Prosecutors say former Rep. William Jefferson hoped to funnel hundreds of millions to his family
by Bruce Alpert
and Jonathan Tilove, The Times-Picayune Tuesday June 16, 2009, 9:59 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, illegally used his office to broker business deals in west Africa in exchange for bribes he hoped would enrich his family to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, the government's lead prosecutor said in his opening statement Tuesday.
"This case is about corruption, about one of our government's most powerful officials, a member of Congress, using his public office for private gain -- repeatedly, " Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle said in a standing-room-only courtroom in the federal courthouse where the fate of the former nine-term member of Congress will be decided.
In an opening that lasted one hour and 10 minutes, Lytle sketched out nearly a dozen different telecommunications, oil, sugar and incinerator deals in which he said Jefferson wielded the enormous influence in west Africa that he had accrued in Congress, including direct access to heads of state, in exchange for payments and a piece of the action for family members or "sham" companies under their control "whose sole purpose was to collect illegal bribes."
The Jeffersons, Lytle said, were living beyond their means with credit card debt of $62,000, overdrawing their bank account 70 times -- one time by $8,000 -- and more than $40,000 in interest and late charges and bounced-check fees. Jefferson had to find some way to pay their bills, Lytle said, and "he chose bribes and corruption."
But defense attorney Robert Trout told the jury of eight women and four men that although Jefferson may have done things they might find unethical and "disapprove of, " he did not exact any money in exchange for official acts and that he is "not guilty of any of these charges."
Safekeeping -- in freezer
The 16-count indictment against Jefferson accuses him of engaging in bribery, racketeering and other crimes. Judge T.S. Ellis III is presiding. Jefferson's wife, Andrea, and two of his five daughters -- Jelani Jefferson Exum, a professor of law at the University of Kansas, and Nailah Jefferson, a documentary filmmaker -- were in the courtroom Tuesday.
Addressing what he called the "elephant in the room, " Trout began by talking about the $90,000 the FBI found wrapped in foil and nestled in Boca burger and Pillsbury pie crust boxes in Jefferson's freezer when the agency raided his Washington, D.C., home Aug. 3, 2005. He said Jefferson hid the money there to keep it safe from his housekeeper and any intruders while he was away from Washington that month while Congress was in recess.
Lytle said the government would play a videotape of Jefferson receiving a briefcase -- "that briefcase, " he said, pointing to the prosecution table -- stuffed with $100,000 in marked $100 bills supplied by the FBI, a few days before the raid. Jefferson received the money from Lori Mody, a Virginia businesswoman and investor, who by that time had become a cooperating witness and was wearing a wire, and occasionally a miniature camera, for the FBI.
Aside from the $90,000 in his freezer, Jefferson lent $5,000 of the $100,000 to an aide in financial difficulty and returned the other $5,000 to the FBI, Trout said repeating earlier accounts of the missing money.
Jefferson is charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act through an intention to use that $100,000 to bribe Atiku Abubakar, then the vice president of Nigeria, on behalf of the technology firm iGate.
Trout said Jefferson had been manipulated into accepting the cash by Mody and the FBI. "They created the script, directed the action, and she came to love the starring role they gave her, " said Trout, acknowledging that Jefferson did "something stupid" in accepting the cash.
"With a lot of time and a lot of wine, they set out to bag a congressman, " he said.
But Trout said: "Let me be clear, he had no interest in bribing anyone. No one bribed William Jefferson, and William Jefferson didn't bribe anyone."
Trout never said what Jefferson intended to do with the money in his freezer.
Lytle said he does not plan to call Mody as a witness, but he told the jurors they will hear and see the "best possible evidence, " tapes that "will put you in the room with Lori Mody and the congressman, " and offer a "simply stunning" portrait of Jefferson teaching Mody "lessons in crime."
Lytle described deals designed to benefit Jefferson's wife and five daughters; a son-in-law, Phillip E. Jones Jr.; and Jefferson's brothers, Archie, and especially Mose, who is under indictment in New Orleans on unrelated corruption charges. If everything had worked out the way they planned, Lytle said, Mose Jefferson stood to reap hundreds of millions of dollars from deals, including one involving a sugar plant in west Africa.
And for that reward, Lytle said, Mose Jefferson would have to do "absolutely nothing. He's no expert on west Africa, and he's certainly no expert on sugar."
In his opening statement, Trout said Mose Jefferson did in fact bring useful independent contacts and relationships in Africa, and that in some cases his involvement predated the congressman's.
Most of these deals came to naught, either on their own or as a result of the FBI investigation and indictment of Jefferson, who lost his bid for a 10th term last year.
Lytle said ANJ Group, a "shell company" named for and controlled by Jefferson's wife and five daughters, received $385,000, which it spent to help pay tuition for Jefferson's daughters' elite colleges and other things.
Roster of witnesses
In addition to the tapes, Jefferson will face testimony from three witnesses:
-- Noreen Wilson, a Florida investor who was involved in incinerator and oil deals;
-- George Knost, an officer with Arkel International of Baton Rouge who was involved in plans for a sugar plant in Nigeria;
-- John Melton, a Louisiana businessman who was involved in an oil deal.
All of the prosecution witnesses have been granted immunity. A former aide, Brett Pfeffer, who was the go-between with Mody, and Vernon Jackson, who was iGates's CEO, also are scheduled to testify. Both Pfeffer and Jackson pleaded guilty to bribery charges. Pfeffer is serving eight years in prison; Jackson is serving seven. Both hope to have their sentences reduced for testifying against Jefferson.
Jackson was the first witness called after opening statements Tuesday.
Appearing in a dark prison jumpsuit, he described how he went along with paying money to ANJ, even after it became clear that it was doing little for him, that he was really buying the congressman's influence, and "it was flat-out wrong." But after a decade struggling to get his business off the ground and finally seeing results through Jefferson's influence, Jackson testified, he didn't want to alienate the congressman.
Jackson's testimony will continue today.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or 202.383.7861. Jonathan Tilove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7827.