Arguments complete, jury should get William Jefferson case Thursday
by Jonathan Tilove and Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday July 29, 2009, 4:56 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- Former Democratic Rep. William Jefferson used his office in a web of schemes to extort bribes through companies controlled by his family, a federal prosecutor told jurors in closing arguments today.
"It's time, at long last, to bring Congressman Jefferson to justice," Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebeca Bellows said in her 1-hour and 55-minute presentation. "He was always looking for a payday. He not only sold his office he wanted to make sure he got top dollar for it."
But in his two-hour, 25-five minute closing statement, Jefferson's lead attorney, Robert Trout, said that government had criminalized behavior by the congressman that was in the "gray area" of ethical violations and the appearance of impropriety.
"There is a difference between a gray area and committing a crime," he said at one point. "What is appropriate, what is ethical is not the issue in this case," he said at another.
With both sides completing their arguments today, Judge T.S. Ellis III plans to give the jury instructions Thursday before they begin deliberating the case, seven weeks after they were seated.
The former nine-term congressman is facing a 16-count indictment including conspiracy to solicit bribes by a public official, depriving citizens of honest services by wire fraud, violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, money laundering, obstruction of justice and racketeering.
According to the U.S. attorney's office, if Jefferson were convicted on all 16 counts he could face a sentence of 235 years in prison, though that is more arithmetic than practical calculation.
Ellis decided earlier today not to dismiss a count of "obstruction of justice" against Jefferson, saying it was not so borderline that it should be considered by the jury.
Bellows said Jefferson created "shell, sham, paper" companies for the sole reason of concealing his interest in various projects, to "paper over a corrupt scheme."
She said Jefferson's defense had told jurors that these deals were committed to paper, included in contracts so there was no effort to disguise the deals. But, she said, but no accountant could find the congressman's name on the documents because "these were bribe deals."
The defense said in its opening statement, Bellows said, that Jefferson was lured into the projects by Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody, who became a cooperating witness for the FBI and wore a wire to record their conversations.
But what he did with Mody, Bellows said, was a "piece of a pattern" of previous schemes that included the attitude of "What's in it for me?"
The only difference in the schemes with Mody, Bellows told jurors, it "that it was caught on tape."
Bellows said the $90,000 in marked money found in the freezer of Jefferson's Washington, D.C., was intended as a bribe to Atiku Abubakar, then the vice president of Nigeria. It was not delivered, Bellows said, because Jefferson had miscalculated when Abubakar was leaving the country.
Jefferson's wife, Andrea, and their five daughters were in the crowded courtroom today as they were frequently mentioned as being part of the schemes. The family showed no emotion or reaction to Bellows' statement.
Trout said the government played a hardball game of "deal or no deal" with other figures in the case. They turned those who had done business with Jefferson and not had a problem at the time into prosecution witnesses who insisted they knew all along they were involved in some corrupt enterprise, he said.
He told the jurors they should view the testimony of those witnesses with skepticism.
"Everybody got immunity," he said, challenging testimony that he said sounded "so blithe, and pat, it sounded rehearsed." He describe Vernon Jackson, the iGate executive now serving seven years and three months in prison, as "the definition of a blowhard." He said Bret Pfeffer, who is serving an eight-year term, is someone who "tells lies if that's what it takes to get a deal to go down, and Bret Pfeffer is working on the deal of his life," in testifying against Jefferson in the hope of reducing his sentence.
"It boggles the mind how they constructed their way around the facts to make something that was not a crime seem like a crime," Trout said of the government's case. "That's power."
The government, he said, "tried to bend the law and stretch the facts to make what is not a crime into a crime."
But, just as Bellows had suggested the jury needed to defend democracy by helping to root out public corruption and convict Jefferson, Trout suggested they could best defend democratic values by voting to acquit him.
"You have the opportunity to do something actually courageous and something nearly heroic in your public service," Trout said. Noting all the adverse attention Jefferson has gotten, he told the jurors, "You are sitting in a privileged seat where you can speak truth to power and so you should."
"Democracy," said Trout, his voice cracking with emotion, "it's not some abstract idea. Democracy is you, and we put our trust in you. We ask you to find William Jefferson not guilty on each and very count.''
Trout acknowledged that the $90,000 the FBI found in the freezer of Jefferson's Washington, D.C., home when it raided it in the summer of 2005, was a "toxic fact."
"Make no mistake," he said, when Jefferson took the $100,000 in marked money form Mody and said he would use it to bribe the vice president of Nigeria - something Trout said he had no intention of doing - that "was not only stupid, it was an exercise in awful judgment for which he has paid a very steep price.
"His political career was ruined, his reputation was ruined," Trout said. The money in the freezer made him a "national joke." He has had to live not only with his own "shame and humiliation" but the "shame and humiliation that his young daughters will have to endure for a very long time, maybe for the rest of their lives because of the actions of their father."
And of Mody's failure to testify at the trial, Trout said, "Where was Lori Mody at this trial? She was the accuser."