The William Jefferson Chronicles

Judge sets Dec. 2 trial date for Jefferson

by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune

Friday June 13, 2008, 12:57 PM

ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III today set a Dec. 2 trial date in the federal corruption case of Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, although the judge admitted that it could be delayed again.

Ellis made his comments during a hearing in which he again refused a request by Jefferson's attorneys to grant a change of venue for the trial from Virginia to Washington, D.C. The defense attorneys say prosecutors chose Virginia because it has a smaller proportion of African-American jurors to consider the black congressman's case.

Attorney Robert Trout accused the Justice Department of "purposeful discrimination" in bringing the case in Virginia.

Ellis said he found no evidence that the government had manipulated events to hold the trial in Virginia, but Jefferson's lawyers said it's impossible to know that without questioning government prosecutors and reviewing their e-mails and other material. Justice Department attorneys said that would amount to a fishing expedition.

Jefferson, who faces charges of bribery, racketeering and conspiracy in connection with business deals he was assisting in Africa, also asked the judge to order the Justice Department to use international legal treaties to compel three witnesses, including Atiku Abubakar, the former vice president of Nigeria, his wife and businessman Sulieman Yahyah to answer questions in legal depositions.

Ellis asked for more briefs before ruling on that motion.

The defense attorneys want Ellis to allow them to take depositions from Jennifer Abubakar, the former vice president's wife and a citizen of the United States, in Europe, where she has agreed to answer questions.

The testimony of the three is important to the defense, Jefferson's lawyers said, because all three have denied they participated or were aware of an alleged scheme in which the congressman was to pass bribes to promote a telecommunications project proposed by a Kentucky firm Jefferson was assisting.

Ellis seemed to agree with the government argument that depositions taken from abroad are a problem because the testimony would not be subject to U.S. perjury laws. The judge suggested that Trout subpoena Mrs. Abubakar to testify at the trial.

Government attorneys also said that arranging such depositions could further delay a trial that originally was slated to begin in January but had been indefinitely postponed while an appeal on another Ellis pretrial ruling is heard by a federal appeals court.

During the hearing Ellis asked government prosecutor Charles Duross if any of the three could face potential charges if they return to the United States. "That could happen," Duross said.

The appeals court is scheduled to take up some constitutional issues in the case the week of Sept. 23, but Ellis said he is hopeful of starting the trial in December.

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