The William Jefferson Chronicles

Mose Jefferson hammered by lawyers on unusual nature of his gifts
Mose Jefferson hammered by lawyers on unusual nature of his gifts
by Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday August 19, 2009, 10:20 PM

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday attacked Mose Jefferson's contention that the $140,000 he gave former Orleans Parish School Board member Ellenese Brooks-Simms was simply aid for a cash-strapped friend, repeatedly questioning the defendant on cross-examination about the unusual way he channeled the money to her and asking why he would go to such great lengths to hide an innocent gift.

It is undisputed in the case that Jefferson made three payments to Brooks-Simms, totaling $140,000, during a time when the board approved spending nearly $14 million on a computer-based algebra curriculum called I CAN Learn that Jefferson was hawking. Jefferson earned more than $900,000 in commissions for the sales.

Brooks-Simms, who pleaded guilty more than two years ago to a charge of conspiracy to commit bribery, has testified that the payments were bribes and that she was selling her influence. But Jefferson has said he gave the money to Brooks-Simms, whom he described as an old friend and a former lover, because she was deeply in debt and caring for an ailing husband.

Jefferson will be back on the stand Thursday for follow-up questioning by his attorney, Mike Fawer. It is unclear whether the federal government will call any rebuttal witnesses. If not, it is possible that the jury could begin deliberations late Thursday, after attorneys present their closing statements and U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon gives instructions on the law.

During more than five hours of cross-examination, prosecutor Michael Simpson focused on the fact that, before making payments to Brooks-Simms, Jefferson moved money from the company that received the commission payments -- B.E.P. Consulting Services Inc. -- to another of his businesses, Southwind Consultants Inc. Another man, Eddy Oliver, signed the checks for that business; Oliver previously testified that he routinely signed pages of checks and gave them to Jefferson to use.

Cloaking check recipient

When presenting checks to Brooks-Simms in December 2003 and January 2004, Jefferson never filled out a recipient, Simpson pointed out. Jefferson testified on Tuesday that he thought Brooks-Simms would give him the name of a company bank account into which the money would be deposited.

But to his dismay, Brooks-Simms didn't have a company, he said. Instead, she decided to write in the name of her daughter, Stacy Simms, he said.

"If you are giving a gift, why not just write out the name? Like people do when they give gifts?" Simpson asked.

"It would be misconstrued, as it is now, " Jefferson responded.

In earlier testimony, Jefferson said he knew it would look improper for Brooks-Simms, as an elected official, to receive money from somebody with business before the school board.

Jefferson's decision to take the witness stand in his own defense allowed him to explain the $140,000 in his own words.

But it also gave Simpson an opportunity to grill him -- and to repeatedly use the words "payoff" or "kickback" to describe the payments. Simpson also spent hours going over two conversations recorded by the FBI that show Jefferson repeatedly instructing Brooks-Simms to get the two women whose names were on the checks, Stacy Simms and Rosa Dickerson, to agree to a cover story.

Simpson questioned Jefferson about whether he had ever given anybody else such a generous gift. Jefferson responded that he routinely helps out friends and family members. However, he could not name a person to whom he had shown such largesse.

Combing conversations

Simpson took advantage of the opportunity to slowly go back over transcripts of the May 2007 conversations, recorded by a wire Brooks-Simms was wearing after she agreed to cooperate with federal authorities.

He showed Jefferson a snippet in which he said to Brooks-Simms: "I never gave you a check. I ain't never gave you no money."

"If this was an honest gift, why did you say this?" he asked.

Jefferson responded that he hadn't given Brooks-Simms a check in her name.

Earlier in the day, during direct testimony, Jefferson said he and Brooks-Simms started working out a cover story for the payments but only as a way of shielding her from potential charges. Jefferson said he was concerned when she told him in December 2006 that she hadn't paid taxes on the money.

"I said, 'Well, you might have a little problem, ' " Jefferson testified that he told her.

He said Brooks-Simms asked whether he could say he hired her daughter, perhaps to work on one of his other projects.

But Brooks-Simms testified earlier that that cover story -- that Stacy Simms had done work for Jefferson on a patent project -- was actually Jefferson's idea.

"I believed -- and I still do to this day -- I didn't do anything wrong, " Jefferson said.

But Simpson, showing Jefferson segments of his recorded conversations, sought to prove that Jefferson was the one coming up with phony reasons for payments to Stacy Simms and Dickerson. "Every single page shows you and you alone coming up with the cover story, the concoctions, " he said.

Jefferson disputed that point, emphasizing that Brooks-Simms wanted a cover story. "I thought she was in trouble, " he said.

'A misstatement'

Jefferson did agree with Simpson that the idea that Stacy Simms had worked for him was a "concocted story."

But he had trouble explaining why -- as Simpson pointed out -- he told a federal grand jury in June 2007 that Simms was a consultant for him, helping him "push a program."

"It was a misstatement on my part, " Jefferson said.

Simpson began his cross-examination tackling the most surprising claim Jefferson made in his direct testimony: that he and Brooks-Simms were romantically involved during the 1980s.

Adopting an incredulous tone, Simpson noted that Fawer had not brought up the alleged romance during his opening statement, nor did he question Brooks-Simms about the affair during her three days on the witness stand.

Jefferson told Simpson that he decided to break off the relationship after he became friends with Brooks-Simms' husband.

In the middle of Jefferson's testimony, Lemmon allowed Fawer to put on another witness, the Rev. Zebedee Bridges, a longtime friend of the Jefferson family and a minister Mose Jefferson said he went to for counsel.

Sitting in a wheelchair, Bridges, 83, testified that at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Jefferson told him about an affair he was having with a married woman. But Bridges could not remember the woman's name without prompting from Fawer. He then agreed it had been Brooks-Simms.

Ralph Capitelli, Brooks-Simms' lawyer, said the story of an affair was a lie, and noted that Fawer hadn't questioned his client about it. Brooks-Simms was married to her husband for more than 40 years and never once cheated, he said.

Amato a fan of program

Earlier in the day, former Orleans Parish schools superintendent Tony Amato took the witness stand, telling jurors that before he took the job in New Orleans, he was already a fan of the algebra tutorial that Jefferson was selling, having purchased it in his previous job as superintendent of schools in Hartford, Conn.

Amato's testimony bolstered Jefferson's defense: that he did not need to bribe Brooks-Simms to successfully peddle the I CAN Learn program to the school system, because the superintendent and other board members all supported it.

During cross-examination, Amato agreed with prosecutors' characterization of Brooks-Simms as a tough opponent who came to be at odds with him towards the end of her tenure on the board. Amato also noted during cross-examination that even after Brooks-Simms had turned against him, she had continued to support I CAN Learn, a rare point of agreement between the two at that time.

. . . . . . .

Laura Maggi can be reached at or 504.826.3316

Back to article index