|Federal prosecutors face deadline for charging Jefferson|
Posted by Washington bureau May 21, 2007 9:44PM
By Bruce Alpert
Washington bureau - NOLA.com
WASHINGTON -- Protracted legal proceedings over the constitutionality of the 2006 FBI raid of Rep. William Jefferson's Capitol Hill office may be creating problems for prosecutors facing statute of limitations deadlines, legal experts say.
Lawyers following the case say that the impending deadlines to bringing charges could force the government to seek a grand jury indictment against the New Orleans Democrat before the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals issues a ruling on what should happen to documents and computer hard drives seized from Jefferson's congressional office in May 2006.
STAFF FILE PHOTO BY ELIOT KAMENITZU. S. Rep. William Jefferson at a field hearing on "The Katrina Impact on Crime and the Criminal Justice System in New Orleans" held at Dillard University's Lawless Memorial Chapel Tuesday, April 10, 2007
The statute of limitations for bribery, deprivation of honest services and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act -- three of the allegations that the government says are being examined in the Jefferson probe -- currently run five years. That means, with some exceptions, the government cannot seek charges under those statutes if the alleged illegal conduct occurred more than five years ago.
The Justice Department doesn't appear in danger of exceeding the statute of limitations with what appears to be the major component of its investigation. That involves allegations that Jefferson accepted payments of money and stock to family-owned businesses in return for his help winning contracts in Western Africa for iGate Inc., a small Kentucky firm.
But some of the other business transactions that the government says it is examining occurred in 2002 and could be nearing the five-year deadline.
Although some in Congress are pressing to extend the timeline for such crimes from five years to eight, the effort, even if successful, would only affect future cases.
Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond, said it's fairly clear a three-judge Court of Appeals panel agreed to hear the appeal of the historical raid, the first ever of a sitting member's office, on an expedited basis because of statute of limitations concerns. The court heard oral arguments last week, and Chief Judge Douglas Ginsburg expressed a desire to avoid substantial new delays in the investigation, which began 26 months ago.
The probe includes a well-publicized sting operation in which prosecutors say a cooperating witness was recorded handing Jefferson a briefcase with $100,000 in cash. The case has led to two guilty pleas by former Jefferson associates, but no charges against the congressman.
Jefferson denies wrongdoing and has asked his constituents to reserve judgment until he has a chance to defend the allegations in the "appropriate form." He was easily elected to his ninth term last fall.
Neither, Justice Department officials, nor Robert Trout, attorney for Jefferson, would comment for this story.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said Justice Department officials probably had no idea when they approved the raid of Jefferson's office a year ago, that they would touch off a fierce constitutional battle -- with former leaders of the House of Representatives, Democratic and Republican, joining Jefferson in arguing it amounted to abuse of the executive branch's power.
"It's complicated enough to do a bribery investigation," Sloan said, "but add to that the delays caused by the appeal of the search and it wouldn't be surprising that the government is facing some statute of limitation issues."
The former CEO of iGate Inc., Vernon Jackson, is now serving a seven-year sentence after admitting in court that he began funneling money to a business controlled by Jefferson's family in 2001. The payments, which prosecutors say totaled $367,500, continued through 2004. Jackson said he made the payments to gain the congressman's help winning contracts in Nigeria and Ghana for Internet, cable and telephone service.
Under the generally accepted interpretation of the statute of limitations, if the government can establish that payments were part of a consistent pattern it can use all the alleged improper payments to build its case -- even if some occurred more than five years ago. If the government can't establish such a pattern, it could still attempt to make a case based on payments that occurred within the five-year statute of limitations.
One reason the government may be pressing to include other business transactions - assuming it moves to indictment the congressman, is that the $100,000 the FBI taped Jefferson receiving from government witness Lori Mody in August 2005, wasn't funneled to the vice president of Nigeria, as the government first alleged in search warrants.
Instead, all but $10,000 was found in the freezer of Jefferson's Washington D.C. home, and the rest has been accounted for.
Presumably, it would be harder for the government to convince a jury that Jefferson violated the Corrupt Foreign Practices Act, which bars bribes by Americans to foreign officials without additional evidence.
One Jefferson business relationship the government has examined involves Worldspace Inc., a satellite radio company. In a filing last year with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said its CEO, Noah Samara, has been questioned as part of the Jefferson probe.
At the time, the company disclosed that Samara loaned Jefferson between $50,000 and $100,000 in 2001, and, as of last year, had not been repaid. Samara, according to another court document, made a loan to Jackson, although the timeframe has not been revealed.
Two weeks ago, court documents revealed that Noreen Wilson, president of Global Environmental Energy Corp., testified at least five times before the grand jury, most recently in March. One area of interest to the government may be a meeting in Nigeria, either in late 2001 or sometime in 2002, when a power plant facility proposed by a Global partner was being discussed. Jefferson attended the meeting, according to Nigerian media reports.
The length of the investigation hasn't gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill.
Two weeks ago, Rep. James Sensenbrenner told Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during a hearing that that the Justice Department's failure to obtain an indictment against Jefferson more than two years after the probe began is an embarrassment.
Tobias said that Sensenbrenner was trying to make a political point about the raid of Jefferson's office, which he opposed, and doubts it will impact the decision of prosecutors in the case. But an approaching statute of limitations deadline is another matter, both Tobias and Sloan said.
"It would be embarrassing," according to Tobias, if the government couldn't proceed with part of its case because it missed statute of limitations deadlines.
Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7861.