|Way cleared for Congressman Jefferson's appeal|
by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune Friday
March 21, 2008, 7:54 AM
WASHINGTON -- A judge's ruling Thursday should restart the stalled legal proceedings in Rep. William Jefferson's efforts to have a federal appeals court throw out 14 of 16 criminal charges against him.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III about grand jury documents is likely to free the Justice Department to ask the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., for expedited consideration of the New Orleans Democrat's appeal and allow that court to set dates for the filings of briefs and possibly for oral arguments.
Still, the appeal, which delayed the scheduled Feb. 25 criminal trial in Alexandria, Va., is likely to take at least several months and could continue through the fall elections when Jefferson could be a candidate for re-election. Jefferson's trial can't start until the Appeals Court rules on his appeal.
The congressman faces 16 charges stemming from his involvement in business ventures in West Africa. The government alleges that Jefferson, through companies run by his family, received nearly $400,000 in bribes and millions of shares of company stock for using his influence to promote contracts for U.S. companies in Nigeria and other African nations. Jefferson maintains his innocence.
At issue before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is Jefferson's contention that Ellis erred when he rejected the congressman's plea to have 14 charges of racketeering, money laundering, bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy dismissed on grounds the grand jury that indicted him heard testimony about his legislative activities in violation of the Constitution's Speech or Debate clause. The clause is meant to protect Congress from Executive Branch interference.
Ellis had ruled that the testimony from current and former Jefferson staffers about his involvement in issues related to Africa didn't violate the Speech or Debate Clause. "Put simply, the Speech or Debate Clause is not a license to commit a crime, " he said.
Jefferson's appeal was filed on Feb. 20, but little has happened since while the Appellate Court waited for Ellis to decide what grand jury material should be included in the record to be submitted to the court.
A three-judge appellate panel, not yet named, will rule on his appeal.
Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond, said Thursday's ruling by Ellis should allow the appellate process to move forward.
"I believe the government can now seek expedited review and the court can schedule the deadlines, " said Tobias, who has been following the Jefferson case.
In his Thursday ruling, Ellis rejected a request from Jefferson's attorneys that the record include grand jury transcripts that he says they already reviewed privately.
Ellis said he accepted their account of the testimony as he ruled on their motion to throw out the 14 charges. Since the judge didn't look at the transcripts himself because, as he put it, he saw "no good cause to do so, " Ellis wrote, "there is similarly no good cause to add the transcript to the record of appeal."
Jefferson's attorneys had argued that the appellate court should be able to see the full context of the staffers' testimony and the instructions and remarks the government's prosecutors made to the grand jury. That material, they argued, could help the appellate court determine whether the Justice Department crossed the line in revealing legislative activities to the grand jury.
In his ruling Thursday, Ellis said those portions of the grand jury proceedings dealing with prosecutor comments are not normally transcribed and he declined to ask the government to prepare a transcript based on the court reporter's account of the deliberations.
"Defendant's argument amounts to a claim that whenever a member of Congress is indicted the entire grand jury record must be reviewed even where, as here, there is no reason to believe either from the contents of the indictment or otherwise that Speech or Debate material was presented to or relied upon by the grand jury, " Ellis said.
Ellis did rule that a grand jury transcript, which the Justice Department said was "inadvertently overlooked" and not previously provided the court, should be added for the appellate court record, as requested by the Justice Department. Ellis said no objections were raised by Jefferson's attorneys.