Power Trips

Published — September 6, 2006 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

A gateway to Brazil

Telecom firm linked to Jefferson bribe probe helped pay for his, others’ travel

Introduction

In February 2004, Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., went to several African countries to help set up deals for a telecommunications company whose top executive later pleaded guilty to bribing him. In April of that year, the congressman led a delegation that included several U.S. lawmakers on a weeklong tour of Brazilian cities sponsored in part by the same firm.

The FBI, which has launched an investigation of Jefferson for allegedly accepting more than $400,000 in payments from Vernon Jackson, chief executive officer of Louisville, Ky.-based iGate Inc., has yet to publicly comment on the Brazil trip.

“It [iGate] was introduced to us as a small black-owned telecom company who wanted to do business in Brazil,” said Mark Smith, executive vice president of the Brazil-U.S. Business Council, a trade group of Brazil’s largest American investors that organized the trip. Smith also said Jackson went on the trip.

The trip appears to have been “a marketing opportunity for Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Jackson,” said Naomi Seligman Steiner, the deputy director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a watchdog group. “None of these gentlemen seem to have a moral compass, and this trip makes it all the more clear.”

Since 2004, Jackson and iGate have been linked to three trips to Africa, including visits to Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana, during which Jefferson — and sometimes Jackson — would promote the telecom company to foreign government officials, according to court records.

Travel disclosure records reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity show that 12 people — seven members of Congress, two of their relatives and three staff members — went on the trip to Brazil, collectively spending more than $70,000.

Six of the 10 disclosure forms filed listed only one sponsor: The Brazil-U.S. Business Council. The other four listed a number of sponsors, including iGate, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Odebrecht, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the Port of New Orleans.

Disclosure forms filed by the travelers describe the trip as a “fact-finding mission” designed to engender business opportunities in Brazil for African-American-owned U.S. companies.

All the lawmakers who attended are members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The group has been supportive of Jefferson during his recent troubles, including his removal from the House Ways and Means Committee after the bribery allegations.

Jefferson’s attorney, Robert Trout, as well as his spokeswoman, Judy Smith, declined to comment for this story. In media reports, the Louisiana congressman has denied the government’s allegations.

Why Brazil?

According to its Web site, iGate has business spanning the globe, including in Latin America. It is unclear what benefit, if any, the telecom firm expected to derive from the weeklong trip to Brazil in April 2004.

Jackson’s attorney, Michael Nachmanoff, declined to comment for this story.

Del. Donna Christensen of the Virgin Islands, a Democratic legislator who took the trip, said she does not remember meeting Jackson or hearing any mention of iGate in Brazil.

“The name Jackson did not ring a bell when I saw it [in news reports]. The name of the company, iGate, did not ring a bell when I saw it,” Christensen told the Center.

Jefferson, however, was in a position to exert influence in South America as co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Brazil. Prior to this trip, he led a group that included Louisiana business executives to Brazil in August 2002 and has helped organize a conference in New Orleans for Brazilian companies, according to a press release from his office.

Staffers from Jefferson’s office traveled to Brazil at least four times from 2000 through mid-2005, disclosure forms show, spending more than $20,000. The listed sponsors of the trips were either the Brazil-U.S. Business Council or the Brazil Information Center.

But the forms don’t clearly state who paid for the 2004 trip.

Three lawmakers and one aide listed “iGate Technologies,” along with several other companies, as trip sponsors. The other four lawmakers — including Jefferson and Christensen — and two staffers described the Brazil-U.S. Business Council as the lone funder.

The council, a trade organization composed of U.S. companies that invest in Brazil, has been a frequent sponsor of congressional travel, spending more than $150,000 on at least 25 trips during the 5½-year period ending in June 2005.

“The Brazil Council is financed by private companies, some of whom contribute funds to make posible [sic] congressional exchanges like this trip,” Smith wrote in an e-mail to the Center. Jackson’s iGate was among the companies that paid for the trip to Brazil, Smith indicated.

Sources intimately familiar with the trip or the FBI’s investigation confirm that “iGate Technologies” is the same iGate Inc. linked to the investigation of Jefferson.

Christensen said she didn’t think to look beyond the Brazil-U.S. Business Council to see who was actually funding the trip. “Maybe I should check, but until now I don’t think people normally check[ed],” she said.

Seligman Steiner, of CREW, said, “The question is, why were some members disclosing it and others were not?”

An archived page, captured by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, from the Brazil-U.S. Business Council’s Web site that details the Brazil trip — complete with photographs of Jefferson and others — said the trip was “organized” by the council and “made possible through the corporate sponsorship” of iGate and others.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, described the trip in similar terms in a biography previously posted on her U.S. House of Representatives Web site. None of the forms filed for the trip detail how much each sponsor paid. Nor do they say much about what happened on the trip.

“The question is, why were some members disclosing it and others were not?”
— Naomi Seligman Steiner, CREW

Jackson Lee’s and the Brazil-U.S. Business Council’s Web sites, however, provide a breakdown of events, including meetings with some of the trip sponsors:

  • While in Rio de Janeiro, lawmakers discussed “access to medicine issues” with executives for drug manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, as well as a “broader commercial relationship” with members of the city’s American Chamber of Commerce.
  • The delegation met in Salvador with executives from Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company, and another sponsor to talk over their many projects in the United States “and their efforts to stimulate minority business involvement through subcontracting.”
  • The representatives discussed civil rights issues and strengthened “the dialogue between the political leadership of the African origin communities of both countries” while meeting the Brazilian legislature’s Black Caucus in Brasilia.
  • In Salvador, the delegation also stopped by Grupo Bagunçaço, a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development that educates the region’s impoverished children.

Jackson Lee did not respond to questions about iGate, but the congresswoman did e-mail a statement to the Center, saying that she “met with government officials, cabinet members and other civic leaders on improving the conditions for Brazilians and Afro-Brazilians.”

In a faxed statement to the Center, Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick, D-Mich., another trip attendee, said the trip “was organized by the Brazil-U.S. Business Council” and any questions “regarding sponsors or other trip details should be directed” to the council. Kilpatrick disclosed the list of companies, including iGate, as paying for the trip.

Offices for the three other members of Congress — Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. — did not respond to questions about the trip.

In his column in the May 2004 Congressional Black Caucus newsletter, Jefferson wrote that the trip’s goal “was to build a bridge between the [caucus] and Afro-Brazilians, over which new partnerships in the economic and political area could develop.”

Smith, of the Brazil-U.S. Business Council, said the purpose of the trip was “to introduce black-owned businesses to Brazil. We saw this as opportunity for people to bring constituents to Brazil.”

Legal problems persist

In his guilty plea on May 3, iGate CEO Jackson admitted paying Jefferson more than $400,000 since 2001 through a company maintained in the names of the congressman’s wife and children.

Jefferson, in turn, is alleged to have touted iGate’s services abroad — even allegedly attempting to bribe Nigeria’s vice president, Atiku Abubakar — to secure multimillion-dollar deals for the telecom company.

Abubakar has since denied allegations laid out in court records that describe meetings between the African politician and the Louisiana congressman. Jefferson is still under investigation by federal authorities.

Brent Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide, has pleaded guilty for his role in the scandal and has been sentenced to eight years in prison. Jackson’s sentencing is slated for Sept. 8.

The FBI investigation stalled when records seized from Jefferson’s office on Capitol Hill in late May were sealed by President Bush for 45 days. Leaders from both political parties had complained that the search was an abuse of power by the executive branch.

The raid has since been deemed constitutional by U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan, but Jefferson’s lawyers have delayed the investigation further. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the congressman can review materials seized from his office to appeal Hogan’s decision, barring their access to Justice Department lawyers for the time being.

The FBI has signaled that its investigation could go beyond Jefferson’s iGate-related activities in Africa. Court records state that the bureau is studying “at least seven other schemes in which Jefferson sought things of value in return for his official acts.” In the news release announcing Jackson’s guilty plea, Justice Department officials wrote that Jackson had agreed to cooperate “in an ongoing probe of public corruption related to telecommunications deals in Africa and elsewhere.”

Among the many things the bureau wanted from Jefferson’s office were “travel records and vouchers, as well as communications related to travel by a congressman, and copies of travel disclosure forms required to be filed with the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives,” according to the search warrant.

Back to top

Same Trip, Different Sponsors

Twelve people — seven members of Congress, two of their relatives, and three staff members — traveled to Brazil in April 2004. Of the 10 disclosure forms filed, six describe the Brazil-U.S. Business Council as the trip’s lone sponsor while the other four list a range of companies, including iGate, as the trip’s sponsors.
Traveler As Listed Companion As Listed Original Sponsor Or Co-Sponsors As Listed Dates of Travel Member Approving Trip
Cong. Eddie Bernice Johnson Brazil-US Business Council April 11 to April 18, 2004 Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas
Dana Thompson iGates Technologies; Pharma; Citigroup; Port of New Orleans; General Motors; Coca Cola; GlaxoSmithKlein April 11 to April 18, 2004 Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas
Donna M. Christensen Christian Christensen US Brazil Business Council April 11 to April 17, 2004 Del. Donna M. Christian-Christensen, D-V.I.
Gregory W. Meeks Brazil-US Business Council April 11 to April 18, 2004 Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y.
Hon. William J. Jefferson US Brazil Business Council April 11 to April 18, 2004 Rep. William J. Jefferson, D-La
Melvin Spence US Brazil Business Council April 11 to April 18, 2004 Rep. William J. Jefferson, D-La
Mischa Thompson* Brazil-US Business Council April 11 to April 20, 2004 Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y.
Rep. Carolyn C. Kilpatrick Ayanna Kilpatrick iGates Technologies, Pharma, Citigroup, Port of New Orleans, General Motors, Coca Cola, GlaxoSmithKlein April 11 to April 17, 2004 Rep. Carolyn C. Kilpatrick, D-Mich.
Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay Citigroup; PhRMA; General Motors; GlaxoSmithKline; Port of New Orleans; iGate Technologies; Odebrecht; Coca-Cola; Congressional Black Caucus Foundation April 11 to April 17, 2004 Rep. William L. Clay Jr., D-Mont.
Sheila Jackson Lee iGates Technologies; Pharma; Citigroup; Port of New Orleans; General Motors; Coca Cola; GlaxoSmithKlein April 11 to April 16, 2004 Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas
* In her originally filed travel disclosure form, Mischa Thompson listed dollar amounts paid for her travel, but not in her amended form.

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