Jefferson Claims Hostile Treatment by FBI

Posted January 17, 2008 at 3:18pm

In his first appearance during legal proceedings in his bribery case, Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) on Thursday described how FBI agents followed him to the bathroom and later yelled at him during a raid of his New Orleans home on Aug. 3, 2005.

During his 85-minute pretrial testimony at the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., a calm but insistent Jefferson acknowledged that he cooperated with two FBI agents who interviewed him for about two hours in his living room.

Defense attorneys, led by Robert Trout, are attempting to suppress evidence that they say was obtained illegally during the interview and search of Jefferson’s home. The defense contends that Jefferson was coerced into answering questions about his business dealings in Africa.

The government contends that Jefferson was not under arrest that day and could have refused to answer questions or leave at any time. Asked by prosecutor Mark Lytle whether he “freely and knowingly” assented to the interview, Jefferson said, “yes.”

In June, the Justice Deparetment charged the nine-term Congressman with using his position to assist companies doing business in Africa, in exchange for payments to members of his family.

Jefferson testified that during the interview in his home, an FBI agent followed him to the bathroom. Jefferson explained that he was on blood pressure medication that caused him to urinate frequently. “I said I have to go pee,” Jefferson testified. When followed by the agent to the bathroom, Jefferson said he asked, “Are you going to the bathroom with me?”

“Yes,” the agent answered, according to Jefferson. Defense attorneys argue that the episode indicates Jefferson was not free to leave.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys sparred over whether Jefferson had been allowed to use the phone during the interview. Though prosecutors claimed that several calls came in to Jefferson’s cell phone during their visit, Jefferson maintained that the phone was turned off until about 11 a.m., after the interview was over.

Prosecutors produced records showing a call was made from Jefferson’s home phone at 9:17 a.m. to the House counsel’s office.

Jefferson said he wanted to cooperate with FBI agents when they arrived at his home, waking him at 7 a.m.; Jefferson’s wife and daughter were asleep upstairs.

Jefferson said he continued to answer questions until FBI special agent Tim Thibault became “hostile.” Thibault asked Jefferson who had paid for his July 4 trip to Ghana. The Congressman answered that the trip was paid for by Virginia businesswoman Lori Mody. Thibault responded that the trip had actually been paid for by the FBI. Mody served as a cooperating witness for the FBI investigation of Jefferson.

Thibault asked whether Jefferson had met with the Nigerian vice president in July 2005. When Jefferson replied that he hadn’t, Thibault “leaned forward and he said to me, ‘Then where is my goddamn money?’” Jefferson said.

Jefferson said that at that point he declined to answer any more questions. But the agents proceeded to show him a recording of him receiving a briefcase from Mody containing $100,000 in cash.

Jefferson admitted Thursday that he received the briefcase but added that he did not use the money to bribe the Nigerian vice president.

Prosecutors said that upon seeing the video, Jefferson looked distraught and said, “What a waste.” However, Jefferson, in his testimony, claimed that Thibault suggested he cooperate with prosecutors, and he replied, “What a waste of time.”

Government attorneys attempted to get Jefferson to explain what he did with the money, but Judge T.S. Ellis ruled that information out of the bounds of the hearing.

The trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 25. The judge did not indicate when he might rule on the evidentiary question.