Jefferson Asks to Push Back Trial

Move Has Implications for Lawmaker’s Re-election Prospects

Posted December 11, 2007 at 6:43pm

Lawyers for Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) are requesting a delay in his corruption trial that could make it impossible for Jefferson to mount a serious re-election campaign next year.

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis has scheduled a hearing Friday to consider Jefferson’s motion for an additional “four to six months” to prepare for the criminal trial, which is scheduled to begin on Jan. 16.

In the Dec. 3 motion, Jefferson’s legal team complained that the Congressman’s “right to a jury trial and his right to counsel will be nothing but hollow promises if his lawyers are not accorded a fair opportunity to digest the vast amounts of material” being generated by the prosecution.

The government in June filed a 16-count indictment against Jefferson, alleging that he solicited bribes from U.S. business owners in exchange for helping establish their companies in African nations. In November, the Justice Department said it plans to offer evidence of two additional bribery schemes, one in which Jefferson allegedly contacted NASA on behalf of an aerospace company that agreed to pay consulting fees to a company owned by his family, and a second in which he allegedly agreed to help a pipeline company doing business in Africa in exchange for the firm hiring his family members.

Jefferson repeatedly has professed innocence of all the charges, and his attorneys have argued that the Congressman’s personal business activities with private companies do not amount to corruption of his public office in Congress.

According to Jefferson’s lawyers, since the beginning of July, the Justice Department has provided the defense nearly 150,000 pages of documents, dozens of CDs containing audio of recorded conversations and thousands of electronic records from the computers of various participants in the case.

The lawyers — with the firm Trout Cacheris — argue that they “are only three people” who have had just six months to sift through an “avalanche of factual material” and file motions on a range of issues including a legal dispute over the FBI raid on Jefferson’s office, which could be headed to the Supreme Court next year.

The Justice Department has been building its case for more than two years and has extraordinary resources at its disposal, the lawyers argue, while Jefferson, whose assets were frozen by the court, “does not have the resources to pay for the lawyers he has, much less the kind of support that the case demands.”

The Justice Department has not yet replied to Jefferson’s request for a delay.

If the court grants the defense motion, it essentially would move the trial into the heart of Jefferson’s re-election campaign. A six-month delay would place the start of the trial in mid-July, and the government wrote in a proposed jury questionnaire that the case may last “three to six weeks” — or nearly into September. The judge already has suggested that the court calendar for next year is crowded and that moving the trial date might require pushing it into September or October.

Candidates for next year’s Congressional election in Louisiana are required to file their candidacy papers July 9-11, and the party primaries are scheduled for Sept. 6. A primary runoff (if necessary) would be Oct. 4 and the general election is Nov. 4.

Even if he were found not guilty of the charges, he would still have to simultaneously run a Congressional campaign in New Orleans and stand trial in a federal court in Virginia.

Jefferson has thus far raised very little money for his re-election campaign. As of the end of September, his campaign reported only 17 individual donations this year, totaling $21,500. The campaign reported $33,000 in cash on hand as of Sept. 30 and $260,000 in debts. By comparison, Rep. Charlie Melancon, a second-term Democrat representing the district neighboring Jefferson’s to the south, reported $645,000 in cash in hand and no debts.

No other candidates have yet stepped forward in Jefferson’s heavily Democratic district.

Brian Brox, a political science professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, said potential candidates have been waiting on the sidelines, anticipating a January trial that would be over before they needed to establish their campaigns. If the trial is moved to the summer, “it will require people to fish or cut bait on whether they are going to run for that office,” even without a resolution of Jefferson’s status.

Two staff members in Jefferson’s Congressional office declined to respond when asked whether he plans to run for re-election.