Why You Should Pay Attention to the William Jefferson Trial
June 10, 2009, 1:07 PM ET
By Ashby Jones
We know, we know. Lots of you out there are asking whether you need to pay attention to the latest trial involving corruption charges against a member of Congress. Let’s give you three reasons why we think you should pay attention to the trial — which began yesterday — of former Representative William Jefferson (D-LA). (Jefferson, again, is accused of receiving more than $400,000 in bribes in return for using his influence to broker business deals in Africa.) Click here for the WaPo story on the beginning of the trial; here for yesterday’s LB post on the case.
1. A Lot is at Stake for the Government: The Jefferson case represents the first high-profile opportunity for the DOJ to redeem itself after the debacle that was the Ted Stevens trial. “This is very much a big deal for the Justice Department,” says Aitan Goelman, a lawyer at Zuckerman Spaeder in Washington and former federal prosecutor. Granted, says Goelman, the case isn’t being tried by the Public Integrity Section — the unit that botched the Stevens case — but by prosecutors with Main Justice’s fraud unit and local prosecutors in Virginia. But “in a case like this, that distinction doesn’t matter,” says Goelman. “This is widely viewed as the first big post-Stevens test for the DOJ.”
Adding to the pressure, perhaps, is a notion that the government has built a strong case against Jefferson. “Whenever you have a high-profile case, there’s pressure,” says Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer at DLA Piper in Washington and a former lawyer in the DOJ’s Public Integrity Section. “But here, where you’ve got a guy caught with $90,000 in his freezer, well, that ramps up the pressure. It looks like you’ve got a slam-dunk case.”
2. A Lot is at Stake for Jefferson: The indictment against Jefferson is big — 16 counts spread over 100 or so pages. If convicted on all charges, Jefferson could go away for 20 years.
Given this — and given that both Goelman and Zeidenberg think the government’s evidence is fairly strong — why didn’t Jefferson cop a deal? Goelman, for one, isn’t totally surprised that the case is going to trial. “For public figures, a lot of times there are other criteria at play other than the evidence,” he says.
Zeidenberg agrees. “Public officials aren’t often the types who give up easily,” he says. “Remember, this is a guy who wouldn’t resign his congressional seat. So a plea deal in which the government comes to him and says, ‘look, with a plea, we’ll knock it down to 10 years or 7 years or 3 years’ might not be all that persuasive.”
3. The Lawyering: Stepping to the plate for Jefferson is Robert Trout, of the firm Trout Cacheris in Washington. Trout (W&L, UVA Law), a former federal prosecutor, is a longstanding lawyer-to-notables in Washington. He defended, for instance, Carol M. Browner, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration after Browner was charged with illegally destroying agency computer files.
How’s he done so far? Well, his client hasn’t yet been cleared. But Zeidenberg thinks his motions have been “extremely impressive.” Says Zeidenberg, “Bob really could have just phoned this in, but he’s made the government work. He’s filing motions that are creative and well thought-out and, frankly, just very impressive.”
So there you go, LBers, three reasons to follow this trial. And if you’re still not persuaded, remember, Jefferson has promised an “honorable explanation” for the money in the freezer.