Trial for former Rep. William Jefferson delayed until June 9
by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday May 27, 2009, 4:54 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- A federal judge Wednesday delayed former Rep. William Jefferson's corruption trial until June 9 to give the defense time to find an expert witness to rebut the prosecution's interpretation of the customary duties of a congressional member.
The issue is important, because Jefferson argues that the government's allegations that he sought payments to family-owned businesses in exchange for influencing leaders in West Africa on business deals are not part of the official duties of a congressional member and therefore not subject to the bribery statute.
In a contentious pretrial hearing, chief federal prosecutor Mark Lytle told Judge T.S. Ellis III that if the defense is allowed to ask witnesses whether Jefferson ever offered to obtain a federal appropriation or to file legislation, as his attorneys propose, he would present evidence that the congressman sought payments for an earmark. He did not provide details.
Ellis, who granted Jefferson the one-week delay, said he was "surprised" and "taken back" with Lytle's statement. He did not elaborate, but his message was clear. If the Justice Department had such evidence, why didn't it include it in the indictment of Jefferson, given that seeking payments for a federal appropriation is a more clear-cut violation of federal bribery laws than seeking influence with African leaders on behalf of some business projects?
Robert Trout, Jefferson's attorney, said Lytle's statement is another effort to "smear" his client.
"Does anyone seriously believe that if they actually had proof of the allegation of a corrupt agreement to sell a legislative act, the government would have left it out of the convoluted 16-count indictment that they brought in this case?" Trout said. "The allegation is baseless -- and irresponsible."
There was no immediate comment from Lytle.
Line of questioning
Ellis said he would decide during the trial how to respond to Trout's proposed line of questioning.
At one point, the judge suggested it would be like asking a defendant accused of robbing one bank whether he had robbed another bank. Given that Jefferson is not accused of seeking payments for earmarks or legislation, Ellis said he would be inclined to allow Trout to ask the questions, although he might tell the jury the questions are irrelevant to the criminal charges against him.
Later, however, Ellis said he understood that what Trout is trying to do is point out that Jefferson did not ask for payments in return for legislation or earmarks, because he knew such conduct is illegal and that he might not have felt the same about seeking payments in return for influencing foreign leaders.
Still, Ellis warned that it his intention to tell the jury that prosecutors do not need to show the former congressman performed a specific legislative act in order to prove a bribery violation.
Ellis said he reluctantly agreed to another week's delay in the trial, after announcing recently that he would not entertain any more requests for delays in trying an indictment brought almost two years ago. The government began investigating Jefferson and secretly taping some of his conversations in the spring of 2005.
Trout said his client "has been vilified for four years, " which makes it a challenge to find an expert willing to take Jefferson's side on a critical legal issue.
Government has witness
The government plans to call former New York Rep. Matthew McHugh, D-N.Y., to testify that the influence of foreign and U.S. leaders is part of constituent service for members of Congress and that Jefferson would have been a logical member to contact about African issues because of his committee and caucus memberships on Capitol Hill.
On another issue, Ellis rejected a prosecution motion to offer up as evidence the oath that House members take, as well as some portions of congressional rules he did not think were relevant to the government's case.
"So what?" Ellis said of the prosecution's contention that congressional rules specify limits on the outside income a member of Congress can receive. The judge said violations of congressional rules do not constitute a crime.
But Ellis, who was appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan, said he would allow the government to enter into evidence some of Jefferson's travel disclosure reports about trips to Africa. According to prosecutors, they include signed statements from Jefferson that the trips related to his official congressional duties.
The lengthy hearing also dealt with procedures for the upcoming trial, which could last five to six weeks.
Trout told Ellis it is important when he talks to potential jurors about the case that he mention that "this is the one" with the FBI finding money -- $90,000 in marked bills -- in the congressman's freezer, so as to weed out jurors who might be prejudiced against Jefferson. Without the freezer reference, Trout said, jurors might not recognize the case, which has received significant news coverage.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7861.