The William Jefferson Chronicles

Mose Jefferson, Ellenese Brooks-Simms once lovers, Jefferson tells court
by Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday August 18, 2009, 8:36 PM

Mose Jefferson sought to persuade a federal jury Tuesday that the $140,000 he paid then-Orleans Parish School Board member Ellenese Brooks-Simms was not a bribe, as Brooks-Simms claims, but rather a charitable contribution to an old friend and former lover who was financially reeling and caring for an ailing husband.

Jefferson's testimony, which will resume Wednesday, aimed to poke holes large and small in the version of events offered during the past three days by Brooks-Simms, the government's star witness.

Last week, the former School Board president testified that she met Jefferson in 1999, when his brother, former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, was running for governor, and described their relationship as a political friendship that blossomed after she was elected to the school board in 2000.

But Mose Jefferson said the pair actually met in the early 1980s, when his younger brother made the first of two unsuccessful mayoral bids. They formed a relationship, which Jefferson characterized in his testimony Tuesday as "romantic" for a time, and Brooks-Simms helped Jefferson in business deals during that period, he said.

Brooks-Simms said last week that Jefferson approached her about a $6.9 million contract for a computer-based algebra tutorial that was to come before the School Board in 2003 and offered her money on the "back end" if it was approved. In accepting the money, she knew her vote and influence were being purchased, she said repeatedly.

But Jefferson testified that the contract coasted through the political process, without much coaxing from him. Meanwhile, he said, his longtime friend kept telling him about her financial straits. He eventually decided to help her out, he said, after talking to her ailing husband.

The two even differed on where and how Jefferson gave Brooks-Simms the first two $50,000 checks, which she received after the board's 2003 vote to buy the I CAN Learn algebra curriculum.

Brooks-Simms testified they met at restaurants, after which Jefferson presented her with envelopes containing checks with the "To" field left blank. She later filled in the name of her daughter, Stacy Simms, and had her open up a bank account to access the money, she testified.

When Jefferson later found out she had put her daughter's name on the checks, he was angry because it would be so easy to trace the money to her, Brooks-Simms testified.

But Jefferson said after he decided to help Brooks-Simms out, he summoned her to his apartment building on Loyola Avenue. He did not designate a payee because Brooks-Simms was an elected official and he knew it wouldn't look good for him to give her money, he testified.

Jefferson had hoped to write the checks out to a company that Brooks-Simms was associated with, he said. But she didn't have such a corporate entity, so she wrote in the name of her daughter as they sat in his office, he said.

Tony Amato to take the stand

Testimony stopped in the early afternoon, shortly after defense attorney Mike Fawer questioned Jefferson about a second $6.6 million purchase of the I CAN Learn program in 2004. Fawer said he will call former Orleans Parish schools superintendent Tony Amato to the stand first thing Wednesday, after which Jefferson's testimony will resume.

Prosecutors have not yet had an opportunity to question Jefferson. Fawer also has not addressed two meetings between Jefferson and Brooks-Simms that were taped with the FBI's help after Brooks-Simms agreed to cooperate with investigators.

Tuesday's testimony marked the first suggestion of a romance between Jefferson and Brooks-Simms. But Jefferson offered few details, simply responded in the affirmative when Fawer asked whether the relationship was a romantic one.

"Is that for some period during the '80s?" he asked. "Yes, " Jefferson said.

"Did you remain friends afterwards?" Fawer asked. "Yes, " Jefferson said.

Ralph Capitelli, Brooks-Simms' lawyer, declined to comment on Jefferson's testimony.

More connections

Brooks-Simms testified last week that she was married for 40 years before the death of her husband, Melvin, earlier this year. He was ill for many years, and she served as his primary caretaker, she said.

The relationship between Brooks-Simms and Jefferson came in handy in another of Mose Jefferson's many business ventures over the years, Jefferson said -- a school uniform business he had with Richard Chambers, an active member of the Jeffersons' political organization.

Jefferson's sister, Betty Jefferson -- then a School Board member, now the city's 4th District assessor -- helped push through a policy, saying standard uniforms would ease social pressures on students.

Shortly afterward, Mose Jefferson started a uniform business.

Jefferson testified he worked with Brooks-Simms, then a school principal, to persuade school leaders to purchase his uniforms. When Jefferson needed access to other principals, he said Brooks-Simms would help. "She would do that; she was my friend, " he said.

At the time, some parents complained that principals had signed exclusive deals with vendors, especially Jefferson's outfit, Statewide Inc. on Canal Street. But Brooks-Simms told The Times-Picayune in 1989 that said she signed with Statewide because of the company's low prices.

Mose Jefferson said he began talking to John Lee, who founded the company that created the I CAN Learn program, several years before he actually inked a contract to sell Lee's product in New Orleans.

In 2003, the company caught a break when the Orleans Parish School Board voted to hire former Hartford, Conn., school superintendent Tony Amato, who had bought the program in Hartford.

Jefferson said Lee told him that Amato liked the program and "it would be smooth sailing from then on."

Jefferson testified he didn't have to do much to promote I CAN Learn, since it was supported by the board and the superintendent. Fawer at one point noted Jefferson hadn't done much to earn more than $900,000 from the two contracts.

"No, I had not, " Jefferson responded. "When Mr. Amato came to office, there wasn't much for me to do. I just happened to have the exclusive contract."

Four former School Board members who served with Brooks-Simms testified that she never lobbied them to support I CAN Learn.

But Jimmy Fahrenholtz said Brooks-Simms did talk to him. Fahrenholtz tended to defer to her on educational topics and thus gave some significance to her approval, he said.

Jefferson's testimony on Tuesday began with a description of his childhood as one of 10 children growing up in one of the most impoverished sections of Louisiana in a narrative familiar to those who have followed his family's political rise and fall.

He chatted easily about living in Chicago as a young man -- the place where he first became schooled in the business of politics. Eventually, Jefferson joined several of his siblings in New Orleans, opening several companies with them and starting the Progressive Democrats.

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Laura Maggi can be reached at or at 504.826.3316.

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