The William Jefferson Chronicles

Mose Jefferson testifies he had 'romantic relationship' with Ellenese Brooks-Simms
by Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday August 18, 2009, 12:09 PM

Taking the witness stand in his own defense this morning, Mose Jefferson told jurors he had a romantic relationship with former Orleans Parish School Board member Ellenese Brooks-Simms and has known her since the early 1980s.

Jefferson continued his testimony under direct examination by attorney Michael Fawer until just before 2:00 p.m., when U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon broke for the day, telling the jurors to come back at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow. This was merely a procedural issue, Fawer said after court broke, as he plans to put former Orleans Parish superintendent Tony Amato on the stand in the morning before starting back with Jefferson's direct testimony and eventual cross examination by federal prosecutors.

During a chronological line of questioning that began with Jefferson's hard-scrabble childhood in Lake Providence and the long period he lived in Chicago as a young man, Jefferson said he met Brooks-Simms, the woman he is accused of bribing, when his younger brother William Jefferson ran for mayor in 1981.

The point is important because Brooks-Simms has testified that she first became friends with Mose Jefferson in 1999, when then-U.S. Rep. William Jefferson ran a losing bid for governor.

Brooks-Simms has pleaded guilty to taking bribes from Mose Jefferson in exchange for her vote and influence on the school board in approving a lucrative contract for an algebra tutorial program that Jefferson was selling on commission. She was the star witness for the government.

On the stand this morning, Mose Jefferson said that he and Brooks-Simms developed both a friendship and working relationship in the 1980s, when he and Richard Chambers, an ally through the Progressive Democrats political organization, started up a school-uniform business.

Jefferson testified they worked with Brooks-Simms, then a principal, to convince schools to purchase their uniforms instead of competitors'. When Jefferson needed access to other principals, he said Brooks-Simms would help. "She would do that, she was my friend," he said.

Jefferson's attorney, Michael Fawer, then asked him whether they had ever had a romantic relationship? "Yes," he replied.

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

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

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

Fawer then asked Jefferson about his later romantic relationship with Renee Gill Pratt, the former state legislator and city councilwoman, which he said started in the late 1980s.

Jefferson's testimony began with 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 the political careers of various members of his family, particularly former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson.

Answering Fawer's questions in a casual, conversational style, he told jurors about picking cotton for $2 per each hundred pounds and shining shoes in town. After graduating at 17, Jefferson said he worked with his father for a bit before moving to Chicago, where his older sister Barbara lived.

Jefferson joined the U.S. Air Force, serving for three years before returning to Chicago, he testified. He worked various jobs, eventually becoming a supervisor for various fried chicken outlets. That work brought him in contact with politicians for the first time, as he often had to testify before various councils about how a proposed fried chicken restaurant would be a good neighbor, he said.

Jefferson said he became enamored of the work politicians did, particularly their ability to help people with little power to help themselves. At some point, he met Bill and Bob Shaw, his political mentors, who persuaded him to work as a precinct captain -- and later ward leader -- for their political organization in Chicago.

Taking the political skills he learned in Chicago, Jefferson came to New Orleans to help both with his brother William's state Senate campaign in the 1970s and his first unsuccessful run for mayor in 1981, he said. Shortly after that race, Mose Jefferson moved to New Orleans, getting into a rent-to-own appliance business with his brother Bennie, who is now deceased, he said.

Jefferson told jurors that he, his brothers and around 50 allies formed the Progressive Democrats political group around the time of William's unsuccessful campaign for mayor against Sidney Barthelemy in the mid-1980s.

William Jefferson was the head of the group, he said, adding that it wasn't a "dictatorship." "My role in any campaign is, like, organizing," he said, saying he made sure everything got done, from knocking on doors to radio and television commercials.

Jefferson ended his morning testimony by explaining how he met John Lee, the creator of the I CAN Learn program at the center of the bribery trial, as well as his efforts helping get Brooks-Simms elected to the school board in 2000.

During an hour of questioning in the afternoon, Fawer asked Jefferson about the $140,000 he gave to Brooks-Simms from December 2003 to January 2005. The attorney has previously told jurors the money was a gift, not a bribe, as prosecutors assert.

Jefferson told jurors that after the school board approved the first $6.9 million contract for I CAN Learn in June 2003, Brooks-Simms repeatedly complained to him about her serious financial problems, estimating she was in debt up to $100,000. Knowing Jefferson was about to get a large commission, Brooks-Simms called him several times to inquire about when he was getting paid.

Jefferson said he at first balked at giving Brooks-Simms money, but eventually relented after talking to both her and her husband, Melvin, who reiterated the financial problems they were experiencing.

Also testifying this morning were former Orleans Parish School member Jimmy Fahrenholtz and political activist Samson Alexander, a longtime friend of the Jefferson family.

An investigator for Fawer testified that he failed to successfully locate former Orleans Parish School Board member Cheryl Mills, which means he couldn't serve her with a subpoena.

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