RICHMOND, Va. — A panel of appellate judges seemed skeptical today that the conviction of former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) should be reversed on the grounds that the trial judge erroneously defined for the jury key legal terms in bribery law.
Jefferson has argued that his activities were not related to his official duties as a Member of Congress.
Jefferson, a longtime Louisiana lawmaker who represented the district that encompasses most of New Orleans from 1991 to 2008, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for a scheme to bribe African officials that infamously ended with government investigators finding $90,000 stashed in his freezer.
The Louisiana Democrat has been free since he was sentenced in November 2009 pending his appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
The three-judge appellate panel will not be deciding whether Jefferson did or did not offer to influence African governments on behalf of American companies in exchange for payment and stock but whether the judge who presided over Jefferson’s trial provided instructions to jurors that incorrectly defined key legal terms in the federal bribery statute.
Jefferson’s legal team argues that the judge erroneously defined an “official act” for the purposes of a bribery conviction as “activities that have been clearly established by settled practice as part [of] a public official’s position” and incorrectly told jurors that a quid pro quo scheme could be established even if Jefferson only performed those acts on an “as-needed basis.”
Because Jefferson arranged meetings between private companies and foreign governments on his own time and it did not relate to the Congressman’s formal legislative duties, Jefferson’s lead appellate counsel, Lawrence S. Robbins, argued today, it was not an official act that can be prosecuted under the bribery statute.
The judges questioned how arranging meetings between African officials and constituent companies in which Jefferson had a financial stake — and using his government staffers, letterhead and position to do so — were not related to his Congressional duties. The judges lobbed examples of other actions that are not explicitly defined as official duties at Robbins during questioning.
“Does a Congressman have a binding duty to vote ... where is that [written]?” Judge Allyson Duncan asked.
Constituent services are “settled practice and have been since the beginning of the Republic,” Judge Robert King said.
“Where do we look to find the duties of a Congressman?” Judge Paul Niemeyer asked. “When he spends government money on constituent services is he not carrying out an official act?”
Jefferson’s attorneys also argued in their request to appeal that the Supreme Court’s recent decision to narrow the application of the “honest services” fraud statute and the fact that Jefferson’s wire fraud conviction rests on a phone call made from Ghana to Kentucky are also reasons the sentences should be reversed.
The judges did question the government’s decision to include the wire fraud charge in a case that was prosecuted in Virginia.
King showed particular interest in Jefferson’s use of government limousines during a trip to Nigeria, his financial stake in the transactions and the former Congressman’s plot to bribe the vice president of Nigeria — including the $90,000 found stuffed in Pillsbury dough and Boca Burger containers in the freezer.
Jefferson “was willing to do anything to make money,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle told the court.
Pending the panel’s decision, which is not scheduled to be released at a specific time, Jefferson could ask the full 4th circuit to hear his case or eventually appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.