The William Jefferson Chronicles

Stephanie Grace: Mose Jefferson trial shines light on influence peddling
Posted by Stephanie Grace, Columnist, The Times-Picayune August 12, 2009 8:24PM

Trials can be pretty educational, and not just about the matters at hand. Consider the opening day of Mose Jefferson's federal bribery case.

Jefferson, the older brother of recently convicted ex-U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, is accused of steering $140,000 of his $900,000-plus sales commission to former Orleans Parish School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms, for her help in putting $14 million worth of algebra hardware and software into public school classrooms.

But the alleged kickbacks weren't the main focus of the long-awaited trial's initial testimony.

Instead, the prosecution's first day offered an intriguing behind-the-scenes peek at the world of government lobbying, a practical tutorial in how things really work.

The real-life lesson came courtesy of two prosecution witnesses: Paul Cambon, former Metairie U.S Rep. Bob Livingston's legislative director until 1999, and his lobbying partner since; and John Lee, New Orleans-based developer and owner of the pricey I CAN Learn computer teaching system.

Here are some of the events they recounted on Tuesday.

Back in the 1990s, Lee approached Livingston, who was then chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, seeking help in getting the government to buy his product. In 1998, Livingston secured a $7.3 million earmark to put I CAN Learn labs in 21 schools.

The following year Livingston left Congress to become a lobbyist, and about a week after his last day in office, Lee's firm became one of the Livingston Group's first clients. Their original contract called for Lee to pay a $10,000 monthly retainer, which jumped to $20,000 and then $30,000 by the end of 1999. The contract also called for a 10-percent commission on all sales of the I CAN Learn system.

One of the Livingston Group's missions was to secure additional congressional earmarks to put I CAN Learn into urban school districts. To that end, Cambon testified, the firm drafted letters of support and asked members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who often represented the targeted school districts, to sign them. Their main point of contact in this endeavor was William Jefferson, who represented New Orleans.

"His office and he were very supportive, " Cambon said.

From all appearances, the lobbying effort was remarkably successful. Between Fiscal 2000 and 2005, I CAN Learn landed $38 million from the federal government.

During the same period, Lee was also eyeing the New Orleans market. Soon after Brooks-Simms' 2000 election and selection as school board president, he set about landing a deal with Mose Jefferson, whom he knew to be close to the new power-player in the public schools (Lee had supported Brooks-Simms' campaign, at Mose Jefferson's request, and even had another of his lobbyists pick up some of her campaign expenses).

Mose asked Lee to meet at Bill Jefferson's Marengo Street house, explaining that his brother handled all his business and legal affairs. Soon after he got there, Lee said the Congressman boasted of his own ability to steer federal funds. Lee recalled countering that the real power of the purse lay in Appropriations, not Ways & Means, which was Jefferson's main committee.

The awkwardness didn't end there, Lee testified. Bill Jefferson, Lee said, wanted his brother to earn a monthly retainer. Lee balked at the proposal, saying the idea made him "uneasy." Instead, they eventually settled on 10 percent of all sales -- his standard commission, Lee said. After one large purchase by OPSB, Mose Jefferson actually had to split his cut with a Livingston Group subcontractor brought in to handle then-Superintendent Tony Amato.

There was more, but you get the point. Money was flowing, influence was being peddled in every direction.

Yet everything discussed in court Tuesday appears to be legal, except for the alleged bribe and subsequent cover-up, which both Lee and Cambon insisted they knew nothing about.

Bill Jefferson, who was convicted last week in an unrelated bribery scheme involving foreign trade, is accused of no wrongdoing. Nor is Bob Livingston, who quit Congress amid a sex scandal and went on to become one of Washington's most successful lobbyists, and who is expected to be a witness in this case for the defense. Nor is Lee.

Apparently, this is just the way things work when private companies seek government earmarks or contracts, and hire well-connected help to do it. It's all the cost of doing business.

And quite a cost it is.

. . . . . . .

Stephanie Grace is a staff writer. She may be reached at 504.826.3383 or at

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