The William Jefferson Chronicles

Mose Jefferson defense begins in bribery trial
by Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune
Monday August 17, 2009, 10:17 PM

Federal prosecutors wrapped up their case accusing Mose Jefferson of bribing a former Orleans Parish School Board member Monday, while defense attorney Michael Fawer began what he has told jurors would be a lengthy defense that will include the testimony of the defendant himself.

On Monday, Fawer called three former School Board members as witnesses, as well as former U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston, R-Metairie, who obtained an earmark while in Congress for the program promoted by Jefferson.

Fawer used the board members' testimony to attack prosecutors' contention that Ellenese Brooks-Simms took bribes from Jefferson in exchange for exerting her influence -- particularly during the period when she served as board president -- to help pass an algebra tutorial that Jefferson was selling on commission.

Fawer has repeatedly reminded jurors that in order for a bribe to have taken place, there must be a "quid pro quo." In other words, a crime occurred only if Jefferson got something from Brooks-Simms in exchange for the $140,000 in payments he made to her from December 2003 to January 2005.

Jefferson, the older brother of former U.S. Rep William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, has acknowledged giving Brooks-Simms the money. But Fawer has characterized the money as aid for a cash-strapped friend, not a bribe.

The school system spent more than $13 million on the I CAN Learn program in 2003 and 2004, purchases that needed the approval of the seven-member board. Both times, the votes were unanimous.

Each of the former board members who testified Monday -- Elliot Willard, Una Anderson and Gail Glapion -- said Brooks-Simms did not lobby them to support the purchase. All three said they came to support the program independently after the success of a pilot program at McDonogh 35 High School.

When questioned by prosecutors, each of the former board members said their perspective on the algebra tutorial would have changed if they had known Brooks-Simms had received $140,000 in what prosecutors termed "kickbacks" from Jefferson.

Three other former board members are expected to testify in the trial.

Brooks-Simms, who testified over three days last week, repeatedly emphasized that she took the money from Jefferson knowing it was in exchange not only for her vote, but the influence she had over the board. She said Jefferson promised her that if the board went along with the purchases, she could expect a reward on the "back end."

Brooks-Simms has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe a public official and is awaiting sentencing.

Money for a friend

The challenge for Fawer, legal experts said, will be convincing jurors of Jefferson's counterargument: that Brooks-Simms pressured the defendant to give her the money and he did so against his better judgment because of her serious financial struggles.

"People just don't give $140,000 to their friends to help them out. That just doesn't happen, " said Loyola Law School professor Dane Ciolino

Making such a gift seem plausible will be the chief challenge of Jefferson's time on the witness stand, he said.

"It is going to come down to whether they believe him. It is no real mystery to it, " said Shaun Clarke, a former federal prosecutor.

Another wrinkle Jefferson will have to explain is why he paid Brooks-Simms with two checks that contained a blank "payee" line, plus a third check that he made out to another woman, Ciolino said.

"If it is just an above-board gift, why did they do it below board?" he asked rhetorically.

Outside the jurors' presence Monday, U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon refused to toss out five of the seven counts in the case after Fawer argued that prosecutors had not met their burden of proof in either the bribery or money-laundering charges.

Fawer said prosecutors had fallen far short of proving money laundering, a charge that stems from the fact that Brooks-Simms took the third check for $40,000 to a Jefferson family ally, businessman Burnell Moliere, who agreed to cash it for her. That was all Brooks-Simms' idea, Fawer argued.

Moliere agreed to cash the check, but he did so in a way that meant the bank would not have to report the withdrawal to the federal government. He wrote checks to "straw payees" and checks to cash in amounts smaller than $10,000, eventually turning the money over to Brooks-Simms. Moliere, who has pleaded guilty to the crime of structuring a financial transaction, testified for the prosecution.

"There is not a scintilla of evidence he (Mose Jefferson) had any idea what Moliere was doing, except cashing a check, " Fawer said.

Without explaining her reasons, Lemmon denied the motion and asked Fawer to begin his defense.

Jefferson also faces two counts of obstruction of justice. Those charges stem from recordings Brooks-Simms made, with the assistance of the FBI, of two meetings she had with Jefferson after agreeing to cooperate with federal authorities.

In the meetings, which took place after Jefferson knew of the investigation, Jefferson can be heard instructing Brooks-Simms to contact the two women on the checks he wrote to get them to agree to say they had worked for him.

While cross-examining Brooks-Simms, Fawer questioned whether the cover story Jefferson proposed was really to help her -- the former elected official -- than to help himself.

Livingston testifies

Along with the former board members, the defense called Livingston to testify about his role in promoting and securing an earmark for the I CAN Learn system while in Congress -- and then signing an agreement to lobby for the company that makes it just days after he left public service and set up shop as a lobbyist.

While the Livingston Group, his firm, also employed subcontractors who earned commissions for selling the I CAN Learn system to local school systems, Livingston said he didn't know much about that side of the business.

In 2004, when Jefferson received a hefty commission for sale of the system to Orleans Parish schools, a subcontractor for the Livingston Group also received a generous bonus for helping to get the deal passed. But Livingston told Fawer he didn't know much about it.

Before resting their case, prosecutors called the School Board's former chief academic officer, Ollie Tyler, who testified that she was surprised how involved Brooks-Simms was in negotiating an initial 2002 contract for the I CAN Learn program. It was unusual for a board member to be that deeply involved, she said.

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