The William Jefferson Chronicles

William Jefferson case will always be remembered for cash in the freezer
by Jonathan Tilove, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday August 05, 2009, 9:35 PM

William Jefferson's federal corruption trial will forever and always be remembered as the one about the guy with the cash in his freezer.

But in the end, Jefferson was acquitted of Count 11, violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the primary crime directly related to the stash of $100 bills the FBI found packed away between boxes of Boca burgers and Pillsbury pie crust in his Capitol Hill townhouse four years ago this week.

If that single count were all there was to the corruption case against him, the former nine-term congressman from New Orleans would have walked out of the Alexandria, Va., courthouse Wednesday evening a free man instead of being found guilty on 11 other charges.

According to legal observers and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, where the case was tried, the freezer money was the single most powerful evidence they presented, even if it did not directly lead to a conviction, suggesting that it may have left the jury with such a bad impression of Jefferson that it helped convict him on other bribery counts.

As U.S. Attorney Dana Boente put it at a news conference in front of the courthouse just after the verdict was announced, "$90,000 in a freezer is not a gray area. It is a violation and today a jury of the congressman's peers held him guilty."

Asked a moment later what he considered the most powerful evidence presented over the course of the six-week government case, Boente returned to the money in the freezer. "We always thought that a powerful piece of evidence was $90,000 in the freezer."

Considering the outcome, Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, found Boente's comment jarring.

"I think the most interesting thing to come out of this case is the statement of the U.S. attorney after the trial. His statement that the cash in the freezer was the most important evidence is unbelievably telling and unbelievably troubling," said Turley, because it suggests that the elaborate presentation at the trial of the photographs of the money in Jefferson's freezer was primarily intended to "prejudice the jury" against Jefferson, and that they succeeded.

It is not clear from the jury verdict whether the freezer money was a factor in the jury finding the former congressman guilty of Count 1, which reads "conspiracy to solicit bribes, deprive citizens of honest services by wire fraud and violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act." The law only requires that the jury find the defendant guilty on two out of three of those counts -- solicit bribes, deprive honest services and violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act-- and in announcing the verdict, the deputy clerk did not specify which counts the jury agreed on. It may or may not have included conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

"The jury could have viewed the money taken from the car and put in the freezer as the overt act necessary to further the conspiracy," said Robert Facundus, a Washington attorney who teaches a course on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act at Tulane Law School.

But Facundus said that regardless of their direct application to the Foreign Corrupt Practices charges, the photos of the freezer money, and the equally damning videotape, from four different angles, of Jefferson, days earlier, accepting a briefcase full of cash from Lori Mody, a cooperating witness for the FBI, "were probably the most memorable pieces of evidence presented at trial."

"Although specifically related to the FCPA counts, those images likely influenced the jurors while they were analyzing all the counts," he said.

Jefferson was the first public official charged under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits payments to foreign officials to gain special favor for business deals abroad.

The $90,000 in marked bills was the lion's share of $100,000 in cash that Mody, a Virginia businesswoman, had given Jefferson a few days earlier, stuffed in a briefcase, in a parking lot of the Ritz Carlton in Pentagon City, Va., just outside D.C.

Mody was seeking Jefferson's help with a telecommunications deal in West Africa, and according to the government, and suggestive comments on the tapes she secretly recorded of her conversations with Jefferson, she was giving Jefferson the cash to bribe Atiku Abubakar, then vice president of Nigeria, to gain his help in greasing the skids for the deal.

Trout argued that Jefferson accepted the money from Mody, who he found to be emotionally needy and unstable, to placate her, that he never intended to bribe Abubakar, and that he stowed the dough in his freezer to keep it safe while he was away in New Orleans for the August congressional recess.

The same day the FBI raided Jefferson's homes in D.C. and New Orleans, it raided the Abubakar residence in suburban Potomac, Md., expecting to find the money there. Instead it was in on ice in Jefferson's house.

To violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, as Judge T.S. Ellis III instructed the jury, a person need only plan or promise to pay the bribe money, not actually deliver it.

But to convict Jefferson on the Foreign Corrupt Practices charge, they had to believe him when he indicated to Mody he was planning to bribe Abubakar.

Said Facundus, "My guess is that one element that gave the jury the most trouble is whether or not Jefferson ever actually offered an improper payment to the former VP of Nigeria, directly or through a third party. The jury never heard direct evidence of what Jefferson and the former VP discussed in the Potomac home of the former VP.

"It was probably difficult for the jury to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he ever made an offer to bribe the former VP," said Facundus. "Without directly saying it, I think the defense alluded to possibility that Jefferson took the money from Mody and planned to keep it for himself."

And if they believe that Jefferson was simply ripping off Mody, they had a duty, on that count at least, to acquit.

Jonathan Tilove can be reached at or 202.383.7827.

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