William Jefferson's defense strategy is coming into focus in corruption trial
by Bruce Alpert, Washington bureau, The Times-Picayune
Sunday June 21, 2009, 9:00 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- As William Jefferson's corruption trial moves into its second week of testimony, the former New Orleans congressman's defense strategy is coming into focus.
Less clear is whether Judge T.S. Ellis III will allow Jefferson's defense team to present all of its arguments and evidence directly to the 12-member jury.
In his opening statement, Jefferson's attorney Robert Trout left no doubt about the key element of the congressman's defense against charges that he demanded and, in some cases, accepted bribes to aid business ventures in Western Africa.
The defense will argue that all the instances cited by the government -- including many that the defense says are false or exaggerated -- involved private business deals, not official acts, and therefore are not covered by the federal bribery statute.
But Trout also wants to play excerpts of secretly recorded conversations that he said show Jefferson didn't always tell the truth during conversations with Lori Mody, the Virginia businesswoman who wore a wire for the FBI.
Portions of the hundreds of hours of taped conversations will explain why the congressman took $100,000 in marked $100 bills from Mody and why he asked for a larger percentage of a Mody company he was helping, Trout said.
Question of intent
A brief filed by the defense last week states: "Mr. Jefferson was aware that Lori Mody was emotionally fragile and suffered from unique difficulties and troubles. At the same time, he was faced with repeated requests, coaxing and cajolery from Mody, in which she pleaded with him to take actions -- including increasing his family's share in her Nigerian communications venture, or discussing payments to African officials -- that she insisted were necessary to make her feel comfortable going forward with their business deal."
The document goes on: "To the prosecution, his actions were motivated by a corrupt intent. But the evidence also supports the position that Mr. Jefferson's actions were motivated by a desire to assuage Mody's concerns and to keep the deal moving forward so that she and the other investors could achieve financial success. The defense is entitled to argue that he told her he would do what she wanted in order to avoid an emotional collapse that could also have destroyed the business, not because he intended to do it."
In its submissions to the judge, the defense team says Mody had told Jefferson she was being stalked and discussed with him how badly she had been treated by men. The defense also says that portions of the conversation it wants to play in court show that both parties drank a lot of wine during a 2005 dinner recorded by the FBI and that Mody drew on her "prior mistreatment by men to justify her request that Jefferson increase his family's share in her business."
Jefferson's motions also indicate that his attorneys may be planning an entrapment defense based on the large quantities of wine, presumably paid for by the FBI, consumed during the $1,023.15 dinner Jefferson and Mody had at an expensive Washington restaurant on May 12, 2005.
The cold cash
Jefferson's attorneys also submitted an apparent "to do" list prepared by Mody in connection with a meeting with Jefferson. They contend the list shows the FBI was using Mody to try to get the congressman to agree to take some specific acts that could aid in his prosecution.
Among the items checked off by Mody on the list: "Do we have a deal w/ the VP? What does he want? Do we need to pay him anything upfront? Does the vice president know you have a financial interest in this deal?"
The VP mentioned on the checklist is apparently Atiku Abubakar, then the vice president of Nigeria. In July 2005, Jefferson agreed with Mody that an upfront payment of $100,000 to Abubakar was a good idea, and Jefferson was videotaped taking a briefcase containing $100,000 from Mody in the parking lot of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Arlington, Va.
The money, minus $10,000, was later found in the freezer of Jefferson's Washington home. That fact, according to Jefferson's attorneys, proves that he didn't intend to pay a bribe to the Nigerian vice president. About half of the missing $10,000 was loaned to a Jefferson staffer, and the rest was returned to the Justice Department.
Lead prosecutor Mark Lytle offers a different explanation for why the $100,000 wasn't delivered to Abubakar: that Jefferson ran out of time to deliver the money before Abubakar left the Washington area for Nigeria.
The defense will face other challenges as it tries to win over the jury.
Even without the benefit of wine and before Mody's pleas of emotional distress, Jefferson, according to prosecutors, had asked Mody to turn over a 5 percent to 7 percent share of her company to a business owned by the Jefferson family. Mody's company was formed to set up a telecommunications business in Nigeria. Jefferson's attorneys argue the payments were strictly for business advice, not for use of the congressman's influence.
And there are 11 other business dealings, separate and apart from Mody, in which the government alleges that Jefferson demanded payments to family-owned businesses in return for his help. The former congressman's attorneys again describe these as private business deals, not the official congressional acts alleged in the Justice Department's 16-count indictment.
Moreover, there's no indication that Ellis, the trial judge, will allow the taped conversation portions requested by Jefferson's attorney to be played for the jury. Prosecutors argue that the segments are hearsay, and Ellis has suggested he sees some validity in their analysis.
Because the government has said Mody won't testify at the trial, Jefferson's attorneys say it is even more important that the jury be able to hear more of the taped conversations.
The taped conversations included in the defense's filings last week provide some lighter moments.
For example, during a discussion with Brett Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide who suggested Mody invest in some Western African projects with Jefferson's help, Mody says: "I can never remember the name of that restaurant. But if I ever go back there, I want to eat there again. The one where somebody gave me turtle soup?"
Pfeffer: "Oh, um, Commander's Palace."
Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or 202.383.7861.