The William Jefferson Chronicles

Mose Jefferson's lawyer chips away at motive for bribe
by Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune
Thursday August 13, 2009, 8:49 PM

Attacking former Orleans Parish School Board member Ellenese Brooks-Simms' contention that her vote and influence on a costly contract were purchased by Mose Jefferson with $140,000, defense attorney Michael Fawer on Thursday questioned why anybody would bribe an elected official who had just lost a re-election race.

During a more than four-hour cross-examination, Fawer homed in on a November 2004 vote for a $6.6 million proposal to expand the I CAN Learn algebra tutorial program, offering it to more New Orleans classrooms. Jefferson sold the program for JRL Enterprises, collecting a lucrative commission.

Brooks-Simms testified earlier this week that she received a $40,000 check from Jefferson in exchange for her vote and "influence" in the contract decision. She previously received two checks, each for $50,000, for a 2003 vote on the same tutorial program, also in exchange for her vote and influence, she said.

But at the end of 2004, when a significant expansion of the program was being proposed by then-Superintendent Tony Amato, Brooks-Simms had been bruised by a re-election race loss -- and that came after she had been removed by fellow board members from the president's post. The November vote for the I CAN Learn expansion, in fact, was among her last official acts before leaving office.

Fawer questioned whether Brooks-Simms at the time had any power that would make someone want to give her a bribe, noting she had lost allies on the board.

"You are a nonentity at this point, " he said.

A force on board

But Brooks-Simms disagreed, saying she still had the power to derail a proposal on the board's agenda and could have done so.

Brooks-Simms was seen as a formidable force on the School Board, particularly during two years when she served as president. During Thursday's testimony she seemed at times almost combative, asking for clarification as she faced questions from Fawer, who is known for a pugnacious style.

At the beginning of Brooks-Simms' testimony, U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon twice told her to answer questions and not take the discussion in a different direction.

Jefferson is accused of giving Brooks-Simms three checks, worth a total of $140,000, from December 2003 to January 2005 in exchange for her vote and influence in the approval of more than $13 million in contracts for the I CAN Learn program. The last check came in January 2005, after Brooks-Simms left office.

Fawer's cross-examination, which continues Friday, came after hours of testimony from Brooks-Simms about recordings she made, with the assistance of the FBI, of two conversations with Jefferson in May 2007. Fawer has not yet questioned Brooks-Simms about those tapes.

Payments acknowledged

Jefferson does not deny giving Brooks-Simms $140,000, Fawer told the jury in opening statements. But he does deny that the payments were bribes, saying the checks were provided for a longtime friend who was in financial straits because of her expensive shopping habits, her husband's ill health and her daughter's recent job loss. Fawer estimated that Brooks-Simms' unpaid bills totaled $75,000 to $100,000, an estimate she did not dispute.

While Fawer told jurors that Brooks-Simms and Jefferson, the older brother of former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, had been friends for decades, Brooks-Simms testified they've known each other only since 1999.

Brooks-Simms testified Wednesday that Mose Jefferson first brought up the possible expansion of the I CAN Learn contract in 2003, saying if it went through there would be something for her on the "back end."

But Fawer questioned Brooks-Simms about whether it was she who first brought up the possibility of him giving her money, as she knew he stood to profit from the I CAN Learn deals. She denied this.

Fawer questioned what Brooks-Simms did in 2003, when she was School Board president, that would have prompted Jefferson to bribe her. The schools superintendent favored the contract and it was approved unanimously by the School Board, he noted.

Talking to members

The defense attorney repeatedly asked whether Brooks-Simms tried to persuade her fellow board members to vote for the program. At first she said no. But after a follow-up question, Brooks-Simms said she did talk to each of the other six board members about the proposal.

Early in her testimony, Brooks-Simms acknowledged making a plea deal with federal authorities limiting her potential prison sentence to five years. Her sentencing has been delayed repeatedly, a typical move on the part of prosecutors when they are depending on a defendant's testimony.

Brooks-Simms opened Thursday's testimony with discussion of the second of two recordings she made in May 2007, after she agreed to cooperate in the federal investigation.

Throughout the conversation played Thursday, which was taped at West Jefferson Medical Center on May 25, 2007, Jefferson could be heard telling Brooks-Simms that, when asked about the payments he made to her, she should say she assembled a team to work on a project for him.

Brooks-Simms testified she believed this story would cover for the fact that the $140,000 in checks were actually written to other people, a friend and her daughter, Stacy Simms. Brooks-Simms, however, was the eventual recipient of the money.

Talk on tape

On the recording, Jefferson repeatedly told her to call her daughter and make sure that she understood she had worked for him.

"But they gonna say you sold yourself to us for money to get the I CAN Learn passed. But you say, 'No it's not, ' but you can say it's not true. I had a team, " Jefferson said on the tape.

"Now it's on you to get everyone straight, " he said later. "I didn't know the team. That's not my area."

Brooks-Simms testified that there wasn't a team working for Jefferson, saying this was just his plan to cover up the fact that he had bribed her.

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Laura Maggi can be reached at or 504.826.3316.

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