The William Jefferson Chronicles

Court rejects appeal by U.S. Rep. William Jefferson
by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Friday December 12, 2008, 10:37 PM

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, is a step closer to facing trial on a 2007 corruption indictment after a federal appeals court Friday refused to consider his request to throw out most of the pending charges

In a one-paragraph statement, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., rejected a request from Jefferson's attorneys that the full court review a previous ruling from three of the court's judges that rejected the request to reject 14 of the 16 charges against him.

The court said the request had been sent to all of the court's judges, but none of the 11 had requested the court be polled, an indication none wanted to take up the appeal.

The New Orleans Democrat had argued that the Virginia grand jury, which indicted him in June 2007, heard testimony about his congressional activities in violation of a separation of powers clause in the Constitution.

Jefferson, who lost his bid last Saturday for re-election to a 10th term, is accused of bribery, racketeering and conspiracy as part of scheme that the Justice Department says involved payments to family-controlled businesses in return for his help winning contracts, mostly in western Africa. His attorney, Robert Trout, declined to comment on the court's ruling.

The trial judge for the case, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, had rejected Jefferson's argument that the grand jury testimony meant the charges were fatally flawed, and a three-judge panel for the 4th Circuit last month sustained Ellis' ruling.

Jefferson now can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the issue.

But Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond constitutional law professor who has been following the case, said that Ellis could schedule a trial even before the Supreme Court decides whether to take the appeal.

Ellis has scheduled a status hearing on the case for Jan. 15 and could set the trial date then. The case will be heard in federal district court in Alexandria, Va.

Jefferson has expressed his intent to fight the allegations at trial. But Tobias said the rejection by the 4th Circuit could be a trigger for possible plea deal negotiations.

In its ruling Nov. 12, the appellate panel said that even if the grand jury heard testimony about Jefferson's congressional activities, which his attorneys say violated the speech or debate clause of the Constitution, that in itself is not grounds to throw out most of the indictment against him.

"The principle of grand jury independence is firmly rooted and jealously protected in our federal system of justice, " Justice Robert King wrote in an opinion in which the two other judges concurred. "Because it is an independent investigative body, the federal courts have consistently accorded grand jury 'wide latitude.' "

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