Former US Ambassador to Nigeria Howard Jeter joined ERHC On The Move and many investors today in publicly discounting the possibility that ERHC Energy is tied to the bribery probe of Rep. William Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat whose offices were searched a day after those of the company in Houston in what now appear to be separate probes.
Jeter, an ERHC Energy director, spoke to New Orleans Times-Picayune Washington reporter Bill Walsh and Bruce Alpert, according to a story published on the newspaper's Website today.
ERHC is mentioned only in the last paragraph of the story, which for the first time identifies at least three of the seven firms that are suspected of involvement in Jefferson's bribery case, according to court records obtained by the newspaper.
Also mentioned is Noreen Wilson, a former ERHC Energy executive, who told the newspaper that although Jefferson may have spoken up for ERHC Energy in conversations with Sao Tome President Fradique de Menezes, the congressman asked for nothing in return.
Wilson and her family's $14,500 in campaign contributions to Jefferson have been a key element in suspicions that ERHC Energy might be involved in the probe, along with the unfortunate proximity of the two searches.
Wilson's husband also rented a home on Merritt Island, a posh community on Florida's Atlantic coast, to Jamilla Jefferson when the latter fled Hurricane Katrina. But Wilson has been deeply involved in other ventures, including the company known lately as GEEC, whose bankruptcy sparked a torrent of accusations and a Federal probe.
GEEC's registered agent is or was Phil Nugent, Jr., of New Orleans, according to news reports, and information about his father's role in the company has sometimes surfaced in connection with the Sao Tome Attorney General's probe of ERHC conducted by a well-connected for Democratic deputy assistant secretary of energy, R. Dobie Langenkamp. His father's Frontier Technology Corp. in Belair, Tex., was also mentioned in court filings in the ERHC case.
Here is the Times-Picayune story by Bill Walsh with Bruce Alpert:
Satellite radio firm provided records
Exec's loan to Jefferson in 2001 remains unpaid
Thursday, June 22, 2006
By Bill Walsh
WASHINGTON -- A Maryland-based global satellite radio company is the latest firm with foreign business interests to surface in the federal bribery investigation of Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans.
A spokeswoman for Worldspace Inc. said the company has provided documents to the Virginia grand jury that is investigating Jefferson and that CEO Noah Samara has turned over records and given testimony.
"Worldspace and Mr. Samara have cooperated fully with the Department of Justice's ongoing investigation of Congressman William Jefferson," the company said in a statement recently released.
The 15-month-long probe has focused on assistance Jefferson gave to iGate Inc., a small Kentucky company that began trying in 2001 to establish a foothold in the emerging telecommunications markets in West Africa. The FBI has said in court filings that Jefferson received bribes for his official assistance to iGate Inc. In an Aug. 3 search of Jefferson's Washington home, agents reported finding $90,000 in cash they say was meant to pay off Nigerian government officials.
Jefferson has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing. Two of Jefferson's associates have pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges in the case.
7 other business deals
Court documents say the investigation extends beyond iGate and includes references to seven other business deals, most unnamed, that are being reviewed by the Department of Justice.
Worldspace's name surfaced publicly last week when Jefferson reported on his annual House financial disclosure report that Samara had lent him between $50,001 and $100,000. Although the loan was just recently disclosed by Jefferson, Worldspace spokeswoman Judith Pryor said that it was actually was made in 2001 and had a three-year term. She said it was extended one year and remains unpaid.
In a written statement Wednesday, Jefferson said that he didn't know until recently that personal loans had to be reported to the House.
"The omission was purely one of error as I was not previously aware that private loans needed to be disclosed," Jefferson said. "I am in the process of amending past disclosures to correct the mistake."
Lawmakers frequently amend their annual financial disclosure forms, sometimes years after they have been filed, without any fine or penalty from the House. Failure to disclose would be a violation of House rules and potentially open a member up to criminal prosecution.
Members of Congress are allowed to receive loans from individuals, but in an advisory opinion in 1997 the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct said they must be at "commercially reasonable" terms. The committee urged members to seek its guidance before accepting such loans. House rules require members to disclose loans other than primary mortgages, but not the rates or term of the borrowing.
Samara and Jefferson have declined to say what the loan was for.
Samara, who was born in Ethiopia, launched Worldspace in 1990 to provide satellite radio in Africa and Asia. At the end of 2005, the firm reported 115,000 subscribers with a broadcast signal that could reach 130 countries. The company operates studios in Washington, D.C., India and Kenya.
In 2001, the year the loan was made, Jefferson was named chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the fund-raising and philanthropic arm of the 43-member African-American caucus in Congress. Samara was named to the board of directors and donated money to the organization.
Early this year, Worldspace won approval from the Federal Communications Commission to launch a satellite without having to post a $3 million bond. Samara said at the time that the FCC ruling would allow the company to extend radio coverage through Europe.
Other firms mentioned in court documents connected to the investigation are:
-- Netlink Digital Television, NDTV, a Nigerian-based company, which agreed in 2003 to invest $6.5 million in iGate's telecommunications venture, but then backed out. According to the FBI, Netlink's U.S. lawyers wrote in a letter obtained by agents that on Jefferson's instructions, the company paid money into bank accounts controlled by his family.
-- Enterprise Information Management, EIM, whose CEO Bruce Lyman was mentioned in FBI wiretaps in the Jefferson case. A former Jefferson aide, Brett Pfeffer, who has pleaded guilty to two bribery counts, was overheard telling an EIM investor that Jefferson would want something of value to help the company land business in the Middle East.
Last month, according to federal court documents in Texas, the FBI raided the Houston office of a small energy company called ERHC Energy Inc. Noreen Wilson, who has invested in ERHC, said last year that Jefferson helped the company hold onto drilling rights off the West African coasts of Sao Tome & Principe and Nigeria. But, she said, Jefferson never asked for anything in return. A company director and former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, Howard Jeter, said he didn't know whether the May search of the company's headquarters had anything to do with the Jefferson probe.
Bill Walsh can be reached at email@example.com or at (202) 383-7817. Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (202) 383-7861.