Witness details payoffs for work in Africa in William Jefferson trial
by The Times-Picayune
Wednesday June 17, 2009, 10:24 PM
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- Prosecutors in the corruption trial of William Jefferson are expected to play the first of the government's secretly recorded tapes today as the Kentucky businessman in prison after pleading guilty to bribing the former congressman begins his third day of testimony.
Vernon Jackson, former CEO of iGate Inc., the telecommunications firm whose copper wire technology Jefferson was promoting with African leaders, testified Wednesday that he had paid more than $260,000 by late 2004 to the ANJ Group, a company headed by Jefferson's wife, Andrea. The payments were billed as consultant fees, Jackson said, but were actually payoffs for work by the nine-term congressman from New Orleans.
Dressed in a dark green prison jumpsuit, Jackson told the jury that Jefferson had suggested the contract with ANJ, calling for payments of $7,500 per month to the firm controlled by his wife. Jackson said the proposal raised a "red flag" for him, but he didn't object for fear of antagonizing the congressman whose work on iGate's behalf he viewed as critical.
With Jefferson's help, he said that iGate, which had struggled with large debts, was finally moving closer to lucrative contracts in western African nations such as Nigeria and Cameroon.
When asked about various meetings with African government leaders and business officials, Jackson said Jefferson was using his influence as a congressman, not acting as a consultant or private businessman.
The distinction is key to the government's 16-count indictment of Jefferson, who is accused of trading on his public office for personal gain. Jefferson has pleaded innocent, and his attorneys argue that the bribery charges should be dismissed because they do not involve "official acts" such as voting or introducing legislation and earmarks.
'Part of doing business'
Conducting the questioning of Jackson, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebeca Bellows asked whether Jefferson ever told the officials and business people they met that he was acting as a private businessman. "Never, " Jackson said.
Did he ever reveal his financial stake or business interests in Jackson's company? "No, " Jackson replied.
Jackson said he grew concerned when an executive with his Nigerian partner, NDTV, demanded "consulting" payments of more than $1 million shortly after the firm had provided his company with $6.5 million as "upfront payments" for anticipated profits from the telephone, Internet and cable services iGate was under contract to provide.
Jackson said he considered the demands kickbacks but agreed to transfer more than $530,000 to the NDTV executive because Jefferson assured him it was "just part of doing business there."
'Jeff' and 'Vern'
For years, Jackson and Jefferson and their wives had been friends, spending time together at the Kentucky Derby in Louisville and the U.S. Open Tennis championship in New York City. In notes and letters, Jackson referred to Jefferson by his nickname, "Jeff, " while Jefferson called Jackson "Vern."
Jackson, who hopes that his cooperation with the Justice Department will reduce his seven-year, three-month prison sentence, testified that in meetings with African government and business leaders, Jefferson not only failed to mention his private interests in iGate, but emphasized his membership on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and leadership role with the Congressional Black Caucus.
Instead of calling him Jeff, Jackson in court referred to him in a booming voice as "U.S. Congressman William Jefferson."
One of more than a dozen ANJ invoices shown to the jury Wednesday included a notation for giving advice on how Jackson could meet "your goal" of providing 15 percent ownership of his company to ANJ.
Asked whether that was his idea, Jackson said, "I might have agreed to it, but it wasn't my suggestion."
In opening arguments Tuesday, prosecutors called ANJ a "shell company" created entirely to receive the payoffs from Jackson.
A narrow escape in Nigeria
During Wednesday's session, the Justice Department entered into evidence a letter from an official from Nigeria's NDTV accusing Jefferson of seeking illegal payments and ownership rights from its executives, warning he was prepared to submit the charges to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.
The government also released a 2004 letter from Jefferson to the then-Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, denying any improper conduct on his part.
"I have been careful to avoid conflicts and shady dealings, " Jefferson wrote Obasanjo. "As a result, in my nearly 30 years of encouraging and working with U.S. businesses throughout Africa, and working with African leaders and business people, my name has not been associated with even a hint of a scandal in Africa or anywhere in the world."
Jackson told the jury that the deal with NDTV eventually fizzled, leading to threats by the Nigerian firm to seek help from international law enforcement groups to bring iGate and Jefferson to justice. Things got so tense, Jackson said, that during a 2004 stop in Nigeria, he and Jefferson received word from an NDTV official, "we need to get out of the country as soon as possible. He was concerned about our safety."
They rushed to the airport, trying to clear immigration quickly, "understanding the army was on the way, " Jackson said.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7861.