William Jefferson case witness repeats 'bribing' refrain
by Jonathan Tilove and Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday July 21, 2009, 10:00 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- A Florida businesswoman took the stand Tuesday in the corruption trial of former Rep. William Jefferson and described the ways she agreed to pay off Jefferson's brother and son-in-law in exchange for the New Orleans congressman's help with an array of deals in Africa and beyond.
In each case, the prosecution asked Noreen Griffin whether she knew what she was doing.
Yes, she would answer: "Bribing a congressman."
For more than four hours, Griffin's testimony was punctuated by that damning refrain -- "Bribing a congressman" -- more than a half-dozen times in answer to questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Duross.
As the government case draws to a close, the testimony of Griffin, who went by her married name, Wilson, during the events in question, encapsulated what has come before: Witnesses who were implicated in what the government alleges were Jefferson's corrupt schemes and, as a way of avoiding prosecution, agreed to testify about how compensation was arranged for a member of Jefferson's family in exchange for his power and influence as a congressman to benefit business ventures in Africa.
And with the testimony of each "co-conspirator" turned prosecution witness, the jury heard the same language about "bribing a congressman" for "official acts."
It can sound rehearsed, but Steve Levin, a criminal defense attorney who spent 10 years as a federal prosecutor in North Carolina and Maryland, said the prosecution needs to establish for the jury that the witnesses understand and accept responsibility for their actions and establish that they knew what they were doing was wrong.
"It may sound pat, " said Levin, but when the prosecution in its closing arguments recites the litany of government witnesses who, while admitting their own guilt, told a consistent story of wrongdoing by the defendant, it can prove devastating.
The defense has sought to poke holes in the testimony, suggesting that the stories the witnesses are telling now are more damning than the ones they told the grand jury that indicted the former congressman. And they point out that the witnesses' behavior at the time sometimes belies the notion that they thought they were engaged in something criminal.
For example, defense attorney Amy Jackson asked Griffin how, if she really believed she was paying bribes, she could enter those payment arrangements into written agreements for three major companies, at least one of which was reported in a document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In her direct testimony, Griffin explained that she had "enough political cover" by disguising the arrangement with the congressman as a deal with a company controlled by his brother, Mose Jefferson.
Griffin first encountered Jefferson in late 2001, when, at the suggestion of Baton Rouge lobbyist James Creaghan, she sought the congressman's help in keeping the African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe from canceling its contracts with two companies that Griffin was associated with: Environmental Remediation Holding Co. and Procura Financial.
Griffin said Creaghan told her that Jefferson "had tremendous relationships with leaders of West Africa and would be a very good person to help and assist in this matter."
But, she said, Creaghan told her that she would need to involve Mose Jefferson, who he said had an oil company with West African interests, in the deal.
Without checking whether there was in fact an oil company or ever meeting Mose Jefferson, Griffin testified that she agreed that Mose Jefferson would get an offshore oil lot potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars in exchange for the congressman's assistance.
But in her cross-examination of Griffin, Jackson read from the transcript of a 2006 taped conversation between Griffin and Creaghan, who by then was a cooperating witness for the FBI, in which Griffin says Mose Jefferson has important contacts in Africa and was "doing a lot."
Asked to explain the inconsistency, Griffin said she suspected Creaghan was wearing a wire -- this was long after the FBI raid on Jefferson's homes in New Orleans and Washington -- and she was being "very careful" with her statements.
Jefferson was unsuccessful in negotiating a solution in Sao Tome and Principe. The oil deal fell apart, but it was only the beginning of what the government says was a corrupt relationship between Griffin and Jefferson.
One such scheme involved a proposal by LETH Energy, another firm in which Griffin was involved, to build and sell garbage-to-energy incinerators. Griffin testified that she wanted the congressman's help in marketing the incinerators to African governments and the mayors of several American cities.
In exchange, she offered first Mose Jefferson, and later a company controlled by Jefferson's son-in-law Phillip E. Jones, a chance to sell the $7 million incinerators for a 10 percent commission. Jefferson and Jones never sold any, though in a 2004 e-mail entered into evidence by prosecutors, Jefferson wrote Jones that the government of Equatorial Guinea had agreed to purchase two and wanted them "ASAP." It was signed "Dad."
Jackson asked Griffin if Jones was no more than the conduit for a bribe, why she kept him on the payroll of LETH Energy, why she put Jones and his wife, Jamila, up in her Florida home after Hurricane Katrina, and why she continued to work business deals with Jones, including a proposed post-Katrina debris-removal contract, even after the criminal investigation of the congressman had been reported.
She said she considered Jones, who has a doctorate in environmental science, a "very, very nice young man, " who worked hard and effectively for her company.
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Jonathan Tilove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7827.
Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or 202.383.7861.