Taped conversations used by both prosecution and defense in bribery case of Congressman William Jefferson
by Bruce Alpert, Washington Bureau, The Times-Picayune
Sunday July 26, 2009, 8:35 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- The jury in the trial of former Rep. William Jefferson will hear closing arguments Tuesday before beginning deliberations in the federal bribery and corruption case.
The outcome for the nine-term New Orleans Democrat could largely be decided in how jurors interpret the hours of secretly recorded conversations they heard during the six-week trial. Do they show, as prosecutors allege, a congressman extracting bribes for his family in exchange for his help in brokering deals for American businesses in Africa?
Or do they, as the defense team suggested, merely present the private business dealings of a man who happened to be in Congress and is being urged on by a woman with a hidden agenda?
The jury's reading of the relationship between Jefferson and Virginia businesswoman-turned-FBI-informant Lori Mody will be key. Although Jefferson is not raising an entrapment defense, his attorneys often pointed out during the trial how Mody, with coaching from federal agents, urged the congressman to take a bigger role in the dealings and a bigger share of the profits -- all while she was wearing a wire in hopes he would incriminate himself.
After Jefferson met privately with then Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar on July 18, 2005, Mody wanted to know whether the discussion had led to his approval of their telecommunications project.
"We closed it, right?" Mody asked Jefferson.
Mody: "Ever do champagne?"
Jefferson: "Oh yeah."
Mody wanted to know whether Jefferson had agreed to bribe Abubakar, who oversaw telecommunications in Africa's most populous nation, but the rest of the conversation is vague and open to interpretation.
Meanings are obscure
In the signature element of the case, the FBI initiated a sting on July 30, 2005, in which Mody provided Jefferson with $100,000 in cash that agents believed he was going to deliver to Abubakar. Instead, all but $10,000 was later found in his freezer.
After Jefferson and Abubakar met privately at his Abubakar's home in Potomac, Md., the two walked out together and had a brief conversation with Mody.
The vice president tells Mody: "I don't foresee any problem (with their telecommunications project). Of course .¤.¤. there is going to be competition .¤.¤. because the Chinese have .¤.¤. got a similar deal." Is he suggesting that he will need to be taken care of to hold off the Chinese competitors, or just giving a factual account of the status of telecommunications competition?
After their meeting with Abubakar on July 18, Jefferson and Mody talked more about the deal.
Jefferson doesn't reveal much, other than to suggest some revenue promised their Nigerian partner, Rosecom, would probably be cut. "I threw Rosecom under the bus a little bit," Jefferson said.
Later that day, Mody presses for more details.
"So, he (Abubakar) wants to deal directly with us, nobody else? Is that a safe assumption?" Mody asks.
Jefferson: "That's one way to do it. The other one is that he'll give us somebody."
Jefferson: "If he doesn't, then I'll be his brother then."
Defense uses tapes
In their brief defense last week, Jefferson's lawyers presented nearly 90 minutes of recorded conversations, mostly between Mody and Jefferson. The tapes were played to counter the prosecution argument that Jefferson was acting as a seasoned shakedown artist.
On the taped segments chosen by the defense, Mody and Jefferson talk about their love for their children. She's heard flattering Jefferson and telling him how she's been poorly treated in personal and business relationships, adding that she needed him to do certain things to give her confidence that he wasn't going to swindle her in the telecommunications deal they were promoting in Nigeria and Ghana.
In the conversations, Mody presses him to take a larger share in her company, to get assistance from the Export-Import Bank, even though he said it wasn't necessary, and to bring a female congressional staffer along on a trip to Ghana in July 2005. All these elements ended up as part of the government's 16-count indictment of Jefferson returned by a Virginia grand jury in June 2007.
Judge T.S. Ellis, out of the jury's presence, said that whether Mody cajoled Jefferson to commit potentially illegal acts shouldn't be a factor in determining his guilt or innocence.
In the conversations played to the jury in rapid-fire succession by lead defense attorney Robert Trout on Thursday, Jefferson tries to reassure Mody that he'll protect her interests.
"I want you to feel like that is what you want to do, and that's your decision, and then we go from there," Jefferson says in one conversation. "That way, I'm not threatening you. I'm not saying, 'If you don't do this, then I won't do that. I'll cut off this if you don't do that.'¤"
But Mody says she's had such bad experiences in her personal and business relationships that she needs more reassurance.
She reminds Jefferson that he once referred to her as "his project."
"Whenever someone tells me I'm their project, I feel like, 'Wait a minute, you know, is that the same kind of project that requires constant supervision?'" Jefferson says he sorry he made such a comment.
After one conversation, she e-mailed an FBI agent to say she felt like a performer waiting for a critic to review her performance.
But during one discussion on July 15, 2005, she seems to hint of what she is up to -- no doubt too obscure a hint for Jefferson to figure out until much later.
The conversation begins with Jefferson telling Mody that he hopes he has been able to give her more confidence, transforming her from feeling "disempowered" to "empowered."
"Yes, you have, absolutely, thank you. In ... in more ways than you'll possibly know," Mody says.
The statement appears to be a reference to her secret role in taping their meetings that would lead, two weeks after that conversation, to the FBI showing up at Jefferson's house and played him a videotape of Mody giving him a briefcase with $100,000 in cash.