William Jefferson seen accepting money in video
William Jefferson seen accepting money in video
by Jonathan Tilove and Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Tuesday July 07, 2009, 9:42 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA -- Jurors in the corruption trial of former Rep. William Jefferson saw a videotape Tuesday of the congressman accepting a briefcase packed with $100,000 in cash that prosecutors say was intended as the down payment on a bribe to the vice president of Nigeria.
Four days later, on Aug. 3, 2005, FBI agents found $90,000 of the marked bills stashed in the freezer at Jefferson's Washington home.
Four times, from four different camera angles, the prosecution played the July 30, 2005, videotape of Jefferson receiving the briefcase from Lori Mody, the Virginia businesswoman who was his partner in a Nigerian telecommunications venture. Mody had brought the briefcase to their rendezvous in the parking lot of a Ritz Carlton Hotel in suburban Virginia.
"Would you like to take a peek at it, or whatever?" Mody asked as Jefferson removed the briefcase from the car trunk.
"I would not, " replied Jefferson.
"Well, I hope that, uh, that's exactly what the VP needs to make him, uh, work hard for us, " said Mody.
"I have no idea what you're talking about, " Jefferson said.
According to prosecutors, Jefferson knew exactly what Mody was talking about; that the $100,000 was to be the first installment of a bribe to be paid to Atiku Abubakar, then vice president of Nigeria, for his help in gaining approval from the Nigerian telecommunications authority for the deal Mody was financing and of which Jefferson's family was getting an increasingly bigger cut.
What he didn't know, until a few days later when the FBI raided his house in Washington and knocked on the door of his Marengo Street home in New Orleans, was that Mody had been a cooperating witness for the FBI since March of that year, taping their frequent restaurant and telephone conversations. He did not know that the money in the briefcase, and the car Mody was driving, were provided by the FBI.
He did not know that the event was being recorded by five different cameras: two in the trunk, one on Mody, one from a fixed position nearby and another by a surveillance camera across the street.
The $100,000 was hardly the biggest dollar figure bandied about over the course of the trial, which enters its fifth week today. The 16-count federal indictment describes a complicated web of schemes in which the government alleges that Jefferson used his power as a member of Congress to broker deals in West Africa for American businesses that would ultimately produce a windfall of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars for a number of Jefferson family-controlled companies.
The defense says that Jefferson was not acting in his official capacity as a member of Congress and so did not run afoul of federal bribery statutes.
Amid this very complicated case, the $100,000, and Tuesday's video evidence of its handoff to the congressman, remains the central, compelling image of the trial.
It was the FBI's discovery of $90,000 of that money in the congressman's freezer -- he gave $5,000 to an aide in financial trouble and returned another $5,000 to the FBI -- that gave the case its headline-grabbing, comedy monologue novelty and its indelible image in the public mind.
Repeatedly, in the run-up to the delivery of the cash, and in the immediate aftermath, Mody can be heard on the tapes trying to coax Jefferson into an explicit acknowledgment that this was a bribe scheme. And every step of the way, Jefferson resisted, more than once tutoring Mody on the virtues of circumspection.
In a telephone conversation a day later, Jefferson told Mody about delivering letters about the Nigerian joint venture to the vice president. But when Mody pressed Jefferson about the fate of the $100,000, Jefferson replied, with a tone of annoyance, "I don't know what you're talking about."
Mody laughed. "OK, OK, I get it, " she said.
The next day, Aug. 1, they got together for a meal at the Ritz Carlton, where she again pressed him on the money.
"Do you know how little I want to talk about some of these things?" Jefferson asked.
But Mody was insistent. "All I am asking is: Did you deliver it?"
"I gave him the African art, " said Jefferson, who added he was planning a follow-up trip to Nigeria.
Money not delivered
Mody and Jefferson had visited Abubakar July 18 at a home he owns in Potomac, Md. On the drive home afterward, Jefferson told Mody that Abubakar had agreed to help them in exchange for a piece of the action.
So far, the only evidence that Abubakar was a knowing accomplice in the deal are Jefferson's recorded comments to Mody. "The evidence introduced continues to exonerate Vice President Abubakar, " Ed Weidenfeld, Abubakar's attorney in Washington, said Tuesday.
And, as the FBI discovered, Jefferson never delivered the money to Abubakar.
Late in the day, defense attorney Robert Trout began his cross-examination of Timothy Thibault, the FBI special agent in charge of the Jefferson investigation.
Trout asked whether it wasn't true that when Mody came to the FBI in March, it was to complain about Brett Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide who worked for Mody and brought Jefferson and Mody together on the Nigerian deal, but that when the FBI saw Jefferson's involvement, it became fixated on getting him.
Not true, said Thibault. "There was no rush to judgment in this case, " he said.
Trout also asked Thibault whether he had developed a "personally flirtatious relationship" with Mody during the course of the investigation. Thibault denied that but said, "I wasn't always doing the best job of telling her where the boundaries are."
As the day in court ended, Trout began to question Thibault about some personal e-mail exchanges with Mody, a line of inquiry that will resume today.
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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.