The William Jefferson Chronicles

James Gill: Bill Jefferson's legal woes just got worse
Posted by James Gill, Columnist, The Times-Picayune December 10, 2008 2:28AM

Dollar Bill's defeat in Saturday's election can only make it more difficult to delay his trial further. His lawyers cannot go on forever raising constitutional objections and darting off to seek writs at every turn when it seems highly unlikely that they will ever get paid in full.

They have racked up a colossal number of hours representing him on the cuff since his bribery and racketeering indictment in June of 2007.

By December of that year, the lawyers were already striking a querulous note in a brief that persuaded the judge to postpone the trial, then scheduled for early this year.

The defendant "does not have the resources to pay for the lawyers he has, much less the kind of support that the case demands, " they wrote, arguing that they needed more time to go through the masses of evidence assembled by the government.

Extending credit is no doubt easier in a case that attracts publicity throughout the country and beyond, and clients seldom come as high-profile as Congressman William Jefferson, D-New Orleans. A defense attorney who got Jefferson off would be set for life, although it is impossible to imagine that that will happen.

Jefferson couldn't pay his lawyers because the judge ordered his assets frozen when he was indicted. He can't complain about that. If the feds find a wad of marked bills in your freezer, frozen assets are what you get.

Jefferson has given the media a wide berth for the most part since he fell foul of the law, but he complained about being broke in an interview with Jet Magazine in April. "It's very tough financially, " he said. "We have created a defense fund that our friends can contribute to, but you never match the government. So it beats you down. You sell this, you sell that and you use all the money that you have. We've sold our house, the things inside the house."

At least he had his friends, albeit fewer than he had before he was indicted, and his congressional salary of almost $170,000 a year. Now he will have to subsist on a pension of $43,000 and his circle of friends is likely to diminish further. That happens to former members of Congress even if they haven't left under a cloud.

Jefferson does have plenty of kinfolk in the New Orleans area, but half of them are under indictment in separate and unrelated cases. Contributions to the defense fund have largely dried up. Jefferson must face staggering bills even before his attorneys devote many more theoretically billable hours to representing him at trial.

Perhaps they would rather it didn't come to that, especially as this may not be quite the cause celebre it was now that voters have given Jefferson the heave-ho.

With the evidence against him apparently overwhelming, Jefferson might have some incentive to cop a plea and do fewer years than would result from conviction by a jury. Whether prosecutors are willing to play ball is unknown, and, even if they are, Jefferson's international scams clearly call for some serious time. Any deal that smacked of leniency would probably not hold up anyway, because Jefferson has had the misfortune of drawing, in T.S. Ellis, quite the hanging judge.

Jefferson's former aide, Brett Pfeffer, and businessman Vernon Jackson, have already pleaded guilty to subordinate roles in the conspiracy and agreed to testify against Jefferson. Ellis gave them eight and seven years respectively, so Jefferson, with extra points for being the mastermind and an elected official, would presumably be looking at a daunting stretch if he were to switch his plea to guilty now.

Still, at 61, he could probably expect to survive it. To opt for trial would risk a sentence exceeding his life expectancy.

Jefferson didn't rise from rural poverty to the halls of Congress without displaying considerable smarts and spunk, and maybe he would rather roll the dice than quit.

At least he knows that, if he goes to trial next year, his attorneys will do their damnedest. If they lose, they'll have no chance of seeing their money.

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James Gill is a staff writer. He can be reached at 504.826.3318 or at

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