|Mose Jefferson seeks new trial date, blames publicity from his brother's case|
by By Laura Maggi, Staff writer
Wednesday April 01, 2009, 8:58 PM
A federal judge on Wednesday considered arguments by Mose Jefferson's defense attorney that a nearly simultaneous corruption trial of his brother, former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, could create a media circus that would influence his own bribery trial.
Mose Jefferson is scheduled to face trial June 1 on allegations that he gave $140,000 worth of kickbacks to then-Orleans Parish School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms in exchange for her help steering a lucrative contract to a business he represented.
On May 26, just a few days before his trial's scheduled start, his younger brother William will go on trial in Virginia in a separate 16-count corruption case, in which the former congressman is accused of obtaining payments from businesses to help them win contracts in African nations.
Michael Fawer, Mose Jefferson's attorney, told U.S. Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon that the "explosion of publicity" surrounding William Jefferson's trial would prejudice a potential jury pool in Mose Jefferson's New Orleans trial. Lemmon and attorneys for both sides left the courtroom to discuss other possible trial dates. The judge did not immediately issue any rulings after the hourlong hearing.
One issue that could complicate trial planning, if the June 1 court date is pushed back, is a third trial involving the Jefferson family, currently set for Aug. 3. In that case, Mose Jefferson; his sister, 4th District Assessor Betty Jefferson; and the assessor's daughter, Angela Coleman, are accused of setting up nonprofit organizations financed by state grants with the stated intent of helping poor New Orleans youths, but instead skimming off the money and placing it in bank accounts they controlled.
Lemmon also heard arguments from both sides about a motion from Fawer to dismiss the indictment against Mose Jefferson because an article on nola.com allegedly tainted the grand jury process. The article, by Gordon Russell of The Times-Picayune, reported the expected indictment of Jefferson on the morning of April 8, 2008, on the bribery charges.
Fawer argued in a motion filed last fall that somebody from the federal government must have provided the information to Russell, violating the secrecy of the grand jury's deliberations. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten signed an affidavit filed with the court this year that asserted that nobody associated with the federal government's team leaked the information.
The main focus of Lemmon's hearing was whether the article itself would have influenced the grand jury, for example, by telling the jurors information they hadn't already picked up from the newspaper or other sources. "What did the grand jurors obtain from that posting that wasn't common, ordinary knowledge to people in this district?" Lemmon asked.
Sal Perricone, a prosecutor handling the case, told Lemmon he didn't believe any of the grand jurors had seen the article, with the exception of jurors who might have seen Mose Jefferson himself waving a copy of it in the grand jury room before they considered the indictment. During the course of a year, Perricone said, the jury heard from 32 witnesses; they had been told they would be asked to consider an indictment the next time they met.
But Fawer countered that the article, posted before the grand jury issued the indictment, contained some information that jurors otherwise wouldn't have known, including a link between William Jefferson and the product that Mose Jefferson had sold to the Orleans Parish School Board. The article also mentioned Mose Jefferson's ties to his brother's corruption case, Fawer said.
Prosecutors said they described the link between William Jefferson and the School Board case during the grand jury proceedings. Lemmon asked prosecutors to provide her with news articles that would have mentioned Mose Jefferson's connections to his brother's corruption trial in Virginia.
The judge also considered arguments about prosecution motions to limit the scope of Mose Jefferson's defense in the trial, such as banning any line of argument suggesting that prosecutors had racial motivations in targeting a prominent African-American. Fawer told Lemmon he had no intention of making that kind of argument.
Fawer took more exception to other motions by the U.S. attorney's office, which also sought to prohibit him from providing a jury with information about the effectiveness of the "I CAN Learn" program sold to the Orleans Parish schools to teach mathematics. Prosecutors also want to bar Fawer from mentioning that the contract for the math tutorial was unanimously approved by the Orleans Parish School Board.
Fawer said that information will certainly be part of his defense. "Part of our defense will be, we are selling a perfectly legitimate product," he said. Taking that information away would put the defense team in a "straitjacket," he told the judge.
Fawer noted that Brooks-Simms did not directly take money from Jefferson. Indeed, prosecutors have created charts they say show that Brooks-Simms took $100,000 worth of checks from one of Jefferson's businesses and filled them out in her daughter's name. The other $40,000 was signed over to Norco businessman Burnell Moliere, who cashed the checks and funneled the money to Brooks-Simms, prosecutors have said.
Moliere, Brooks-Simms and Stacy Simms, Brooks-Simms' daughter, have all pleaded guilty to various charges and are expected to testify against Mose Jefferson.
The defense contention is that Stacy Simms, described as assisting with the "I CAN Learn" contract approval, was the recipient of the payments instead of her mother, Fawer said.
Michael Simpson, one of the federal prosecutors, said Fawer's potential defenses are all irrelevant to the accusation that Jefferson bribed a public official and should not be allowed before a jury.
"All the court needs to do is listen to the tapes to see how illegitimate that defense is," he said. Sources have said Brooks-Simms wore a wire during conversations with Mose Jefferson.
Laura Maggi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3316.