William Jefferson jurors get lawyers' final pitch
by Jonathan Tilove and Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday July 29, 2009, 10:34 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA -- A government prosecutor called on a federal jury Wednesday to help root out corruption by convicting former Rep. William Jefferson, "who not only sold his office, he wanted to make sure he got top dollar for it."
"It's time, at long last, to bring Congressman Jefferson to justice, " Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebeca Bellows said in urging guilty verdicts on 16 counts of bribery, money laundering, racketeering, obstruction of justice and other charges.
But the lead attorney for the New Orleans Democrat said it was the government that "tried to bend the law and stretch the facts to make what is not a crime into a crime, " and asked the jury to stand up to the abuse of prosecutorial power by acquitting Jefferson.
"You have the opportunity to do something actually courageous and something nearly heroic in your public service, " Robert Trout said at the close of his two-hour-25-minute closing argument to the jury. "You are sitting in a privileged seat where you can speak truth to power and so you should."
"Democracy, it's not some abstract idea, " said Trout, his voice cracking with emotion. "Democracy is you, and we put our trust in you. We ask you to find William Jefferson not guilty on each and every count."
Wednesday's closing arguments before a packed courtroom, interspersed as they were with audio and videotapes of Jefferson secretly taped by Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody, brought to a dramatic close the trial of the nine-term member of Congress, which began with jury selection on June 9. Judge T.S. Ellis III will deliver his instructions to jurors Thursday morning, after which the jury of eight women and four men will begin their deliberations.
For six weeks, through more than 40 witnesses and 700 exhibits, the government presented evidence suggesting that Jefferson had, in one scheme after another, agreed to help American businesses with deals in West Africa so long as they agreed to cut into the deal some Jefferson family company -- under the control of his brother, Mose; wife, Andrea; his five daughters or sons-in-law that the government contends were nothing but "shell, sham, paper vehicles designed for the sole purpose to cover up and conceal."
"He never let an opportunity to demand a bribe payment pass him by, " said Bellows, noting that if he and his family didn't make the money they always seemed to have their sights set on, "it wasn't for lack of trying."
But the defense contended that the help Jefferson provided did not meet the bribery statue's standard that Jefferson had to commit an "official act" as a member of Congress in exchange for something of value. Mostly, Trout said, Jefferson was interceding with officials in Africa where Trout said he was a "rock star, " like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and hardly the normal business of a member of Congress.
The government contended that Jefferson in his travel, meetings and communications, was always acting in his role and using his influence as a member of Congress.
But Trout dismissed the evidence of those official acts as flimsy -- "a few trips, a few meetings, some letters."
Jefferson did not testify in his own defense, which lasted little better than two hours.
Defense calls for courage
Wednesday was the first opportunity for the defense to present in a comprehensive manner its own theory of the case, and Trout took full advantage. Count by count, he sought to plant a seed of doubt about the government's charges. More broadly, he challenged the credibility of key defense witnesses, most of whom, he said, were saying exactly what the government wanted to hear, in suspiciously similar language, to save their own skins.
Beyond that, with his emotional peroration, he sought to give the jury, and any particular juror, an ennobling reason to "swim against the tide" and vote to acquit out of a commitment to "American values, " even if, as he acknowledged, Jefferson's ethical conduct did not always present a "pretty picture."
"What is appropriate, what is ethical is not he issue in this case, " he said. "There is a difference between a gray area and committing a crime."
But, in his rebuttal to Trout's closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Duross said, "gray is not the operative color; green is."
The case drew its greatest national and international attention because of the $90,000 found in the freezer of Jefferson's Washington home when his residences there and in New Orleans were raided in Aug. 3, 2005. The government contends Jefferson was going to use the money to bribe then-Vice President Atiku Abubakar, for his help with a telecommunications deal in Nigeria, the basis for Jefferson becoming the first public official ever to be charged under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
The frozen assets, Trout acknowledged, were a "toxic fact."
But Trout said Jefferson never had any intention of paying a bribe and only accepted the money from Mody, who was wearing a wire for the FBI, to placate the emotionally needy and volatile Mody.
It was Mody, working on the Nigerian telecommunications deal with Jefferson's help, who on July 30 delivered a briefcase packed with $100,000 in marked bills to Jefferson in the parking lot of the Ritz Carton in suburban Virginia, in a scene videotaped from four different vantage points and played four times for the jury.
"Make no mistake, " said Trout, when Jefferson took that $100,000 and told Mody he was going to bribe Abubakar, it "was not only stupid, it was an exercise in awful judgment for which he has paid a very steep price."
A 'national joke'
"His political career was ruined, his reputation was ruined, " said Trout. He had become a "national joke" who has had to live not only with his own "shame and humiliation" but the "shame and humiliation that his young daughters will have to endure for a very long time, maybe for the rest of their lives because of the actions of their father."
But, Trout said, when the FBI found the money in Jefferson's freezer and not at the Abubakar residence in Potomac, which they raided that same day, they realized "the sting was a bust; they realized they had a lemon of case."
Trout told the jurors the case before them was the "lemonade" the government made out of that lemon.
"It boggles the mind how they constructed their way around the facts to make something that was not a crime seem like a crime, " Trout said of the government's case. "That's power."
Trout tried to turn the strength of the government's case -- its parade of witnesses who said, one after the other, that they knew all along that they were bribing Jefferson when they agreed seek his help with business deals -- into a weakness.
Trout said the government played a hardball game of "deal or no deal" with those witnesses, promising immunity from prosecution for their testimony and turning those who had done business with Jefferson, and not had a problem with it at the time, into prosecution witnesses who insisted they knew all along they were involved in some corrupt enterprise, and whose memory seemed to improve with the passage of time and time spent with the FBI.
He told the jurors they should view with skepticism the testimony of those witnesses, which he described at one point as "so blithe, so pat, it sounded rehearsed."
Trout singled out for scorn two key witnesses in the case -- former iGate CEO Vernon Jackson, who developed the broadband technology that Jefferson and Mody were marketing in Nigeria and Ghana, and Brett Pfeffer, a former aide who was the go-between with Mody, for whom he worked. Both Jackson and Pfeffer are serving prison terms after pleading guilty to bribery charges and hoping their testimony will lead the government to let them out early.
Trout described Jackson, now serving seven years and three months in prison, as "the definition of a blowhard." He described Pfeffer, who is serving an eight-year term, as someone who admits he "tells lies if that's what it takes to get a deal to go down, and Brett Pfeffer is working on the deal of his life."
And of Mody's failure to testify at the trial, Trout wondered to the jury, "Where was Lori Mody at this trial? She was the accuser. She got the whole thing started."
But Bellows, whose summation lasted just under two hours, said, "What happened with Lori Mody was a piece of a pattern to everything that had gone on before. The Mody scheme was different in only one respect: It was caught on tape."
Jefferson's wife and five daughters were in the courtroom Wednesday.
Earlier, before the closing arguments Wednesday, Ellis said he would allow the jury to consider the obstruction of justice charge even though he previously questioned whether it had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. But Ellis said he reserved the right to strike the charge if the jury returns a guilty verdict.