NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Brenda Jefferson, former Louisiana U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's sister and the first member of the family to plead guilty in a federal corruption case, died Monday, according to the U.S. Attorney's office. She was 54.
Jefferson was scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 23. A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Jim Letten's office said prosecutors were notified of her death Monday, but she wouldn't comment further.
Jefferson pleaded guilty in June 2008 to helping three relatives hide a scheme to pocket more than $600,000 in state and federal grants for charity and education. The relatives were her brother, political operative Mose Jefferson, and sister Betty Jefferson, then a New Orleans tax assessor, and her niece Angela Coleman.
Coleman and Betty Jefferson pleaded guilty in February. The trial against Mose Jefferson and former New Orleans city councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt has been postponed until Oct. 4. Mose Jefferson, in a separate case, was found guilty of bribing a former Orleans Parish School Board president, and is serving a 10-year federal sentence.
Robert Jenkins, Brenda Jefferson's attorney in the criminal case, said one of her close friends told him that Jefferson died in St. Tammany Parish. He didn't know her cause of death.
"I was surprised and shocked," he said. "As far as I knew, she had no major health problems whatsoever."
However, Jenkins said Jefferson's decision to cooperate with prosecutors took a toll.
"She was torn," he said.
Melanie Croft, executive director of the St. Tammany Parish Coroner's Office, said Jefferson died in the emergency room at Lakeview Regional Medical Center in Covington. An exact cause of death has not yet been determined with toxicology tests pending, she said.
William Jefferson, who was voted out of office last year, was convicted of corruption charges in an unrelated case in Virginia earlier this year. He was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison, but remains free while his appeal is pending.
Brenda Jefferson is also survived by another brother, Archie Jefferson.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.