Stephanie Grace: So much for an honorable rationale from ex-Congressman William Jefferson
Posted by Stephanie Grace, columnist, The Times-Picayune
June 17, 2009 8:04PM
Categories: News Impact Page
Unlike former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's constituents, jurors who will soon decide his guilt or innocence were never promised an honorable explanation for the chain of events that led to his 16-count federal indictment.
Good thing, too, because judging by his attorney Robert Trout's opening argument in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday, they're not going to get one.
In launching the defense's case, Trout didn't even bother to paint his client as an admirable figure.
In fact, he conceded that Jefferson's behavior is likely to come across as unethical, and said jurors would probably "disapprove" of his actions, including the use of his contacts and clout to broker deals in West Africa for companies in which his family had a financial stake.
Despite his client's well-known smarts, Trout said Jefferson did "something stupid" in accepting the infamous $100,000 in FBI-marked bills, which he told cooperating witness Lori Mody he would use to bribe Nigeria's vice president. The goal, supposedly, was to land a contract for the iGate telecom company in which both Mody and Jefferson had a financial interest.
In fact, Trout admitted that Jefferson lied to Mody about his intent to forward the money, most of which was later found wrapped in foil and stuffed into veggie burger and pie crust boxes in his freezer.
During fancy meals where expensive wine flowed freely, to hear the defense tell it, Jefferson humored Mody, a woman Trout described as "emotionally fragile." He said Jefferson caved when Mody pushed him to take a larger stake of the company for himself, so she would feel comfortable that he had put his all into landing a deal. He said Mody, following an FBI script, played the "damsel in distress" and manipulated Jefferson into taking the cash, as FBI agents watched.
"He was trying to respond to her needs .¤.¤. and so he does something really stupid. He goes along with it," Trout said. "The evidence will make clear he was not going to bribe the vice president of Nigeria."
And as for the "elephant in the room," the $90,000 in stashed cold cash, Trout said Jefferson was merely trying to hide it from his housekeeper and any possible intruders to his Washington, D.C., townhouse -- an explanation that, if true, is at least not dishonorable on its face.
But there wasn't a whole lot in Trout's opening salvo about Jefferson's purported honor, except, arguably, his riffs on how much the ex-congressman loves his family, cares about opening up trade with poorer African nations and has an "entrepreneurial spirit."
In the Virginia courtroom, the defense attorney said, Jefferson's honor is irrelevant.
Even if jurors think Jefferson is unethical, dishonest and greedy, it doesn't mean he's guilty of the bribery and racketeering charges he faces. If they suspect he violated congressional ethics, that's up to Congress to police -- not the courts. Even if they conclude Jefferson used his office for personal gain, the central argument of the government's case, they also can agree with the defense's narrow definition of "official acts" as limited to legislation and constituent services, and find that he did not trade official acts for kickbacks.
Back home, though, Jefferson asked the voters he represented for nearly two decades to hold him to a higher standard, one even his own defense suggests he can't meet.
Jefferson's guilt or innocence is yet to be determined. Honor, however, would seem to be off the table.
Stephanie Grace is a staff writer. She may be reached at 504.826.3383 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.