last Thursday staff members in the Governor's office provided the documents requested by the FBI and outlined the general operation of the office. She said, "The Governor's office is continuing to cooperate in this matter."

Charitable ties
It's unclear what the FBI is looking for at the Louisiana state office. But according to the Times Picayune, earlier this year, James Bernazzani, the special agent in charge of the FBI's New Orleans field office, announced his intention to investigate two charities that were financed by the Office of Urban Affairs. Both of the groups - Care Unlimited and Orleans Metropolitan Housing & Community Development - have longtime ties to Rep. Jefferson.  Jefferson's brother, Mose Jefferson, runs Care Unlimited.

Earlier this year Gov. Blanco vetoed any additional state funding to the controversial charities that the FBI is now examining, according to the governor's office. The governor vetoed additional state fund for Care Unlimited, because a state auditor, "found significant deficiencies in the internal controls of the organization," according to state documents.

Historic Capitol Hill raid
In May, more than a dozen computer hard drives, several floppy discs and two boxes of documents were seized by the FBI during a weekend raid on Jefferson's Capitol Hill office. That raid on a congressman's office was the first in U.S. history.

The overnight search -- which lasted 18 hours -- was part of a more than one-year international bribery investigation of Jefferson, who allegedly accepted $100,000 from a telecommunications businessman, $90,000 of which was later recovered in a freezer in the congressman's Louisiana home.

Jefferson's attorney's have appealed to prevent investigators from examining the documents seized in the raid. Jefferson contends that many of the documents seized in the raid are protected under the Constitution's Speech or Debate clause which gives special protections to documents concerning legislation.

Last week a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia put off until at least next May a final decision on legal challenges to some documents taken from Jefferson's Capitol Hill office.

The appeals court said that the Justice Department can immediately start examining only those documents and computer files not challenged as being protected by Jefferson and his attorneys. The appeals court ordered that briefs in the case be filed between Feb. 28 and April 13, with oral arguments scheduled for sometime after the last brief is filed.

Pleas and accusations
The Justice Department investigation has so-far netted guilty pleas from two of Jefferson's former associates.

One of those pleading guilty, Vernon Jackson, the 54-year old CEO of iGate Inc., was sentenced in September to more than seven-years in prison after pleading guilty to funneling more than $400,000 to the ANJ Group, a company headed by Jefferson's wife and children. He said the payments were in exchange for Jefferson's help in trying to land him telecommunications deals in Africa.

Jefferson is still facing a tough runoff election to retain his House seat. On December 9, Jefferson, will face fellow Democrat Karen Carter after the pair finished first and second in the Nov. 7 all-party primary.

The congressman has not been charged and has insisted he has an explanation for all the allegations.  Jefferson has repeatedly predicted he will eventually be cleared of all wrongdoing.

Joel Seidman is an NBC producer based in Washington, DC.