Jefferson’s Team Shifts Focus to DOJ

Lawmaker Asks Court to Toss Most Charges, Shift Venue on Others

Posted September 7, 2007 at 6:25pm

Lawyers for Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) filed a flurry of motions Friday accusing the government of an array of misdeeds — from violating the rules of evidence to racism — in an apparent effort to turn the focus of the case from the conduct of the Congressman to the conduct of the investigation.

Jefferson’s legal team is asking the court to throw out most of the charges against him; move the remaining charges to a court in the District of Columbia; bar the use of any evidence collected from his Congressional office; declare the search of his home improper and void any evidence collected there; expunge any statements Jefferson made to FBI agents who raided his home; and review the evidence provided to the grand jury to ensure that his rights under the constitutional Speech or Debate Clause were not violated.

Perhaps the most novel of Jefferson’s motions is the allegation that since the Congressman is black, the government manipulated the case to place it in the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, where there would be more whites in the jury pool than if the case were tried in Washington, D.C.

The motion argues that since the bulk of the alleged crimes took place in D.C., where Jefferson’s Congressional office is, or in New Orleans, where Jefferson resides, there is no reason for the case to be heard in Virginia. The primary connection to the Old Dominion is that an FBI informant invited Jefferson to Virginia for a meeting to hand over cash, which the motion argues took place at the behest of the FBI.

“The defendant is African American, and the government’s chosen venue has a markedly lower percentage of African Americans in the potential jury pool than the District of Columbia, where the case fairly belongs,” his lawyers wrote. Jefferson is seeking an investigation of the Justice Department’s process for selecting a venue in the case.

Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said the Virginia court is an appropriate place to try the case. “The indictment unsealed in June alleges facts supporting jurisdiction and venue in the Eastern District of Virginia. This venue is appropriate as we have indicated in public court filings and as represented by the guilty pleas of two alleged co-conspirators in the Eastern District of Virginia.”

Vernon Jackson, a Kentucky businessman, and Brett Pfeffer, a former Jefferson staffer, have already pleaded guilty in the case.

Jefferson was indicted in June on 18 corruption charges, based on allegations that he took bribes from business owners in exchange for helping their businesses; the FBI famously recovered $90,000 from the Congressman’s freezer, cash which was allegedly to be used to bribe officials in Nigeria.

But in the motions filed Friday, his attorneys argue that much of the evidence against him is tainted. Since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the May 2005 search of Jefferson’s Congressional office violated the Speech or Debate Clause — because FBI agents reviewed legislative documents — the Congressman’s team asks the court to throw out all of the evidence obtained in that search. In another motion, the legal team suggests that the grand jury also was likely exposed to legislative information, and the transcript of the grand jury proceeding should be reviewed to eliminate anything that violates the Speech or Debate Clause.

Similarly, a separate motion alleges that FBI agents raiding Jefferson’s New Orleans home took digital photographs of documents that the warrant did not entitle them to seize, and those photos became the basis of further investigation. Hence, the motion argues, all of the evidence seized in that search also should be disallowed.

Likewise, Jefferson contends that he was not properly read his rights during the search of his home, and any statements he made during the hours he was questioned there should be voided.

At bottom, Jefferson’s lawyers argue in several motions, the bribery and conspiracy charges against him should be dismissed because the government has never established that he took any “official acts” — that is, acts directly within the scope of his Congressional responsibilities — in return for the things of value he is alleged to have received.

“What the government is attempting to criminalize is an alleged effort on the part of Mr. Jefferson to use his influence,” one motion argues, but using his influence is not the same thing as using his official authority, which is where the crime of bribery lies.

Several attorneys said it is not uncommon for a high-profile defendant like Jefferson to offer the broadest defense possible, tossing up myriad motions to see if any can weaken the government’s case.

Joseph diGenova, former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said for example it makes sense for Jefferson’s attorneys to try to move the case out of Virginia. The Eastern District is know as “a rocket docket” he said, because the court has strict case management procedures that tend to move cases quite quickly. If a defense requires a long time to build, another district might be more amenable.

The Eastern District also has a reputation as being friendly toward the government, though diGenova said he feels that reputation is somewhat out of date.

Nevertheless, he said, even a broad assault on the prosecution’s handling of the case is not out of the ordinary. “Mr. Jefferson appears to be a man in a lot of trouble,” diGenova said. “If your freedom is at stake, there is not a lot to lose, and you are going to say you were singled out” for unfair treatment.