Ex-Congressman William Jefferson's accuser Lori Mody will be heard, not seen
Posted by Stephanie Grace, Columnist, The Times-Picayune
June 12, 2009 6:01PM
ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA -- Criminal trials, at their heart, tell stories. To help jurors understand witness statements and exhibits, prosecutors try to weave the facts into compelling narrative, a good old-fashioned tale of right and wrong. Yet when testimony in former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's federal bribery and racketeering trial finally gets under way here this week, the U.S. Justice Department will proceed without their story's chief protagonist.
It was Virginia investor Lori Mody who got the ball rolling on the probe into the New Orleans congressman's international business dealings when, in early 2005, she told the FBI she suspected she'd been a victim of fraud.
It was Mody who agreed to reconnect with Jefferson after she'd cut off all contact, so that the feds could secretly record their interactions.
And it was Mody who gave Jefferson the infamous $100,000 in marked bills to allegedly bribe Nigeria's vice president, at the same storied suburban DC Ritz-Carlton hotel where Kenneth Starr's prosecutors first confronted Monica Lewinsky. As just about everyone knows, $90,000 wound up not in the vice president's hands but in Jefferson's freezer, wrapped in foil and stuffed into veggie burger boxes.
In fact, Mody has been a mysteriously fascinating figure throughout the investigation.
A socialite with a supposed do-gooder streak, she wanted to bring modern technology to poor African nations and to make a return on her investment in the process, according to people who know her. She was encouraged to invest in the specific deals by Brett Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide who had become her $700,000-per-year adviser, and who later pleaded guilty in the case. Most people following the investigation have seen Mody's picture, but have never heard her speak.
Now they probably never will. Last week, Mody starred in the long-awaited trial's first major plot twist, when the government revealed that, despite her central role in the saga, she will not take the stand for the prosecution.
Chief prosecutor Mark Lytle refused to say why, but theories center on a couple of possibilities. One is that Mody balked at subjecting herself to a defense plan, clearly telegraphed in pre-trial filings, to focus on her history of mental illness and an overdeveloped taste for intrigue. A second is that Lytle's team simply decided she'd make a terrible witness.
No matter the reason, Mody's absence from the prosecution witness list is the first positive development for Jefferson in quite a while.
Her presence would have presented two challenges for Jefferson. Mody might have earned jurors' sympathy by convincing them she'd been betrayed by a man she trusted. And Jefferson's attorneys could have compounded the damage, had they appeared to beat up on her. In pre-trial action, Jefferson's lawyers argued that Mody's the one who manipulated him by convincing him to give himself a larger share of the Nigerian telecom deal at the center of the case. That won't work if he comes off as a bully.
Mody's absence doesn't mean the jury won't hear her voice on wiretap or see her on videotape, or even hear about her cooperation from the FBI. But it does put some of the untaped conversations she claims to have had with Jefferson out of bounds.
It will certainly leave at least some jurors wondering where she is and why they're not hearing from her. And it has real potential to disrupt the narrative, makes the story a little less complete.
If there's any consolation for the prosecutors, it's that they've got another potentially sympathetic witness. The jury will still hear from Vernon Jackson, the businessman who has pleaded guilty and has been waiting in prison to testify against Jefferson. Jackson is expected to describe the ex-congressman as an admired friend who demanded payment for his help in securing overseas contracts, then tried to squeeze him out of his own business.
And they've got yet another central character: Jefferson himself. The ex-congressman is unlikely to emerge from the testimony looking like much of a hero, but then, he doesn't have to. The challenge for prosecutors is to convince jurors that he rises to the level of a convincing villain.
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Stephanie Grace is a staff writer. She may be reached at 504.826.3383 or at email@example.com.