The William Jefferson Chronicles

William Jefferson guilty verdict ends long political career
by Bruce Alpert and Jonathan Tilove, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday August 05, 2009, 11:30 PM

William Jefferson, the former nine-term congressman, was convicted Wednesday of 11 of 16 counts of public corruption in a verdict that prosecutors said could send the 62-year-old New Orleans Democrat to prison for 20 years.

But, in an ironic twist, Jefferson was not convicted of the charge directly related to the $90,000 that was found wrapped in foil and sandwiched between Boca burgers and Pillsbury pie crust boxes when the FBI raided his Washington, D.C., home four years ago this week.

It was that cold cash -- actually marked bills delivered to Jefferson by Lori Mody, a cooperating witness for the FBI -- that captured headlines and made Jefferson, in the words of his defense attorney, a "national joke."

But the jury acquitted Jefferson on the charge that he violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, meaning that the government had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jefferson intended to use that money to bribe Atiku Abubakar, then vice president of Nigeria, for his help in expediting a telecommunications deal in his home country.

In a post-verdict press conference in front of the Federal District Court, nearly two months after jury selection began, U.S. Attorney Dana Boente, said the money in the freezer remained the most compelling evidence, even if it could not be directly tied to any of the counts on which Jefferson was convicted.

Referring to the defense contention that Jefferson had operated in an ethical "gray area," but had not violated the law, Boente declared, "$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."

"Congressman Jefferson had a contract with the citizens of Louisiana and the citizens of the United States," Boente said. "The citizens were owed honesty and integrity and he used his influence and power to enrich himself and his family."

The verdict brings a bitter end to the political career of Jefferson, who rose from hard-scrabble beginnings in Lake Providence to become the first black congressman from Louisiana since Reconstruction and the most important African-American political figure in the state in modern times. Shadowed by his indictment and waiting trail, Jefferson was defeated in December by a political unknown, Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao, in a storm-delayed, very low turnout election.

"This is a difficult day for the people of New Orleans and Louisiana, but now we can turn the page on a negative past to focus on a positive future," said Cao after hearing word of the verdict. "My thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. Jefferson and his family during this time."

Judge T.S. Ellis III set sentencing for Oct. 30. He agreed to let Jefferson remain free pending sentencing, overruling a request from prosecutors that he be remanded to custody immediately because in their view, he represented a significant flight risk.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle, the lead prosecutor, noted that the potential 20-year prison term for a man of Jefferson's age could amount to a "life sentence," and that Jefferson might flee to an African nation beyond the reach of American rendition. Lytle quoted defense attorney Robert Trout's characterization of Jefferson, in his closing arguments, as a "rock star," in Africa, an enormously popular figure akin to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

But Trout countered, and Ellis agreed, that Jefferson was not a flight risk because of his deep roots and family ties, not the least his five daughters, who, along with his wife, Andrea, figured in the case as both a motive -- some of what the jury found to be his ill-gotten gains were used to pay Harvard tuition -- and as principals in what the government contended were front companies that Jefferson used to receive the bribe money he solicited while concealing his own interest.

Jefferson told the judge he had already surrendered his passport.

After seven weeks of trial and four-and-a-half days of jury deliberations, the end of the case came suddenly. The jury foreman knocked on the door separating the jury deliberation room from the courtroom about 4:50 p.m. and passed two messages to the court security officer: One announced that the jurors had completed deliberations, the second that a verdict had been reached.

Both prosecutors and the Jefferson defense team were contacted. When Lytle entered the courtroom, he nodded his head "yes" to signal the verdict was at hand. Jefferson arrived a few minutes later with his attorneys, wife and two of their children. Attorney Amy Jackson told him he should sit next to Trout.

Trout walked over to shake the hands of all three prosecutors, led by Lytle, and appeared to wish them luck.

Ellis summoned the jury into the courtroom, and asked the foreman to hand the verdict notice to the security officer who showed it to the judge. He then asked Jefferson to stand and face the jury, and he did so, with his three attorneys standing at his side.

He stood silently, showing no reaction as the 11 guilty counts and five not guilty counts were read. His wife and daughters -- Jelani, like her father and two of her sisters, a Harvard-educated lawyer, and Nailah, a documentary filmmaker -- sat silently, gloomily looking at times at Jefferson, just a few feet away, and at others times they looked down at the floor.

There were no visible tears.

Afterward, Ellis called the attorneys together for a brief bench conference, and Jefferson walked over to the front row seats, giving a reassuring glance at his daughters, and whispered a few words to his wife. He then sat silently next to his wife until the brief conference ended and he walked over to the defense table to join his attorneys.

Jefferson did not testify in his own defense and his formal defense lasted only about two hours. In his closing argument, which lasted nearly two-and-half hours, Trout presented his client as a man whose dealings had put him in a murky ethical area, but who had not broken the law.

Trout's argument was that Jefferson's help on these business deals in Africa were beyond the purview of his "official acts" as a member of Congress, and thus did not violate bribery statutes which prohibit receiving things of value in exchange for official acts.

Trout argued that most of the key witnesses -- iGate technology CEO Vernon Jackson and Mody's financial adviser Brett Pfeffer who had pleaded guilty to bribery and are serving prison terms -- and a number of others who testified to avoid prosecution for their own involvement in the various schemes, were telling stories the government wanted to hear to save their own skins.

Speaking to reporters in front of the courthouse after the verdict, Trout promised an appeal.

"We certainly believe we have very strong legal issues to appeal. We've been fighting these issues since the day of the indictment. We feel very, very strong about them."

Trout said he wasn't surprised that the jury rejected the charge related to the money in the freezer -- the alleged violation of the Corrupt Foreign Practices Act.

"We're very disappointed that the jury disagreed with us on the counts they found him guilty of."

Asked to explain the short two-hour defense, after the government provided more than 40 witnesses and hours of video and audio tapes over more than four weeks, Trout said, "I don't know that it does any good to replay what might have been. I think our judgments were sound."

Jefferson referred all questions to Trout.

Asked how he was doing, Jefferson said: "I'm holding up."

Ellis said the jurors will return to court this morning to decide whether Jefferson should be required to forfeit $477,000 in assets and millions of shares in stock the government says flowed to two Jefferson family companies. The stocks were for a Nigerian telecommunications venture that died when the Jefferson investigation became known in August 2005, and are presumably worthless.

Harry Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney in New Orleans now in private practice, said he believes the split verdict will help prosecutors in the appeal promised by Jefferson's lawyers.

"The split verdict helps the government in arguing on appeal that the jury was focused, deliberate and did not accept everything carte blanche," Rosenberg said. He said "If there is any comfort for Jefferson" it is that the bribery statute, which the defense contends was misapplied in this case because the transactions dealt with private business deals, not official duties, providing him "with his best legal argument now that round one is over."

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond prosecutor, said that the prosecution's estimate of a 20-year sentence may be correct because Judge Ellis has a reputation for strict sentencing in public corruption cases.

But Stephanos Bibas, a sentencing expert at the University of Pennsylvania said he expects Jefferson will benefit because he has no prior criminal record and the acquittal on five charges. Before the verdict, he predicted a sentence were he to be found guilty on all 16 charges in the neighborhood of eight-to 10 years, less if he were acquitted on some accusations.

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