Government prosecutors suggested in federal court Wednesday that they have evidence ex-Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) took bribes in exchange for legislative activity, but said they did not charge him with that crime because his actions were protected by constitutional Speech or Debate privilege.
Prosecutors disclosed the information during debate over what Jeffersons defense team is allowed to raise during his criminal trial, which was rescheduled Wednesday and is now set to begin in Northern Virginia on June 9.
Jefferson is charged with 16 counts of violating federal law for allegedly offering and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to promote business ventures in West African nations.
In court Wednesday, Jeffersons lead attorney Robert Trout asked U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis to allow him to question witnesses to demonstrate that the former Congressman never attempted to sell legislation or earmarks.
He is being accused of a corrupt agreement, and we have a right to examine what was the agreement, Trout said.
Prosecutors have sought to block Trouts request, pointing out that that they have not accused Jefferson of selling legislation.
But lead prosecutor Mark Lytle said that if Jeffersons defense team is allowed to raise such questions, it would open the door for the government to allege that Jefferson did in fact sell earmarks.
We believe in good faith we would have evidence to put that on, Lytle said.
The Constitution protects Members of Congress from prosecution for any Speech or Debate in either House, which has generally been interpreted to mean that they cannot be prosecuted for legislative activity.
Ellis said Wednesday that he would not rule on the motion until the trial begins, adding that neither side offered a conclusive argument.
Ellis also noted that he was fairly taken aback by Lytles assertions regarding Jefferson alleged attempt to sell earmarks.
I guess I was surprised that he was not indicted for that, Ellis said, adding that it is not the courts business to decide what charges the government pursues.
Ellis also elected to push the trial, which had been scheduled to begin Tuesday, back one week to June 9 to allow Jeffersons attorneys to procure an expert witness to discuss the usual duties and activities of a Member of Congress.
This man has been vilified for the past four years, Trout said. It is no easy task to find a former Member of Congress or an expert ... even if they agreed with our view to testify on Jeffersons behalf.
Each year since 1990, CQ Roll Call has reviewed the financial disclosures of all 541 senators, representatives and delegates to determine the 50 richest members of Congress. This year's report, derived from forms covering the calendar year 2012, shows it took a net worth of $6.67 million to crack the exclusive club.