Key witness will not testify against former Rep. William Jefferson
by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday June 10, 2009, 5:26 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- Lori Mody, the Virginia businesswoman who was expected to be the government's star witness in the federal corruption trial of former Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, will not be called to testify for the prosecution, lawyers said today.
The judge was informed of the government's decision during a bench conference this morning that was not immediately made public. "We do not intend to call Lori Mody in our case in chief," lead prosecutor Mark Lytle said without further explanation.
File photoLori Mody
It was Mody who helped spark the investigation of Jefferson after going to the FBI in March 2005 to complain that she was the victim of fraud in African investments being promoted by the congressman. She agreed to wear a wire and the recordings of her meetings with Jefferson are at the heart of much of the government's case.
Experts said the government will still be able to introduce the many hours of tape-recorded conversations but will lose testimony from Mody about unrecorded conversations she had with Jefferson, including one in the congressional dining room. It also opens the door for the defense to raise doubts about the dealings and Mody's credibility.
Asked if the government's failure to call Mody would compromise the ability of the prosecution to use the tapes and whether the defense would still be able to call Mody to the stand to try to challenge her, Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond, said, "I think yes to both. At least the defense will be able to undermine the strength of the tapes by arguing that the government did not call her."
The defense was expected to portray her as a person who battled mental illness and relished intrigue and who, at the urging of FBI agents, pushed Jefferson to take cash from her to bribe the Nigerian vice president.
While the government engaged in a sting -- having Mody deliver $100,000 in FBI cash in a transaction videotaped by the government -- Jefferson's legal team suggests the former congressman had no intention of turning the money over to the Nigerian vice president. It would be a crime to defraud Mody, but he isn't accused of that in the Justice Department's indictment.
FBI agents found $90,000 of the $100,000 in Jefferson's freezer during a raid on his Washington, D.C., home in August 2005.
The 16-count indictment against Jefferson, who represented the New Orleans area in Congress for nine terms, alleges that he engaged in bribery, racketeering, money laundering and other crimes by using his influence as a member of Congress to broker business deals in Africa. He maintains his innocence.
Prosecutors and Jefferson's attorneys have been arguing for weeks about the defense efforts to obtain and use Mody's mental health records.
In papers filed last month Jefferson's attorneys said if Mody has "qualms" about producing mental health records and answering questions "it is the charges that must yield," not Jefferson's "right to defend against them."
The documents also included previously unreleased transcripts of FBI recorded conversations that describe Mody as worried about a possible stalker and having "a lot of personal issues" at the time she and Jefferson worked together on a Nigerian telecommunications project.
The filings also said that at some of the meetings between Mody and Jefferson "considerable amounts of wine was consumed." They also said the Justice Department had revealed in a previously sealed document that Mody was undergoing something (the phrase is redacted by court order) that affected her ability "to concentrate."
The attorneys said they are entitled to raise these issues to challenge the credibility of Mody, who they describe as the key witness against the nine-term New Orleans Democrat.
Jury selection will continue through Thursday. Because the trial will be in recess Friday and Monday, opening arguments are now expected to begin Tuesday, when the proceedings are scheduled to resume.