William Jefferson trial about to enter final lap
by Jonathan Tilove and Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Friday July 17, 2009, 9:17 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- The end is in sight for the corruption trial of former Democratic Congressman William Jefferson.
More than five weeks after jury selection began June 9, prosecutors told Judge T.S. Ellis III Friday that they hope to rest their case by Tuesday with at least two more witnesses still to be called.
Lead defense attorney Robert Trout told Ellis that he anticipates the defense presentation lasting between a half day and two days. The defense has not said whether Jefferson will testify. Trout also asked Ellis whether it would be possible to take a break once the defense rests, to enable both sides to prepare closing arguments.
After polling the jury, Ellis said that if testimony ends Wednesday, they would break until the following Tuesday, July 28. The break would enable the attorneys to prepare and for the court to resolve any remaining legal issues before the case goes to the jury.
'Explicit conflict of interest'
Friday's session began with testimony from Thomas Hardy, an official of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, who said that in his eight years with the agency he had never seen a member of Congress take such a hands-on interest in a project as Jefferson did in a fertilizer project in Nigeria. Hardy said he did not know at the time that Jefferson's brother, Mose, had a financial interest in the effort.
Had he known, Hardy said, he would have reported it to the agency's general counsel as "an explicit conflict of interest, a congressman advocating for a project when he or his family had a financial stake."
The day ended with the appearance of Baton Rouge lobbyist James Creaghan, who was involved in several of the bribe schemes Jefferson is accused of, and appeared as a cooperating witness for the government in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
One of the first questions put to Creaghan, by Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Duross, was whether he had ever paid bribes to Jefferson.
"Yes, " he replied. "Yes I did."
He calls them bribes
Creaghan, 65, testified about three separate projects in which he said payments -- he called them "bribes" -- were made to Mose Jefferson. That included the fertilizer plant in Nigeria, garbage-to-energy incinerators proposed by the New Orleans company LETH Energy, and oil-drilling rights for parcels off the coast of the West African nation of Sao Tome and Principe.
In the last case, Jefferson agreed to help resolve a dispute over the rights. Prosecutors say that in exchange for Jefferson's help, investor Noreen Wilson, who is expected to testify Monday, agreed to provide Mose Jefferson's company with one of the three disputed drilling lots. Creaghan estimated the deal was worth several hundred million dollars.
On that deal, Creaghan said he decided he deserved a share of the proceeds because he had brought Wilson and Jefferson together.
"I wanted to be part of this, " said Creaghan, describing his motivation as "greed, the money, the potential."
In the end, the disputes weren't resolved, and neither he nor Mose Jefferson got anything.
Well-respected in Nigeria
In her cross-examination, Jefferson attorney Amy Jackson gave jurors a picture of what are likely to be key elements of the defense.
In a series of questions, she asked Creaghan if it was true that Jefferson had gained the respect and admiration of officials in Nigeria, even before his election to Congress, because of his strong interest in the country and support for the democracy movement there. Creaghan agreed that Jefferson was a well-respected figure in Nigeria.
Jackson characterized the deals in question as "contingency agreements" or "finder's fees." She also implied that, based on his unsuccessful effort to sell LETH Energy's garbage-to-energy incinerators in 2003 to officials in Equatorial Guinea, he was not a very good salesman.
Hardy is now chief of staff and senior adviser to the director of the Trade and Development Agency, which is supposed to help support infrastructure projects in emerging economies. He testified about what he viewed as the extraordinary efforts Jefferson made in 2002 and 2003 on behalf of helping to get a grant from the agency to study the feasibility of a Louisiana energy company -- TDC Overseas Ltd. -- building a fertilizer factory in Nigeria's Akwa Ibom state. At the time, Hardy managed grant applications for sub-Sahara Africa.
What Hardy said he didn't know was that Jefferson had insisted that TDC cut his brother into the deal, though, according to earlier testimony by John Melton, the head of TDC, the 3 percent profit share they offered Mose Jefferson was far less than the congressman wanted for this brother.
Twice, Hardy testified, he was called to meetings on the project with Jefferson, Melton and Victor Attah, the governor of Akwa Ibom, once at Attah's suite at the Mayflower Hotel, where he was staying on a visit to Washington, and another time at Jefferson's congressional office.
Hardy said the project was awarded a $450,000 grant, which was never spent after the deal between TDC and Akwa Ibom broke down. Hardy said the approval of the grant was decided on its merits, but he acknowledged that without Jefferson's keen interest it "might have fallen apart, " during a rough patch in the process. Also, he said, that Jefferson's interest "weighed heavily in our analysis, " because of his deep knowledge of Africa and because he was also vouching for TDC, a constituent company.
Hardy said that at all times Jefferson appeared to be acting in his official capacity as a member of Congress. Jefferson's attorneys argue that in these various business deals, Jefferson was acting as private citizen and not liable to the bribery statutes under which he is charged.
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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.