The William Jefferson Chronicles

Mose Jefferson case goes to jury
by Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune
Thursday August 20, 2009, 9:02 PM

A federal jury could reach a verdict today in the federal trial of political operative Mose Jefferson, accused of bribing former Orleans Parish School Board president Ellenese Brooks-Simms to gain her support for a product he was selling.

After jurors deliberated for three hours Thursday, U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon dismissed them at 6 p.m., telling them to abstain from reading or watching any news reports about the case and to report back in the morning. The jury is considering seven charges: conspiracy to bribe Brooks-Simms, three counts of bribery for each check he gave her, one count of money laundering, and two counts of obstruction of justice.

Jefferson is accused of bribing Brooks-Simms for her help in getting the board to approve two contracts totaling almost $14 million for the I CAN Learn algebra curriculum.

Brooks-Simms, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, was the government's star witness, telling the jurors she sold her influence for $140,000 in bribes. She was backed up by two recordings of conversations she had with Jefferson while wearing a wire.

Jefferson, the older brother of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, has not disputed giving Brooks-Simms three checks that were cashed through a series of straw payees. But he characterized them as a gift to a friend and former lover in serious financial straits.

Both sides got a last chance to sell those narratives to the jury Thursday afternoon, the eighth day of the trial.

Prosecutors scoffed at the notion that Jefferson's would give such a generous gift.

"This is not about a gift; this is about a payoff to a public official, " said Assistant U.S Attorney Michael Simpson. "We are here to make sure that corrupt salesman faces justice."

Defense attorney Michael Fawer told the jurors to take a jaundiced look at the government's case, saying prosecutors failed to establish that Jefferson received anything of value from Brooks-Simms in exchange for the money.

Fawer emphasized the broad political support for the algebra tutorial, which was unanimously approved by the board in votes in 2003 and 2004. Former Orleans Parish Schools Superintendent Tony Amato also testified that when he came to the city in early 2003, he intended to expand the I CAN Learn computer laboratories.

"One thing that is clear in this case -- I CAN Learn did not need Ellenese's support for its approval, " he said.

Federal prosecutor Sal Perricone, gave a rebuttal to Fawer's closing, calling the defense's emphasis on the unanimous votes and Amato's support sideshows meant to distract the jurors from Mose Jefferson's crimes.

"This case is about payoffs and rewards, " he said.

As they have throughout the trial, prosecutors relied heavily on transcripts of two conversations between Brooks-Simms and Jefferson that were recorded by the FBI in May 2007. Brooks-Simms agreed to wear a wire after signing a plea agreement.

During his closing, Simpson flashed quotes on a screen, in which Jefferson instructed Brooks-Simms to talk to her daughter, Stacy Simms, and another woman, Rosa Dickerson, whose names were on the checks used to pay Brooks-Simms.

In the tapes, Jefferson argued that the women needed to play along and say they had actually worked for him, Simpson said. "Listen closely to who controls those conversations, " he told the jurors.

"Ya gotta talk to that other girl, " Jefferson said in one clip.

"You gotta talk to the people. You can't let them talk to no one, " he said in another, an apparent reference to the federal investigators he knew were scrutinizing the checks.

Fawer agreed the conversations were "stupid, " but he argued they didn't rise to the level of obstruction of justice. Jefferson was trying to come up with cover stories to help Brooks-Simms, whom he believed might be in trouble with federal investigators, he said.

"It was stupid and wrong, but not a crime, " he said. "Under our system of justice, a morally reprehensible conversation is not a crime."

Simpson called the most surprising revelation of Jefferson's two days on the witness stand -- his assertion he had a romantic relationship with Brooks-Simms in the 1980s -- a falsehood that unfairly stained a marriage of more than 40 years.

But Fawer countered it was a fact that needed to come out, as it established that Brooks-Simms' friendship with Jefferson went back much further than she acknowledged while testifying, when she said they first met in 1999.

"It showed that Ellenese is willing to get on the stand and lie, " he said.

Fawer also exhorted the jurors to compare Mose Jefferson's role as a highly compensated salesman to that of former U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston, who as a lobbyist also was paid to sell and promote the I CAN Learn program, which he testified to earlier this week.

Federal prosecutors never gave the same scrutiny to Livingston's finances, Fawer said, suggesting Mose Jefferson was targeted because his last name was Jefferson.

"Bob Livingston is off-limits, a man named Jefferson is not, " he said. "Ask yourself why."

Perricone called references to Livingston another distraction, saying that unlike Jefferson he'd had no success peddling the I CAN Learn program to the Orleans Parish school system.

"Bob Livingston couldn't get to first base. Mose Jefferson could, " he said.

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