William Jefferson's activities cast as "official acts" by witnesses in corruption trial
by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Friday June 26, 2009, 9:20 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- Prosecutors called five witnesses Friday they hope convinced jurors that former Rep. William Jefferson engaged in "official acts" to promote a telecommunications project in return for payments and promised payments they describe as bribes.
The issue is critical to the government's corruption case against the New Orleans Democrat. Prosecutors contend Jefferson solicited payments and stock from iGate Inc., a telecommunications company, to the ANJ Group, a firm controlled by his wife, Andrea Jefferson, in return for his official help.
But Jefferson's lawyers contend that the payments alleged by the government to ANJ were to generate more investments for iGate and that the actions the government alleges the congressman took were unrelated to those efforts and, regardless, unrelated to his official duties as a congressman.
Letter of support
The first government witness Friday was Harold Waltzman, who was the telecommunications counsel for the U.S. House Energy Committee in 2002 when then-Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Chackbay, was chairman. He testified that at the request of a Jefferson staffer, he arranged for Tauzin to meet with Jefferson and Vernon Jackson, the iGate CEO.
He said Tauzin was very interested in expanding high-speed Internet access to rural and poor communities, and that iGate's plan to provide service via existing copper telephone wiring could have been an aid in achieving his goal.
After the meeting, Waltzman said Tauzin asked him to check out the technology. He traveled to a Georgia military base, where the iGate Internet connections were being tested, and found the service provided "very fast connections and downloads, " according to his testimony.
Waltzman said he reported back to Tauzin and the congressman later asked him to "edit" a sample letter that Jackson had provided, expressing the Energy Committee chairman's support for the technology. A letter later was mailed to the iGate CEO with Tauzin's signature.
Had he known, as the Justice Department alleges, that Jefferson's family had a financial connection to iGate, Waltzman said he wouldn't have suggested that Tauzin endorse the iGate technology. Even if the arrangement was found not to violate House ethics rules, or federal statutes, it would have created the "appearance" of impropriety, Waltzman said.
Meeting in Nigeria
Similar testimony came from a staffer for the House Armed Services Committee who was asked to recommend iGate's equipment to the Defense Department, to a Pentagon official in charge of developing telecommunications infrastructure at military bases, and to a former State Department official who, at the request of Jefferson's staff, set up a 2004 meeting for Jefferson and several businessmen with the then-president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo.
But James Maxstadt, the State Department official who was political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria for the 2004 Jefferson visit, said that besides discussing a general desire to increase trade between the United States and Nigeria, he only recalled the then-congressman discussing with the Nigerian president two specific projects: a fertilizer plant and food-processing facility.
The Justice Department contends that Jefferson had also solicited payments from the U.S. sponsors of those two projects, including Arkel International of Baton Rouge, but Maxstadt's exclusion of iGate seemed a surprise to prosecutors. Lead prosecutor Mark Lytle told Judge T.S. Ellis III that he expected another witness will appear that will testify that iGate was discussed in the meeting.
Long and involved
The Justice Department's final witness, Lionel Collins, Jefferson's former chief of staff who is now a lobbyist, testified that he believed Jefferson was acting in his official duties as a congressman when he asked the Army to test iGate's equipment -- a process that he said could lead to increased business for the Kentucky firm.
Jefferson's attorney, Amy Jackson, objected to much of the questioning of Collins, saying the definition of official acts is very much in dispute in the case and that prosecutors were asking leading questions to get the answers they wanted.
Some of the protracted testimony Friday seemed to test Judge Ellis' patience. After more than an hour of questioning of Army Col. Joseph Brown about how the Army decides what technology to use at bases, Ellis asked Lytle whether it was "really necessary" to ask Brown to explain a diagram showing some complicated Internet designs.
When Lytle said he wouldn't pursue the matter, Ellis replied, "Good."
Brown later testified that the request for him to brief Jefferson about how the Army was testing iGate's design was the first time he had been asked to provide such an explanation to a member of Congress. Under cross examination by the defense, Brown said Jefferson never asked him to speed the testing process, or to overlook flaws he had identified in the iGate project.
Friday marked the eighth day that the jury of eight women and four men heard testimony. Sixteen witnesses have appeared so far. Lytle estimated that prosecutors would need another two to two-and-a-half weeks to complete their case.
Ellis urged them "to focus" and try to cut the timeline down.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7861.