|Judge questions premise of Jefferson's defense|
By Bill Walsh
WASHINGTON -- The judge in the federal case against U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, expressed skepticism Friday at the congressman's central defense that despite evidence that he and his family received nearly $400,000 in payments from companies seeking his influence in business deals, it doesn't amount to bribery.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III issued no rulings after the first round of oral arguments in the 16-count public bribery case. But he did raise questions when Jefferson's attorneys argued that the congressman's actions -- writing letters, traveling to West Africa and meeting with federal officials for paying clients -- can't be considered bribery.
"Using a congressman's influence is not a bribe?" Ellis asked defense attorney Amy Jackson.
Jackson conceded that Jefferson's actions might look bad and defy the "walking-around understanding" of bribery. But, she argued, Jefferson's actions don't violate the bribery statute as spelled out by Congress, which she said talks about "official acts," not every action performed by a congressman while in office.
"That may be people's walking-around understanding, but that is not the statute," Jackson said. "When Congress wants to be specific, it is."
The argument is critical to Jefferson's defense. He contends that he was carrying out a private business deal, not an official act of Congress, when he tried to help Kentucky-based telecommunications firm iGate Inc. land lucrative Internet service contracts in Nigeria and Ghana. IGate paid nearly $400,000 to the ANJ Group, a Louisiana corporation controlled by Jefferson's wife, Andrea, in addition to millions of shares of company stock.
If Jefferson is successful in getting the bribery counts dismissed, much of the government's
2 1/2-year-old case would unravel.
Judge Ellis didn't appear convinced, however. Ellis hypothetically asked whether a congressman accepting $100,000 from a foreign national to make some phone calls to help speed an immigration application would be considered a bribe. Wouldn't those telephone calls be part of a congressman's official acts, he asked.
"We all know congressmen have enormous influence," he said.
Jackson said she didn't think a congressman taking payments for placing phone calls to a federal agency would constitute bribery.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle said drawing such a distinction is nonsense. He read aloud from a page on Jefferson's official Web site that said that "one of the most important things we do" in Congress is help constituents and businesses solve problems they are having with the government.
"Here we have a congressman who used his office to support many constituents who agreed to pay him bribes," Lytle said.
Lytle reminded the court that the FBI found $90,000 in "cold, hard cash" in the freezer of Jefferson's Capitol Hill townhouse. The money, the government alleges, was meant to bribe the former Nigerian vice president to consummate the iGate contract.
Jackson said the famous freezer money, handed to Jefferson by a witness cooperating with the FBI, is irrelevant to charges relating to bribes paid to Jefferson.
"It (the money) was provided by the FBI. It was not bribe money provided to Congressman Jefferson," she said.
Judge Ellis urged the lawyers to refrain from referring to the freezer money as "cold cash." Jefferson, who attended the two-hour-and-15-minute session in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., didn't react to Ellis' wry comment. He declined to comment after the hearing.
Lytle, the prosecutor, created a stir among spectators when he hinted that more charges against Jefferson could be in the offing. He said that boxes of contested documents seized from Jefferson's Capitol Hill office during a controversial raid could add to the government's case.
"We think those documents will be relevant to the ongoing investigation and new possible charges," he said.
An appellate court ruled that the government failed to properly execute the search warrant on Jefferson's office because the congressman wasn't given the right in advance to object that constitutionally protected material was being seized. Jefferson now has the right to challenge the release of those documents.
Friday's hearing covered just two of the dozen or so motions Jefferson has filed in his defense. Ellis put off discussion about the admissibility of comments Jefferson made to FBI agents who searched his home in New Orleans on Aug. 3, 2005. Prosecutors have called the comments "incriminating."
Also not discussed was Jefferson's motion to move the case to Washington, D.C. He argues that the government is hoping to draw fewer African-Americans on a jury in northern Virginia than it would in Washington, a majority black city. Jefferson is African-American. Ellis said those motions would argued at a later date.
The volume of motions, which Ellis said caused a "small forest to be sacrificed," raises questions about whether the Jan. 16 trial date will have to be adjusted. Jefferson's attorneys have urged a delay, but as of Friday, Ellis showed no inclination to delay it.
Bill Walsh can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7817.