Stephanie Grace: Cash remains a problem for former U.S. Rep William Jefferson
Posted by Stephanie Grace, Columnist, The Times-Picayune
July 15, 2009 5:39PM
Categories: News Impact Page
Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's lawyers are doing their best to paint their client as a victim of cooperating witness Lori Mody's manipulations, and of the FBI's zeal "to bag a congressman," as they put it.
Yet the longer the public corruption and bribery case goes on, the more obvious it becomes why those very same lawyers have warned jurors that they might well find Jefferson's behavior unethical and deserving of their disapproval.
The picture the prosecution has painted of Jefferson so far, just over a month into the trial, is indeed unflattering.
And while jurors have heard Mody encourage Jefferson to take a larger share of their Nigerian telecom deal for himself and explain just how he planned to bribe that country's vice president, they've also seen some bad behavior on Jefferson's part that can't be explained away by invoking the FBI or Mody's motives or techniques.
The jury also has heard from onetime business associates who say Jefferson strong-armed them to set up companies, sign contracts, loan him money or cut in his relatives, even when the witnesses claim to have expressed misgivings.
Just this week, two Louisiana businessmen testified that Jefferson pushed them to include his brother Mose in a deal to take over some marginal African oil fields.
And Ethiopian-born entrepreneur Noah Samara told the jury that Jefferson pressured him for a loan of $50,000, and to enter into several business arrangements with companies controlled by the congressman's relatives or staff. When Samara raised concerns, he said Jefferson told him "you worry too much."
The jury has heard Jefferson himself, on government wiretaps, talk of using his insider connections and congressional clout to help companies in which he had a personal stake.
In one conversation caught on tape, Jefferson told Mody how he lobbied commissioners at the Export-Import Bank to send more money to Nigeria, at the time when the bank was considering a loan to the Nigerian telecommunications venture in which he and Mody had financial stakes.
On the day he visited the bank with Mody, Jefferson recounted, he made sure the commissioners knew he was not just a congressman but "on the Nigerian Caucus," and that "we're very concerned about the slowdown in Nigerian approvals."
Jurors have heard about some pretty weird behavior, including the tale of Jefferson's late-night journey around the Washington, D.C., area with a female staff member to deliver two letters to an aide to then-Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar, whom Jefferson was allegedly planning to bribe.
The day ended in a trip to IHOP followed by an overnight stay at the staffer's home -- with Jefferson sleeping in her bed and the staffer camping out on the couch, the aide, Angelle Kwemo, testified. Under cross-examination, she said she asked him to stay because his car was "smoking" and because he was tired.
And the jury has not only heard about the most notorious elements of the case, they've seen videotape of Mody handing off a briefcase with $100,000 in marked bills to Jefferson, and photographs of the bulk of that money unwrapped from frozen food boxes and tin foil in Jefferson's freezer, where it was found.
Do the incriminating photos prove anything? Maybe, maybe not. The defense says the discovery of the money at Jefferson's home actually helps their case because it proves he never gave it to Abubakar, as he had told Mody he planned to do.
Still, the full-color images of all that cash alongside Boca Burger and Pillsbury pie crust boxes couldn't have left a good impression.
Three years ago, the unsavory image of a congressman hiding so much cash was enough for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to boot Jefferson from the Ways & Means Committee, even before he was indicted.
"Anybody with $90,000 in their freezer, you've got a problem with the (Democratic) caucus," she said at the time.
The same holds true today. No matter what defense lawyers say, anybody with $90,000 in their freezer is just as likely to have a problem with a jury.
Stephanie Grace is a staff writer. She may be reached at 504.826.3383 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.