Prosecutors get favorable ruling in William Jefferson case
by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday May 26, 2009, 4:58 PM
WASHINGTON -- Federal prosecutors will not be required as part of their bribery case against former Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, to prove he sought payments in return for decisions he made as a member of Congress, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Judge T.S. Ellis III said "it is sufficient for the government to adduce proof, including expert testimony or evidence of defendant's admissions and conduct, that it was customary .¤.¤. for members of Congress in defendant's position to exert influence -- by advice, recommendation or otherwise, on the issues in question."
Ellis' ruling came one week before Jefferson is scheduled face trial in Alexandria, Va., on 16 charges including bribery, racketeering, and honest services fraud.
The issue of what constitutes "official acts" is important because Jefferson has argued that the violations of the bribery statute aren't applicable to his circumstances.
The indictment accuses him of seeking and in some cases receiving payments to family-owned businesses in exchange for exerting influence with African government leaders on various business projects. His lawyers argue that is not part of his official duties as a congressman -- such as voting or introducing legislation.
Ellis said his ruling "does not relieve the government of its burden to prove at trial that the alleged official acts meet the statutory definition of that term." Still, his broader interpretation of what can constitute official acts was what prosecutors had been seeking.
In that regard, Jefferson's lawyers, filed a brief today asking Ellis to reject a Justice Department motion that they be barred from presenting evidence supporting the congressman's view that his acts aren't related to official duties.
Allowing such arguments, lead prosecutor Mark Lytle said in a brief last week, would confuse the jury. He argued that Jefferson had his congressional office arrange travel to some of the African nations where he sought to influence leaders, and sent out letters on congressional stationery supporting projects in Western Africa.
But Jefferson's lawyers said that "what the government seeks is an order that the jury can only hear its side of the story."
One of the charges against Jefferson is "honest services wire fraud -- depriving the public of its rights to honest services," and Jefferson's lawyers, led by Robert Trout, argue that they are entitled "to establish the absence of intent to deprive them of the particular services he was elected to provide."
"He was elected to represent the 2nd Congressional District of the state of Louisiana in the United States House of Representatives as its legislator -- not as its travel agent, meeting planner or ombudsman," the lawyers said. "And what he did or did not agree to do for the private businesses he allegedly helped to promote is directly germane to the question of whether he intended to deprive his constituents of his honest services as that legislator."
Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7861.