Stephanie Grace: In the end, former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson had nothing to say
Posted by Stephanie Grace, Columnist, The Times-Picayune
July 25, 2009 5:33PM
After all this time -- the four years of damning headlines, the six weeks of prosecution testimony and evidence -- you'd think former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, when finally given his day in court, would have an awful lot to say in his own defense.
It turns out you'd be wrong.
Jefferson has often talked of wanting to clear the air, to offer his take on the international deals in which he demanded cuts for his family, to finally deliver the "honorable explanation" for the $90,000 in marked bills that the feds found in the freezer of his Washington home.
The Virginia jury that will soon decide Jefferson's fate didn't hear any of that.
The little they did hear when the defense finally presented its case last week took a scant two hours.
Defense testimony lasted all of 30 minutes and came from two witnesses who had no connection whatsoever to the deals that are at the center of the government's case and seemed to do little to advance Jefferson's defense.
One was a congressional physician who reviewed Jefferson's medical records but did not treat him. Dr. Justin Cox testified that a quintuple-bypass operation would have made it difficult for him to talk in July 2002, when one prosecution witness said Jefferson pressured him to cut his wife and kids in on a deal and even typed a contract. Under cross-examination, Cox said the records don't prove he couldn't have done those things.
The other witness was a Baton Rouge pastor who said Jefferson brought a Nigerian governor to a brother-in-law's funeral in 2001. That was supposed to contradict the testimony of another prosecution witness, who had described meeting with Jefferson and the governor after a family funeral in 2000.
For the remaining 90 minutes, the defense played still more secretly recorded conversations between Jefferson and Lori Mody, the wealthy investor who told the feds that Jefferson was trying to shake her down and wound up wearing a wire to nail him.
These were the recordings that Jefferson's legal team had spent the whole trial fighting for the right to play in court. Although U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III mostly sided with the prosecution, in the end he suggested the feds give up their objections, and they did.
The newly allowed recordings have Mody cajoling Jefferson into taking a larger share of a Nigerian telecom deal than originally planned and getting him to set up a meeting at the Export-Import Bank, even though he told her it was unnecessary. According to the defense theory of the case, Jefferson went along with Mody on these points and others -- including his acceptance of $100,000 cash, allegedly to bribe Nigeria's vice president -- because she presented herself as emotionally needy and fragile.
The tapes also demonstrate Jefferson and Mody bonding as fellow parents. This is important, Jefferson attorney Robert Trout said, because the defense claims Jefferson routed money to his five daughters for their benefit, not to conceal his own financial stake.
None of it does much of anything to cast Jefferson's behavior in a more positive light.
It really doesn't matter why Jefferson went along with Mody. She led, but he chose to fellow. She gave him the cash, but he took it. That's particularly true since Jefferson's lawyers told the judge they are not claiming entrapment.
Nor is it relevant why he solicited money in his daughters' names. As Ellis said at a testy moment outside the jury's presence, "It doesn't matter if he committed the crime for the benefit of his children, for himself or for some charity." Besides, Jefferson's frequent attempts to cut in his brother Mose on other deals undermine the good-parenting defense.
If nothing else, the flimsy defense magnifies the importance of the closing argument, in which Jefferson's attorneys will surely emphasize a pair of now-familiar legalistic arguments, that their client did not violate the law because he was not acting in his official capacity, and that he did not bribe a foreign official because he kept the money.
This much is also quite clear: As often as Jefferson has talked of salvaging his reputation, he's pretty much given up that particular fight.. . . . . . .
Stephanie Grace is a staff writer. She may be reached at 504.826.3383 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.