Judge, lawyers prepare for final phase in trial of former Rep. William Jefferson
by Bruce Alpert and Jonathan Tilove, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday July 28, 2009, 10:16 AM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- The jury in the corruption trial of former Rep. William Jefferson returned today after a four-day weekend, but was released again after a brief session in court.
Robert Trout officially announced that the defense had rested, after presenting on Thursday a combined two hours of testimony and the playing of FBI-recorded conversations not played by prosecutors, Judge T.S. Ellis said jurors could go home, although he said the court had provided the customary sandwiches.
On Monday, Ellis said he needed more time to work out some legal issues before the jury hears closing arguments in the trial, now in its sixth week. Ellis has allowed 2½ hours each for the prosecutors and defense team to make their closing arguments, and said he wants both sides to complete their arguments in a single day.
Late Monday, Ellis refused a request from Jefferson's lawyers to throw out 15 of the 16 charges pending against the former congressman on grounds that the prosecution has failed to show that Jefferson performed official acts on behalf of businesses that provided or promised payments to family owned businesses. But Ellis said there is substantial evidence, including letters sent out on congressional letterhead, meetings set up by Jefferson's staff with the help of the State Department and testimony by a former member of Congress, to indicate his actions are "clearly established by settled practice."
That was the criteria established by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1914 ruling, though Jefferson's lawyers have argued a more recent High Court ruling, in a case involving former Bill Clinton Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, found that prosecutors have to show a specific official act for a guilty verdict on the charge that Espy received gifts, including football tickets, from executives with Sun-Diamond.
Ellis called the question of whether the major allegations against Jefferson, that he sought payments to family-owned companies in return for his help securing contracts in western Africa, constitute official acts the "fundamental issue" in the case. He said it's possible an appellate court, perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court, might see the issue differently.
Jefferson's lawyers said the actions alleged by the government are all private business deals not covered by the bribery statute.
Ellis put off a ruling Monday on Jefferson's challenge to an obstruction of justice charge, saying that with 1,400 documents seized from his New Orleans home Aug. 3, 2005, he doesn't find it credible the congressman had intended to keep two faxes from an iGate official away from the FBI given the material wasn't all that important. He asked Justice Department lead prosecutor Mark Lytle whether the documents in question were part of the government's evidence, and Lytle said that they weren't used, although he said the congressman had no way of knowing how important they might be.
Ellis said he might keep the charge after Lytle told him that the briefcase that Jefferson dropped the papers in had already been searched and might not have been searched again. Jefferson's lawyers said that Jefferson had no way of knowing that the bag had already been examined by agents.
Ellis said he'll decide the issue this afternoon.
According to the testimony of an FBI agent, Jefferson mixed the two faxes into a copy of the search subpoena he was given on Aug. 3, 2005, and eventually put the documents into his briefcase. When asked about them, he first said the document was simply the subpoena. But when asked to turn it over, the agent said, Jefferson complied with the request.
In an indication of how complicated the case is, Ellis said he's prepared two hours of jury instructions. Ellis said he would meet with prosecutors and defense lawyers this afternoon to consider changes in his draft instructions.
Attending today's hearing was Jefferson's wife, Andrea, who has attended every day of the trial, along with the couple's five daughters.