|FBI used subtle tack with Jefferson|
by Bill Walsh, Washington bureau
Sunday December 30, 2007, 8:49 PM
WASHINGTON -- When the FBI came calling at Rep. William Jefferson's house, they didn't bring a battering ram. They didn't need to. He opened the door right up and, according to the agents, welcomed them inside.
The ensuing two-hour conversation and the subsequent daylong search of Jefferson's home in August 2005 is the subject of pretrial legal wrangling in the public corruption case against the nine-term New Orleans Democrat.
Details that have emerged in court over the past two weeks provide the fullest look yet of the first encounter between Jefferson and the FBI agents, details of which the congressman is now trying to keep from the eyes and ears of the jury that will hear his case, scheduled to start in February.
By the time agents stepped onto the porch of his Uptown home Aug. 3, 2005, the FBI knew plenty about Jefferson's business ventures in West Africa that would form the basis of the case against him. For six months, Jefferson had been under investigation and in that time the FBI had surreptitiously taped 28 conversations he had with a confidential informant, Lori Mody. Agents also had filmed him accepting from Mody a briefcase full of cash, much of which later turned up in a freezer of his second home on Capitol Hill.
The idea, though, wasn't to confront Jefferson with the volume of evidence they had collected. Instead, they employed a deft touch to draw him out, likely explaining why the veteran lawyer and lawmaker agreed to talk to them in the first place.
"We had a lot of information," Tim Thibault, the lead agent, testified recently in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., where the case is being heard. "What we were trying to do is assess whether he would be truthful with us before we disclosed the information we had."
A familiar face
Even the knock on the door was thought out in advance. That assignment fell to James Bernazzani, the special agent in charge of the New Orleans field office. Bernazzani had what no one else in the local FBI had: a face familiar to the congressman.
The two had met in Jefferson's Capitol Hill office in spring 2005 when Bernazzani, a plain-spoken Boston native, was appointed to take over the FBI's New Orleans operation. Unbeknownst to Jefferson, when he shook Bernazzani's hand to congratulate him on the new post, the congressman already had been under investigation for at least two months.
Bernazzani told the court that he initiated the face-to-face with Jefferson at his New Orleans home to put the congressman at ease. It was early, 7 a.m., and most people would be wary of opening their doors at that hour, he said.
"This is New Orleans," Bernazzani said. "New Orleans can be a dangerous place."
Jefferson evidently had no idea how much legal danger he was about to get himself into. How could he have known that when he invited the FBI in for a chat a team of agents was positioned down the block, hidden from sight and ready to swarm his home to conduct a floor-to-ceiling search?
"I said, 'Do you have time to speak to a couple of my agents? They want to talk to you,'¤" Bernazzani said. "He said fine .¤.¤. He was very gracious, very accommodating."
Bernazzani had nothing but kind words for the congressman.
"He was a gentleman. He's always a gentleman," the agent said.
Living room chat
With Jefferson's acquiescence, Bernazzani waved two other agents up from the street, introduced them to the congressman and left the Marengo Street house. Jefferson ushered agents Thibault and Daniel Evans into his living room and they all sat down.
Jefferson's attorneys have suggested that the FBI showed up early in the morning to catch the congressman off-guard. Dressed in khaki trousers, a T-shirt and with no shoes, he looked as if he had just rolled out of bed.
Thibault said the early hour was chosen because he wanted to be sure Jefferson was home and he knew the search would take much of the day.
But, when Thibault took his seat across from Jefferson that morning, he appeared to be in no rush to start the search. He let the search team cool their heels down the block. He didn't even mention to Jefferson that he had a search warrant.
Thibault held back other information that would have alarmed Jefferson. It would be more than two hours before he showed him the recording of the secretly filmed briefcase exchange. And the fact that Jefferson was under investigation didn't come up until the DVD left little doubt in the congressman's mind.
Instead, Thibault said, he asked Jefferson about his dealings in West Africa, his financial interests in a Nigerian company, his association with a Kentucky telecommunications executive who was seeking contracts overseas. Thibault didn't confront Jefferson when he thought the congressman was being evasive or lying, although he recounted several instances later in court.
If the congressman was spooked by all of the questions, he apparently didn't show it. Evans, the other agent, described the conversation as "very cordial, nonconfrontational, pleasant." At one point Jefferson got up to take a phone call and came back to resume the discussion, the agents said.
What may have seemed like pleasant chit-chat to the FBI was viewed very differently by Jefferson, according to court papers his attorneys have filed. They assert that Jefferson felt like a prisoner in his own home, even followed at one point to the bathroom when he excused himself to go.
Jefferson is trying to get the contents of the interview thrown out, saying that he wasn't advised of his constitutional right to keep quiet or consult an attorney, raising legal questions about when someone is considered to be "in custody." The government said it never administered so-called Miranda warnings because Jefferson was never under arrest.
It's no surprise Jefferson is hoping to keep the encounter under wraps. The soft touch appeared to work well for the FBI.
Thibault learned from Jefferson the name of a businessman, James Creaghan, who later would become a second confidential informant and introduce the government to Jefferson business dealings they didn't know about. The congressman also acknowledged, according to Thibault, receiving $7,500 a month from the Kentucky telecom firm iGate, whose activities would form the core of the government's case.
'That was FBI money'
Most damaging of all for Jefferson were the comments he made toward the end of the interview. When Thibault finally asked Jefferson about the $100,000 he had received a few days earlier, Jefferson grew visibly alarmed for the first time, he said.
"I asked him where my money was," Thibault told the court.
"He said, 'Your money?'¤"
"That was FBI money," the agent said he told a startled Jefferson.
"¤'I think I better stop talking to you boys now,'¤" Thibault said Jefferson replied.
That's when the agents pulled out a DVD of the cash exchange in a northern Virginia parking garage and played it for the congressman. After watching it, Jefferson slouched back into the couch, the agents said, and muttered, "What a waste." They said he asked whether there was any way to keep it quiet to save his reputation.
Jefferson has not yet taken the stand to explain what he meant or why he consented to a discussion with the FBI without his own attorney present. He is expected to testify when the hearing resumes Jan. 16. He had to know he was taking a risk. Among numerous others, former Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown was convicted in 2000 of lying to the FBI in just such a discussion with agents.
Legal experts say that the FBI doesn't have to be upfront with suspects and often isn't, to gain a strategic upper hand in an investigation.
"By hiding all of that information and making it seem like a casual conversation, they can claim he wasn't in custody and he can't make any realistic claim about constitutionality," said Joshua Dressler, an Ohio State University legal scholar and author of several volumes on criminal procedure. "They are under no obligation to show him their cards."
The court is expected to decide in late January whether they went too far.
Bill Walsh can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7817