Witness: Ex-Rep. William Jefferson said role in deal was legal
by Bruce Alpert, The Times-Picayune
Monday July 13, 2009, 9:42 PM
ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A prosecution witness testified Monday that former Rep. William Jefferson told him in 2002 that as a Harvard-educated lawyer he believes his involvement with international business deals was legal as long as he didn't legislate on those projects.
George Knost, president of Baton Rouge-based Arkel International, said Jefferson's comments came in response to a question he asked the congressman about the international projects he heard that Jefferson was involved with, in addition to promoting a Nigerian sugar refinery sponsored by an Arkel subsidiary, Arkel Sugar.
Jefferson's comments, which Judge T.S. Ellis III allowed to be described to the jury over prosecution objections, seem intended by his attorneys to show he had a clear vision on what activities were legitimate and which were not.
The issue is important. Jefferson's attorneys argue that the allegations in the government's 16-count corruption indictment focus on private business deals not covered by the federal bribery statute.
But prosecutors, through witnesses such as Knost and two former Jefferson staffers, who also testified Monday, are seeking to establish that Jefferson used his congressional office to promote projects for which he demanded that family-owned businesses receive compensation.
The jury seemed most intrigued Monday with the testimony of one of his former legislative aides, Angelle Kwemo, who discussed in detail what happened the day after Jefferson accepted a briefcase with $100,000 from government informant Lori Mody.
The FBI had set up the money transfer sting, believing that Jefferson planned to give the money to then Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar as a bribe to facilitate a telecommunications project he was promoting for Mody and others. Instead, all but $10,000 was found in the freezer of his Washington, D.C., home, and Kwemo testified Monday that she accounted for half the missing money.
Under questioning by prosecutor Charles Duross, Kwemo said that Jefferson met her at her home late Saturday afternoon on July 30, 2005, for pre-arranged work. Later, under cross-examination, she said she had asked for permission to work with him from her house because she was planning to take care of her two children, although both ended up staying with friends.
According to Kwemo, Jefferson seemed interested when she told him she had received a voice message from a friend, who at the time was an aide to Abubakar. At his request, she called the friend back to ask if he could deliver letters to the vice president.
The friend told her, she testified, that he and the vice president were leaving the Washington area early the next morning.
Later that evening, Kwemo said she and the congressman returned to his congressional office to prepare two letters for the vice president -- a personal letter from Jefferson and a letter from Mody addressed to the head of the Nigerian telecommunications company. Kwemo testified she signed Mody's name on the letter at the congressman's request but never saw the letter Jefferson wrote to Abubakar.
They then went to Jefferson's Washington, D.C., home so he could change, before heading to the Bethesda, Md., hotel where the Abubakar aide was staying. They got lost two or three times on the way, Kwemo said, but eventually made it to the hotel around midnight.
Jefferson stayed in his car, she said, while she went up to the friend's room, where she woke him and handed him the letters, along with a gift from Jefferson -- a box designed to hold business cards.
Afterward, Kwemo said she and the congressman went to an International House of Pancakes, before returning to her home, where she testified the congressman spent the night in her bed, while she slept on a couch.
Under cross-examination from Jefferson attorney Amy Jackson, Kwemo said she asked the congressman to stay because his 1992 Lincoln was "smoking, " which she believed posed a safety hazard, and because in the early Sunday morning hours, he was tired.
On Monday, Kwemo testified, Jefferson handed her an envelope with $5,000 in $100 bills, saying he would set up repayment plans when he returned from the August congressional recess. Kwemo said the "loan" was a result of her decision to tell him earlier that month about her financial problems related to the recent arrival of her two children from her native Cameroon.
Her testimony provided no explanation on why most of the $100,000 in cash given him by Mody ended up in his freezer, not with the Nigerian vice president. In a secretly recorded conversation between Mody and Jefferson, the then congressman reassured Mody that he had passed on the "African Art" to Abubakar and that he was pleased.
Earlier Monday, in a series of questions to Arkel International President George Knost, defense attorney Gloria Solomon asked whether Jefferson ever offered to introduce legislation, secure an earmark or get an appropriation. To all three questions, Knost responded no.
But in response to questioning by Mark Lytle, the lead prosecutor, Knost said he believed Jefferson wanted him to give a share of proceeds from a sugar refinery deal and two other projects -- none of which were ultimately successful -- to Jefferson's brother, Mose, rather than to him directly, because the transaction "was illegal."
Still, George Washington law professor Jonathan Turley said he believes Knost's testimony that Jefferson told him his actions were legal helps the defense.
"Knost's testimony helped the defense show that Jefferson knew the legal line between private business and legislating, " Turley said. "It suggests that he not only knew the line, but minded the line in discussions with key witnesses."
But University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias, who like Turley is following the case, said if the jury finds Jefferson's interpretation of federal statutes unconvincing and closer to the definitions offered by prosecutors, than his views probably won't help him very much.
In other testimony, Kwemo said she went with Jefferson and others on a July 2005 trip to Ghana because the congressman told her that Mody wanted another woman on the trip to make her feel more comfortable. The jury earlier heard tapes in which Mody asked Jefferson to add a female staffer to the trip so she wouldn't have to be the only woman in his delegation.
The issue isn't just a matter of Mody's comfort. The Justice Department indictment, as an example of how Jefferson allegedly used his office to promote projects in return for bribes, notes that Jefferson took a staffer on the Ghana trip.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.383.7861.