|'Did I sell my office or trade official acts for money? Absolutely not.'|
JEFFERSON PLEADS INNOCENT IN BRIBERY CASE
Saturday, June 09, 2007
By Bill Walsh and Bruce Alpert - NOLA.com
ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Unbowed by a weighty and wide-ranging list of corruption charges against him, Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, fired back at the federal government Friday, saying it "contrived" a public bribery case out of what he said were legitimate, private business deals.
After pleading innocent in U.S. District Court, Jefferson went on the offensive against a Justice Department that has had him under investigation for nearly two years and laid the foundation for what is expected to be a spirited courtroom and public relations defense.
"But did I sell my office or trade official acts for money? Absolutely not," Jefferson said outside the courthouse in front of a clutch of microphones. "This case involved purely private business activities and not official acts by me."
The 26-month investigation came to a head Monday when a federal grand jury indicted Jefferson on 16 counts of racketeering, bribery, fraud and obstruction of justice in what the government says was a scheme to use his office to profit from deals he arranged in West Africa.
'The FBI's money'
Addressing for the first time the defining public image of the case, Jefferson suggested he was set up in a sting operation by the FBI when in July 2005 he accepted a briefcase full of cash from an informant in a parking garage. The FBI later found $90,000 of the money in the freezer of his Capitol Hill home.
"The $90,000 was the FBI's money. The FBI gave it to me as part of their plan that I would give it to the Nigerian vice president," Jefferson said. "But I did not do that."
Jefferson also sought to capitalize on the controversy surrounding the Bush Justice Department, which has been under scrutiny for months about whether eight U.S. attorneys were fired for political reasons and whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez lied about it.
"We are all too well aware that this Justice Department can engineer circumstances, leak information and even violate the Constitution in pursuit of its goals," Jefferson said.
Resignation ruled out
He defiantly vowed not to resign the office he has held for 17 years.
Inside the courtroom, Jefferson was polite and composed. His wife, Andrea, and youngest daughter, Akilah, watched from the gallery behind him. He answered, "Yes, sir, I do" when Judge T.S. Ellis III asked him whether he waived his right to a speedy trial.
Although the trial could have been set for as early as August, Jefferson's attorney Robert Trout asked that it be put off until Jan. 16 because there was so much evidence to review. The indictment was sprinkled with references to unnamed companies and anonymous co-conspirators, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle said the government had eight filing cabinets full of documents along with "extensive" tape recordings. Trout's request was granted.
Lytle's estimate that the trial could last four weeks prompted a rebuke from Ellis who called monthlong trials "ludicrous."
"I've talked to jurors at the end of those trials and they want to convict the lawyers," Ellis said.
Possible legal strategies
Trout indicated that the government was in for a fight. Legal experts predict that Jefferson will challenge the legality of the secretly recorded conversations and possibly seek a change of venue from northern Virginia to the more defense-friendly environs of Washington, D.C.
"We will have some serious pretrial motions," Trout told the judge.
The notoriously acerbic Ellis, who last year lectured an alleged co-conspirator in the Jefferson case about the "cancer" of public corruption, went out of his way to show deference to the congressman.
Because of the pending charges, Ellis said Jefferson won't be allowed to touch his hunting rifles. But otherwise he was lenient on the details of Jefferson's status until the trial. The judge waived the normal pretrial drug testing and told a probation official to check in with Jefferson only occasionally. Despite Jefferson's ties to Africa, Ellis said the congressman is free to travel as long as he gives the court advance notice. The judge didn't ask for Jefferson to surrender his passport, only that his attorney hold on to it. Jefferson was released in lieu of $100,000 bond.
Defining 'official acts'
The convivial demeanor of the courtroom evaporated outside, however, after Jefferson had been fingerprinted and photographed. He held his wife's hand as he strode toward a bank of more than a dozen television cameras and twice as many reporters eager to hear his first extensive comments on the case since the FBI raided his home in August 2005.
Jefferson didn't deny that, as a congressman, he promoted business deals that poured some $500,000 into companies controlled by his family, as the government alleges. But Jefferson did deny that he profited from any "official acts." According to legal experts, the case could swing on the definition of the term.
In its indictment, the government said that Jefferson wrote letters on House stationery, solicited a bribe in the House dining room and had staffers set up meetings with government officials and book his travel abroad, all of which, prosecutors say, comprise "official acts" under the bribery statute.
Jefferson took a narrower view Friday. He said he never introduced legislation, pushed amendments, made speeches or entered anything into the congressional record to promote the deals.
"In the last 17 years since I've been a member of Congress, believe me, I know how to get things done and how things are done to help someone when a congressman wants to help them," Jefferson said. "I did absolutely none of that. I'm not even accused of that."
Jonathan Rosen, a former federal prosecutor who works as a defense lawyer with Mintz Levin in Washington, said Jefferson's argument can't be easily ignored.
"The law is pretty clear that the bribery statute doesn't simply encompass any action in an official capacity," Rosen said.
Legal arguments aside, Jefferson sought to put a sympathetic face on a family that has been cast by the government as a tightly knit criminal conspiracy. He said he will soon celebrate his 37th wedding anniversary and has three grandchildren. He recounted the advanced degrees held by each of his five daughters, two sons-in-law and wife, all whom the government alleges stood to benefit from the congressman's dealings.
"Incredibly, this is the same family that the U.S. attorney and FBI want you to believe are a family of bribers, racketeers and conspirators," Jefferson said. "They want you to believe that I, who up until these things came up never had an ethics complaint or bar complaint or traffic complaint that I can remember, am the architect or leader of this supposed family of bribers and racketeers."
"This is not who we are. This not who I am," Jefferson said. "This is not what I have done."
A day after Ellis froze his assets, Jefferson also portrayed himself as the victim of a capricious federal government. He vowed "to sell every stick of furniture to clear our name."
Jefferson said he had "made a mistake in judgment," but when asked by a reporter what it was, he didn't answer. Instead, he turned away from the cameras and walked with his wife, his attorneys and his public relations team to a black Cadillac Escalade sport utility vehicle, and drove away.
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Bill Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 383-7817. Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7861.