William Jefferson took care of brother, Mose, witness says
by Jonathan Tilove and Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday July 15, 2009, 10:19 PM
In January 2002, Louisiana oil entrepreneur John Melton presented then-Rep. William Jefferson with an agreement promising to give Jefferson's brother, Mose, 3 percent of any profits from oil, fertilizer and other deals Melton was pursuing with the congressman's help in Nigeria, according to testimony Wednesday.
"He looked at it and dropped it on his desk (and said), 'This won't do,'¤" Melton said at the nine-term Democrat's corruption trial. Jefferson wanted money for his brother up front, Melton said. After a tense discussion, Jefferson asked Melton to walk him back from the meeting at Melton's office on Poydras Street to Jefferson's office, a block away in the Hale Boggs Building.
On the way, Melton said he sought to reassure Jefferson.
"You have my word I will maintain your brother's interest in these projects," Melton said he told Jefferson. "As the words came out, I thought to myself, 'I wonder if the FBI could have any kind of listening device?'¤"
With that, Judge T.S. Ellis III cut Melton short, telling the jury to disregard what it had just heard.
The FBI was not listening, though Melton's concern was not misplaced. As the jurors know, Lori Mody, a cooperating witness for the FBI, taped her conversations with Jefferson from March to August 2005, and those tapes have formed the core of the government's corruption charges against Jefferson. There are 16 bribery, racketeering and other counts against Jefferson and, day by day, the government has been providing witnesses to bring to life those other charges.
Melton appeared as a witness after signing a cooperation agreement that precludes his being prosecuted if he testifies truthfully.
Throughout his testimony, Melton described himself as wracked by fear -- first of Jefferson and then of government prosecution.
"I was scared to death, afraid of getting wrapped up in this whole mess," he said.
"You already were," Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Duross said in another comment that the judge ordered stricken from the record.
More than once in his testimony, Melton said he knew what he was doing was illegal.
When Melton said the congressman insisted that his brother get a piece of the deal, Duross said, "What was your understanding of what William Jefferson was doing?"
"He was asking for a bribe," Melton said.
And what, Duross asked, did Melton expect in return?
"His assistance as a congressman," Melton said.
Melton, who is retired from TDC Energy, testified Tuesday that in late 2001 George Knost, an executive with Arkel International, approached him about taking over some marginal oil fields in Nigeria. Knost also told him he would need to enter into a contract with BEP, a company controlled by Mose Jefferson, paying BEP $200,000 per oil field and $500,000 for any offshore site. Melton said that was a deal-breaker.
On Wednesday, Melton testified that Knost came back to him and suggested he do the deal in partnership with Baton Rouge businessman Ramon Jarrell, who in turn suggested they needed the help of James Creaghan, a Baton Rouge lobbyist, who he said was close to Jefferson.
And why did they need Jefferson?
"Congressman Jefferson was known as the, quote, guy for West Africa," Melton said.
Around Christmas 2001, Melton said Creaghan called him to a meeting at Jefferson's New Orleans home to discuss an upcoming trip the congressman was making to Nigeria.
The meeting included Jarrell, Creaghan, Melton, the congressman, and to Melton's surprise and distress, Mose Jefferson.
"I was not anticipating he would be there," Melton said. "But he reappeared."
Melton said he pulled Creaghan aside and Creaghan explained, "Well, the congressman wants you to do a deal with his brother."
And so, at a meeting in Jefferson's dining room, under a portrait of the congressman, they talked about traveling together to Nigeria, about the variety of opportunities that awaited them there and, at one point Melton recalled, Jefferson "looked to Mose and indicated that we needed a deal for Mose before we go on the trip."
"There was dead silence around the whole dining room," said Melton, who said he broke the silence by saying he would draw up an agreement to deal Mose Jefferson in.
But, he said, "I was dreading doing it because I knew what I was doing was illegal."
On Jan. 10, the day before they were departing for Nigeria, Melton presented Jefferson with the document promising Mose Jefferson a 3 percent profit interest in whatever deals came out of the Nigeria trip. Melton said he paid Mose Jefferson's way and for both Jeffersons' hotel stay, though he said Mose left early to attend to a political campaign in New Orleans, explaining to Melton that what was going on in Nigeria "just wasn't quite his bag."
During the trip, Jefferson arranged a meeting for Melton with the governor of the Nigerian state of Akwa Ibo. Melton said that after a 15-minute meeting, he had signed a letter of understanding with Nigerian officials to collaborate on a fertilizer plant.
But Melton said he did not want to put his own money into an expensive feasibility study. He said Creaghan suggested the U.S. Trade Development Agency might pay for it and that "Jefferson knows TDA really well."
In the months that followed, Melton said, Jefferson was instrumental in gaining and keeping Trade Development Agency approval for a $450,000 feasibility study, though a problem in Nigeria made the whole project moot.
In cross-examination by defense attorney Gloria Solomon, Melton acknowledged that Mose Jefferson never received a penny, that the TDA money was not spent and that no one forced him to sign his agreement with the Jeffersons.
Jonathan Tilove can be reached at email@example.com or 202.383.7827. Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7861.