The William Jefferson Chronicles

Former N.O. superintendent Tony Amato testifies he supported program Jefferson was selling
by Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday August 19, 2009, 10:57 AM

Former New Orleans schools superintendent Tony Amato took the witness stand in Mose Jefferson's bribery trial this morning, telling jurors that before he took the job in New Orleans, he was already a fan of the algebra tutorial that Jefferson was selling.

Amato's testimony wrapped up shortly before 11 a.m. and Jefferson took the stand in his own defense again before the trial broke for a lunch break.

Amato's testimony bolsters Jefferson's defense: that he did not need to bribe Ellenese Brooks-Simms to successfully peddle the I CAN Learn program to the school system, because the superintendent and other board members all supported it.

It is undisputed in the case that Jefferson made three payments to Brooks-Simms, totaling $140,000, during a time when the board approved spending nearly $14 million on I CAN Learn. Jefferson earned about $900,000 in commissions for the sales.

Brooks-Simms has testified that the payments were bribes, and that she was selling her influence. Though the board approved the purchases unanimously, Brooks-Simms was board president when one of the sales went through, and prosecutors have portrayed her as a formidable political force.

But Jefferson has said he gave the money to Brooks-Simms, whom he described as an old friend and former lover, because she was financially strapped and caring for an ailing husband.

Amato testified today that he had already come to admire the I CAN Learn program during his tenure as superintendent in Hartford, Conn. He said he would have have recommended to the board that they buy the system regardless of Brooks-Simms' stance.

During cross-examination, Amato agreed with prosecutors' characterization of Brooks-Simms as a tough opponent who came to be at odds with him towards the end of her tenure on the board. Amato also noted during cross-examination that even after Brooks-Simms had turned against him, she had continued to lobby for I CAN Learn, a rare point of agreement between the two at that time.

Amato also said he did not realize Jefferson was a salesman for I CAN Learn or being paid $900,000 in commissions for placing the product in New Orleans schools. Had he known, he said, he would likely have sought a reduction in the price.

After Amato's testimony, which lasted less than an hour, Jefferson again took the stand. He was still being questioned by his attorney, Michael Fawer, today picking up his testimony at Hurricane Katrina, the time period after he made the payments to Brooks-Simms.

The two kept in periodic touch on the telephone after the storm, he testified, but didn't meet again until FBI agents in late 2006 visited Eddy Oliver, a friend and business associate of Jefferson's. The agents asked Oliver about two checks from the business they had together, signed by Oliver, that were made out to Brooks-Simms' daughter.

These were the first two payments to Brooks-Simms, which she testified she put in her daughter's name to conceal the payments from Jefferson.

Jefferson said he summoned Brooks-Simms to his Loyola Avenue apartment building, telling her about the conversation Oliver had with the FBI agents. They had been laughing and talking, he said, but suddenly became "solemn" when he mentioned the visit.

Jefferson said he asked her what was wrong, questioning Brooks-Simms about whether she paid taxes on the money, to which she replied in the negative. "I said, 'Well, you might have a little problem,'" he said.

The two started talking about the the problem and Brooks-Simms asked Jefferson whether he could say he hired her daughter, perhaps to work on one of his other projects. Brooks-Simms previously testified that the cover story of Stacy Simms working for Mose Jefferson on a patent project he had was Jefferson's idea.

"I believed -- and I still do to this day -- I didn't do anything wrong," Jefferson said, referring to giving the money to Brooks-Simms.

Agreeing to what Fawer called the "concocted" story was stupid, he acknowledged. But Jefferson said he thought Brooks-Simms was in possible trouble with federal authorities and wanted to help her out, as he would any friend or family member.

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