Oft-delayed trial of William Jefferson finally about to begin
by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Saturday June 06, 2009, 9:48 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- Nearly four years after FBI agents found $90,000 in marked bills stuffed inside the freezer in his Washington D.C. home, former Democratic Rep. William Jefferson will go on trial Tuesday, facing 16 federal bribery and public corruption charges.
While the "cold cash" came to symbolize the case on the Internet and late-night television, the investigation into complex international business deals also made legal history with the first-ever raid on a sitting congressional member's office and a constitutional battle over the separation of powers and how bribery statutes are applied to members of Congress.
The indictment, which accuses Jefferson of seeking and sometimes receiving payments in return for helping businesses get contracts in western Africa, has already changed politics in both Louisiana and Nigeria.
Jefferson, a long-established New Orleans power broker, lost his bid for a 10th term in December to a relatively unknown Republican, Anh "Joseph" Cao. And Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar lost a run for his nation's presidency, partly as a result of being listed as the intended recipient of bribes allegedly to be funneled from Jefferson.
Jefferson, 62, has maintained his innocence. If convicted, he would likely face up to 20 years in prison.
The trial, expected to last four to six weeks, won't lack for drama. The prosecution's case is likely to include some of the hundreds of hours of secretly recorded conversations, many between Jefferson and Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody, a disgruntled investor who became a cooperating witness.
The snippets of conversations already released by prosecutors include Jefferson telling Mody on May 12, 2005, that Nigerian businessman Suleiman YahYah will probably have to pay bribes to get a telecommunications project proposed by iGate Inc. past regulators. Mody was an iGate investor.
"We got to motivate him real good," Jefferson said, according to a Justice Department transcript. "He's got a lot of people to pay off."
That same day, with Jefferson writing on paper how much of a stake (eventually 30 percent, according to the Justice Department) he'll want in Mody's Nigerian venture for a business controlled by his children, Jefferson says: "I make the deal for my children."
After passing more messages he says, according to the transcript: "All these damn notes, we're writing to each other as if we're talking as if the FBI is watching."
Defining 'official acts'
The prosecutors, led by Mark Lytle, say the government has overwhelming evidence that Jefferson used his congressional office to help promote business projects in western Africa in return for payments to companies controlled by his family.
But Jefferson's legal team, led by Washington lawyer Robert Trout, argues that the government's case has a major flaw: Not only are many of the charges false, the attorneys say, but none of the actions he is alleged to have taken relate to his official duties, such as voting or introducing legislation -- a contention heatedly rejected by prosecutors.
Both sides plan to bring in experts to tell the jury why their interpretation of what constitutes "official acts" is correct. At some point, the jury and public is likely to receive the long-promised "honorable explanation" from Jefferson or his attorneys on why the $90,000, which the FBI thought had been delivered to Abubakar, then vice president of Nigeria, to facilitate approval of a telecommunication project, was found in the congressman's freezer.
The witnesses assembled by the government could provide sparks of their own.
Mody, who began the investigation after going to the FBI in March 2005 to complain she was the victim of fraud in African investments promoted by a powerful congressman, is likely to be portrayed by the defense as a person who battled mental illness and relished intrigue and who, at the urging of FBI agents, pushed Jefferson to take cash from her to bribe the Nigerian vice president.
And while the government engaged in a sting -- having Mody deliver $100,000 in FBI cash in a transaction videotaped by the government -- Jefferson's legal team suggests the former congressman had no intention of turning the money over to Abubakar. It would be a crime to defraud Mody, but he isn't accused of that in the Justice Department's indictment.
Key prosecution witnesses also include Noreen Wilson, a Florida investor, and James Creaghan, a Baton Rouge lobbyist. They figured in five of the 12 schemes alleged by the Justice Department, either together or as individuals, but are now cooperating with the prosecution.
Another major witness will be Vernon Jackson, the CEO of the technology firm iGate Inc., who pleaded guilty to bribery after prosecutors said he funneled $367,500 and 30 million shares of iGate stock to ANJ Group, a firm controlled by Jefferson's wife and children, in return for the congressman's help.
Uncharted legal terrain
In a nutshell, the case is about influence, and the Virginia jury will hear about a complicated maze of international business dealings encompassing New Orleans, Washington and its Virginia suburbs, and the western Africans nations of Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Sao Tome and Principe.
The case has been full of legal firsts:
--The first-ever raid of the U.S. residence of a foreign elected official, the Maryland home that Abubakar built for his fourth wife, Jennifer Douglas. Multiple marriages are legal in Nigeria. The raid of the Abubakars' $2 million home occurred the same day in August 2005 that FBI agents raided Jefferson's New Orleans and Washington homes and iGate offices in Kentucky and New Jersey.
--The first raid of a sitting congressman's office. The Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the raid passed constitutional muster, but the procedures used by the FBI -- using a team of agents not assigned to the case to go through all documents in the office -- did not. As a result, much of the material obtained from the raid won't be available to prosecutors.
The office raid set off a firestorm among current and former members of Congress and led President George W. Bush to secure the papers without access to prosecutors while the legal arguments proceeded. When it was rumored that Bush would return the documents to Jefferson, the attorney general, director of the FBI and deputy attorney general all threatened to quit.
"What the events suggest is that the Department of Justice is deeply committed to the Jefferson trial, likely because they were shocked by his pattern of conduct," said Tulane University law professor Stephen Griffin. "I don't think they are pressing the outer limits of the bribery statute, but the case has a great potential to make new law."
Justice Department gains
Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor who has been following the case, said most of the procedural issues so far have been won by the Justice Department, with the exception of the raid of Jefferson's office.
"I think the significance of the rulings in the case, both kind of mundane and extraordinary, is that members of Congress are subject to the same laws that ordinary citizens are," Ciolino said.
It is not known whether Jefferson will testify in his own defense. If he does, he's expected to press his argument that none of his actions involved official acts such as voting on legislation or adding earmarks.
"Did I make mistakes in judgment along the way that I now deeply regret? Yes," Jefferson said after pleading innocent to the government's indictment in June 2007. "But did I sell my office or trade official acts for money? Absolutely not. This case involved private business activities and not official acts."
Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or 202.383.7861.