The William Jefferson Chronicles

Feds deny Jefferson was made to talk
Posted by The Times Picayune September 28, 2007 9:11PM

By Bruce Alpert
Washington bureau
William Jefferson -

WASHINGTON -- Asking a judge to reject U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's motion to suppress what federal prosecutors say were "incriminating" statements he made during a 2005 interview at his New Orleans home, the government Friday denied the nine-term congressman's contention that he was effectively kept captive in his residence and said he voluntarily agreed to answer questions.

The government's motion said Jefferson was visibly dejected after being shown a DVD recording of him taking a briefcase from a cooperating government witness with $100,000 and told the agents playing the tape: "What a waste."

The Justice Department also asked federal Judge T.S. Ellis III to reject Jefferson's motion to move the trial from northern Virginia to Washington, D.C. Jefferson's attorneys argue that the government choreographed events to justify bringing the case in a jurisdiction friendlier to the prosecution. His motion contends that the northern Virginia court has a lower percentage of African-Americans than Washington and by bringing the case there the government is preventing the African-American congressman from being tried by his peers.

"The defendant's claim that prosecution in the Eastern District of Virginia violates his rights under the Equal Protection Clause are baseless," the Justice Department brief said. "The defendant engaged in criminal conduct in the Eastern District of Virginia before and during the government's investigation."

Jefferson's lead attorney, Robert Trout, declined to comment on the Justice Department filings.

Hearing set Oct. 12

Ellis has scheduled an Oct. 12 hearing on Jefferson's motions made three weeks ago in response to the government's indictment accusing him of illegally using his elected office to pursue business ventures in West Africa that steered money and stocks to businesses controlled by his family. He asked that 14 of the 16 charges filed against him be dropped either for lack of evidence or because the government couldn't justify trying the charges in Virginia.

In one motion, Jefferson's attorneys said the nine-term New Orleans Democrat was awakened by a knock on his front door by law enforcement agents on Aug. 3, 2005, at 7 a.m. and was then questioned for more than two hours while unshaven and in bare feet. When he went to the bathroom, his attorneys said, he was told to keep the door open, effectively making him and his family feel like they were under house arrest.

His attorneys said that any statements Jefferson made to FBI agents that morning must be suppressed, because courts have ruled that a person deprived of freedom of action in a significant way, even if not arrested, must be informed of the Miranda right to decline to answer questions and to contact a lawyer. No such warning was given, his attorneys said.

What was voluntary?

The Justice Department contends that the motion is based on an "inaccurate description." The government says that the questioning was voluntary, that Jefferson's movement was never restricted and that neither of the two FBI agents interviewing him indicated that "defendant Jefferson was not free to leave or terminate the interview at any time."

The agents, according to the government brief, wore suits and ties, with weapons concealed under their suit jackets, and Jefferson was "fully clothed" when he came to the door.

According to the Justice Department motion, Jefferson "minimized or mischaracterized" his involvement in business dealings that were under investigation, and "changed some of his answers once confronted by the agents with specific facts."

When Special Agent Tim Thibault informed him that a briefcase with $100,000 handed to him four days earlier by Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody came from the FBI, the congressman responded, "I think I should stop talking with you boys," the brief said.

Mody had been secretly recording their conversations for the FBI.

After Jefferson suggested he should end the interview, the Justice Department motion said, Thibault said that the interview would stop, but asked if he wanted to see a videotape the government had obtained.

The congressman said yes, according to the Justice Department brief.

'What a waste'

"The agents then played for defendant Jefferson on a small DVD player a video reflecting defendant Jefferson receiving from cooperating witness (Mody) a briefcase containing $100,000 in cash on July 30, 2005."

The government brief said that "Jefferson sunk back onto the couch and, with total dejection" replied by saying: "What a waste."

The Justice Department motion said Jefferson asked the agents how his reputation could survive and expressed concern that the warrant the Justice Department had obtained to search his house would be made public.

It was at that point the search began, the Justice Department said, with agents following standard procedures, including monitoring the movements of the occupants of the residence.

According to the government, there were two other people in the house at the time, Jefferson's wife, Andrea, and one of his five daughters, who the Justice Department does not identify.

Bathroom door ajar

The Justice Department said that Jefferson's attorneys left out one "crucial fact" when they recounted how Jefferson had asked to take a shower and was told that agents would have to remain in the dressing room of the bathroom with the door ajar. The shower request, the Justice Department said, came after the interview was completed and while the search was under way, which undermines the argument that his statements were made while the congressman's movements were being restricted.

In another motion, the Justice Department said the detailed questionnaire sought by Jefferson's attorneys for potential jurors appeared to be an attempt to gain a more sympathetic jury pool, rather than an effort, as the congressman's motion maintains, to deal with an inordinate amount of pretrial publicity. Jefferson's attorneys said there has been almost a national obsession about reports that FBI agents found $90,000 in the freezer of the congressman's Washington home, eliciting more than 600,000 separate entries on Google, the online search engine.

Simple questioning of potential jurors can weed out bias for or against the government or defendant, the Justice Department said.

The government also asked Ellis to reject Jefferson's request to throw out 14 of the 16 charges against him. Jefferson's attorneys maintain that the primary charge on which almost the entire indictment rests involves allegations of bribe solicitation by demanding payments to family members in return for assisting businesses with contracts in West Africa. Such charges are bogus, the Jefferson defense team contends, because they didn't involve any official duty of a congressman. In effect, they were private business deals, his lawyers said.

The government contends that the charges related to "Jefferson's known modus operandi of using family members and nominee companies to receive benefits in exchange for his official assistance."

The Justice Department said the government uncovered a "far-reaching scheme by defendant Jefferson to solicit various forms of bribe payments from numerous companies and businesspersons in return for performing a stream of official acts, which included, among other things, leading official business delegations to Africa, conducting official meetings, corresponding with United States and foreign government officials and using congressional staff members to otherwise advance the endeavors of such companies and businesspersons."

Bruce Alpert can be reached at or (202) 383-7861.

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