|Jefferson angry at prosecutors' reference to family members|
by The Times-Picayune
Wednesday January 16, 2008, 8:43 PM
By Bill Walsh
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- After sitting through a court hearing in his public corruption case, Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, lashed out at prosecutors Wednesday for repeatedly invoking the names of his family.
In pretrial legal wrangling that has stretched over two days, prosecutors have repeatedly referenced business contracts and bank records bearing the names of Jefferson's wife, Andrea; his brother, Mose; and son-in-law Philip Jones as well as others, including his daughters.
All are portrayed in the 16-count indictment against Jefferson as supporting players in a raft of illegal business schemes to cash in on the veteran lawmaker's connections in Africa and his influence in Congress. None has been indicted in the nearly three-year-old investigation.
After sitting passively at the defense table for four hours, Jefferson let loose about what he saw as a smear campaign against his family.
"They never say what they did, they just keep mentioning their names," Jefferson said outside the courtroom. "If they (family members) want to get together to form a business, they can."
Jefferson vowed to go on the offensive in the courtroom Thursday when the hearing resumes and he testifies for the first time.
"They've been hammering away, but there will be a whole different story tomorrow," Jefferson said Wednesday. "I'm looking forward to testifying."
Raid on Jefferson's home
The pretrial jousting focuses on whether the FBI overstepped its bounds in photographing and taking notes on documents when its agents raided Jefferson's Uptown New Orleans home Aug. 3, 2005. It was one of several warrants served that day across the country, making public the government's sting operation aimed at the congressman's business dealings in West Africa.
Jefferson is accused of taking, through companies controlled by his family, more than $400,000 in cash and travel expenses and millions of shares of stocks in companies he promised to help land contracts for abroad. The nine-term lawmaker has pleaded innocent and said he has never offered or received a bribe. He won re-election in 2006.
Although Jefferson is the only member of his family who has been charged, the government contends that he was the leading figure in a series of bribery schemes involving his extended family.
The FBI says it found documents at his home that show his wife, son-in-law and brother all signed contracts with companies that Jefferson promised to help or did help by taking trips abroad to meet with representatives of foreign governments, writing letters or meeting with U.S. government agencies, notably the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
Bank records for Andrea Jefferson's company, ANJ Group, show numerous $7,500 payments from iGate Inc., a Kentucky telecommunications firm Jefferson was promoting in Nigeria. Other documents show payments by Arkel Sugar to Mose Jefferson for more than $20,000. Jefferson, the government says, promoted Arkel to high-ranking members of the Nigerian government. The FBI also found a contract between Jones and an energy company Jefferson was aiding.
Family members named
As Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Duross sought to establish a legitimate basis for the search of Jefferson's home, he repeatedly invoked the names of Jefferson's family members and the role they played in the alleged schemes.
"Sometimes they would move money to other people's accounts to pay for such things as law school," Duross told U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III. Several of Jefferson's five daughters attended law school.
Special Agent Tim Thibault, who led the investigation, has said Jefferson's method of operation was to use "nominee companies" set up in the name of his family members to funnel bribes into his own pocket in an attempt to skirt federal bribery laws.
Jefferson noted in comments afterward that his daughters are highly educated professionals with degrees from major universities, and he called son-in-law Jones a "six-year Ph.D. in environmental chemistry," to underscore their qualifications for the contracts they secured or companies they were put in charge of.
He said there was "zero truth" to the government's allegations about his family.
Jefferson has never denied that he was deeply involved in a host of business ventures in West Africa. But he said his actions don't amount to bribery because he didn't carry out "official acts" as a member of Congress to further the deals or enrich himself.
One aspect of the case he has never explained is the $90,000 in cash the FBI found in the freezer of his Capitol Hill townhouse. He had been handed the money by a government informant several days earlier and it was, the FBI says, intended as a bribe for the vice president of Nigeria.
Interview by the FBI
Before searching his home in 2005, FBI agents showed Jefferson a DVD recording of him taking the money in a northern Virginia parking garage a few days earlier. After viewing it, the agents testified, Jefferson slumped onto the couch and said, "What a waste." That comment is among those that his defense team is seeking to have excluded at the trial when it begins Feb. 25.
Jefferson's attorney, Robert Trout, said that the congressman made the comment only after two hours of early-morning questioning by the FBI, during which he felt like a prisoner in his own house, even followed to the bathroom at one point.
To underscore its contention that Jefferson was free to come and go as he pleased, the government said Wednesday that the congressman excused himself to take three phone calls and to make one during the discussion. The FBI had been monitoring Jefferson's home and cell phone calls as part of their probe.
The first call came from James Creaghan, a Baton Rouge businessman and lobbyist, who ultimately would become a government witness against the congressman and provide much of the evidence Jefferson is now seeking to exclude. Creaghan, the FBI said, talked to Jefferson for three minutes and 18 seconds. It's unclear what they discussed, but afterward, Jefferson sat back down in his living room and resumed his discussion with the two FBI agents.
Jefferson also received two calls from the House of Representatives. The final call was placed by Jefferson and lasted, the FBI said, seven minutes and 51 seconds. It was to the House general counsel's office.
Bill Walsh can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7817.