The William Jefferson Chronicles

U.S. Rep. William Jefferson's trial pushed back to 2009

by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune

Tuesday November 25, 2008, 8:15 AM

WASHINGTON -- It's now official. Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, won't go to trial this year on his 16-count corruption indictment.

That was confirmed last week when trial Judge T.S. Ellis III scheduled a status hearing in the case for Dec. 19, 17 days after the trial was slated to begin. The hearing notice was posted on the Web site of the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., on Monday.

Although Ellis had hinted strongly that the Dec. 2 trial date would have to be delayed, as he put other cases on his December trial calendar and canceled deadlines for submission of pretrial documents, he had not definitively said that next week's trial date would be canceled until now.

The trial had been scheduled to begin four days before the Dec. 6 general election in which Jefferson is seeking a 10th term against Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao, the Green Party's Malik Rahim, Libertarian Party candidate Gregory Kahn and independent Jerry Jacobs.

Though no one can say for sure, it appears that the trial likely will be held sometime in the first half of 2009.

By Dec. 19, Ellis should know whether Jefferson will seek a hearing before the full 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on whether a panel of three of the court's judges erred by unanimously rejecting his motion to throw out 14 of the 16 charges against him.

The three-judge panel on Nov. 12 rejected Jefferson's argument that because the grand jury, which indicted him in June 2007 heard testimony about his congressional duties -- a violation they said of a constitutional provision protecting the legislative branch from interference by the executive branch, most of the charges against him should be dropped.

If Jefferson's attorneys move to have the full 4th Circuit hear the case, he may get a quick response -- often within 10 days -- and it's unlikely they'll be successful, according to Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. He said the full 4th Circuit only agrees to take up a tiny percentage -- sometimes as few as one to five of the thousands of the cases submitted to the court every year.

"It's very much a long shot," Tobias said of a Jefferson request.

Jefferson also could seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court. If he does, which he can do after the 4th Circuit disposes of the case or by bypassing the Virginia appeals court and making a request directly to the high court, it could delay matters for several more months, if not longer.

It's possible Ellis could begin the trial before the Supreme Court acts, but probably not before hearing arguments from both Justice Department prosecutors and Jefferson's attorneys.

At the Dec. 19 status hearing, Ellis also said he would decide other pending matters. Among them is Jefferson's request for court assistance to question former Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar and a Nigerian businessman that the government says were key players in an alleged scheme in which Jefferson was planning to arrange bribes for key officials in the Western African country to advance a telecommunications project he was championing. Jefferson's attorneys want to travel to Nigeria to do the questioning, saying it's unlikely either official will travel to the United States for the congressman's trial.

In their filing, Jefferson's lawyers contend that the vice president and Nigerian businessman Suleiman YahYah both have made statements denying Justice Department claims that they discussed a bribery scheme with Jefferson.

Jefferson, who is accused of requesting and accepting payments to family-controlled businesses in return for his help getting businesses contracts in Western Africa, maintains his innocence.

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Bruce Alpert can be reached at or 202.383.7861.

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